“Wherever you go, there you are.”
Dispatch from a journey(to Bali) not taken(by me):
An elderly Zen master was ill and nearing death. One of his disciples remembered that he was fond of a certain kind of cake and searched for hours in the pastry shops of Tokyo to find one. When finally he did, he returned and offered it to the master, who accepted it. Even as he began to eat, the master became visibly weaker. His disciples asked if he had any final words for them.
“Yes,” whispered the master and they eagerly leaned over him to hear his words of wisdom. “Please tell us!” they begged.
“My, this cake is delicious!” said the master. And then, he died.
The Zen master was better than I am at getting the most out of every moment. We hear a lot about “mindfulness” these days. Centuries after Buddha taught it, mindfulness is having its moment. There seems to be an entire mindfulness wing within the self-help industry. Nothing wrong with that. I agree that we should try to be mindful, though I also think there is a place for a little daydreaming now and then. Mindfulness is really just a matter of paying attention to what is going on, which has a lot of practical benefits, and some that go beyond practicality. If you aren’t occasionally awestruck by what you observe in the world around you, then you really aren’t paying close enough attention .
Mindfulness is not the same as meditation, although is it is often employed in meditative practice. There are various definitions of mindfulness, but the most workable one is “the nonjudgemental awareness of the present moment.” It is not an emptying of the mind but the opposite, with an emphasis on full awareness.
If you are being mindful, you don’t stop thinking, you just relate to your thoughts in a different way. Mindfulness is not happy thinking, where you dwell on the positive, but instead it assigns no value judgement at all to one’s thoughts, accepting them like any other event that happens to occur in our presence, allowing them to drift in and then out again, like clouds in the sky or soap bubbles. Thoughts are to be considered inconsequential, just moment-to-moment products of a constantly changing environment, and in them you should not allow yourself to become lost or upset.
To be mindful is to be attuned to the flux of external sensation and simultaneously attentive to the contents of your own mind. It is to pause, reflect, and gain perspective, and to be humbled by placing the self in its proper, small place in the vast cosmos.
I am absent-minded by nature. I can get lost in my thought-stream when my mind should be on what is right here, right now. Our family has a running joke about how, when fixing a meal, I always burn the bread, because I put it in the oven and then immediately get distracted doing something else. When Caroline and I take a walk in Kathmandu-which is akin to taking a stroll down the middle of the track at Daytona on race day-she keeps her eyes on the motor vehicles, as I look down to read something or write on a notepad. I watch where I am going about as closely as I would if I had a sack over my head. It’s like I turn it over to autopilot, but autopilot doesn’t pick up, so no one is driving. I’m like a mechanical Jeff – wind me up, point me down the sidewalk, and turn me loose, hoping everybody else will get out of the way. This makes Caroline crazy, and she thinks it’s just a matter of time until I cause a Nepali traffic incident. One time, I looked up long enough to see a man walking a goat on a leash. I thought it was funny and pointed it out to Caroline, but her only response was, “I’m going to put YOU on a leash.”
Zen Buddhists teach that walking, like everything, should be done mindfully. When practicing “walking medication” the instruction is to concentrate on nothing else but putting one foot in front of the other. If they ever make a teaching video they could show me walking and in the voice-over say, “See this guy? Do the opposite of him.”
Full awareness is like how you would be if you knew that somewhere in the room there was a snake on the loose, or like a young mother who can be talking on the phone and cooking a meal but still hear her infant’s every sound.
Jeff at Home:
Living mindfully is a conscious choice but this month I am having mindfulness thrust upon me. That’s because Caroline is gone- to Indonesia for Yoga teacher training.
There is no Caroline, when I’m pretty used to there being a Caroline. So it’s as if I, too, am visiting a new place, just not as exciting as Bali. That place for me is right here -my house, my job, my life-and it is new, because sometimes your whole world can change just when just one person is missing.
I have close friends who have lost spouses; others who have endured prolonged and multiple deployments or other absences. I’m not putting myself in their category, but I’m getting a small taste of their situation, and it makes me more empathetic to it.
For Caroline, everything will be new. Travel is great for that. It wakes you up in a hurry. If you’re not paying attention, you get left behind, or worse. The most ordinary tasks require more thought. Take something as routine as going to the bathroom. When you are out of place, you first have to find one. I know where the bathrooms are here at home, but my reality is shifting, too. Caroline isn’t the only stranger in a strange land.
Many of the things we do we do mindlessly, an adaptive process that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It allows us to free up some cognitive energy and focus on more important matters. I’m glad I don’t have to concentrate on how to get to work every morning, though it is weird to arrive there and remember nothing at all about the past half hour. It’s something that just happens, with my mind somewhere else the whole time.
This month I will go about my usual business but with an altered mindset, because there will be something missing-someone. I’ll do my best to fill that space with something meaningful to me. It will be good practice for what I should be doing anyhow, which is to stay awake to each day so that I’m living, not waiting.
I’ll try to follow the lead of the Zen Master in the story, or better yet, the advice of Woody Allen, who said, “Live every day like your last, and someday you’ll be right.”
I like Caroline , but I’d think she was interesting even if I didn’t. I know she can be entertaining. If you read my last dispatch you know she comes up with some good one-liners, often without intending to. In my collection of quotations, Caroline has more entries than Winston Churchill. She also has her own quirky vocabulary, creating words that are just slightly off mark. The companion volume of “Caroline Quotations” could be a dictionary.
When hiking in Colorado she calls the quaking aspen trees “quivering” aspen (true, they do quiver in a breeze) and the “Fourteeners” (mountains with summits above 14k ft) she calls “14-Footers” (considerably shorter). One time we returned from a hike, exhausted and famished, and she couldn’t wait to get to the box of animal crackers we had stashed back at the trailhead. She exclaimed, “Give me some of those animal crappers!” We live in a house overlooking the Missouri River and if we see a johnboat she calls it a “John Deere Boat.” You often hear helicopters referred to as “choppers,” but Caroline calls them “chop-ters.” On Facebook, she “be-friends” people.
I wouldn’t call her a sports fan but she’ll watch them on occasion, depending on the sport. She likes to watch the four major golf tournaments, the Kentucky Derby and olympic diving. Of the rest, she is mostly unfamiliar and even less interested. She doesn’t understand the rules of football despite my yearly explanations during the Super Bowl. She says doesn’t like seeing people get tackled, once telling me, “If I was a player, I would NOT want to be on offense!” If we watch a baseball game, she refers to the player standing at home plate as the “batman.” Some sports are a complete mystery to her. One time I was flipping channels and paused to watch a college lacrosse game. I asked Caroline if she could identify the sport. She said, “Cricket?”
It’s just that when it comes to sports, she doesn’t really care that much. It’s completely different with things she does care about. Take song lyrics. There are many of them stored in her mind, to be summoned at a moment’s notice. Caroline’s songs are not the campfire songs that I have memorized from my days as a YMCA camp counselor. Hers are the thought-provoking songs of her youth, the ones that, without the melodies, could qualify as poetry. At any moment she can be called upon to channel Carol King or Joan Baez. Once, while driving home, she started singing “American Pie,” and I challenged her to sing the words all the way through, or I would pull over at the nearest record store to buy the CD (this was before Spotify). We didn’t have to stop.
Another time, she was the one driving, and Roberta Flack came on the radio. I listened as she sang every word of “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” I remember that moment, because as I watched her, I was transported back to a time to when that song was popular and she was listening to it, probably as she drove her AMC Gremlin down Missouri Boulevard on some Friday night, summer breeze through the windows, singing those sad, soulful words and, in her mind, living out the story they tell. I got a glimpse of the Caroline of 40 years ago, that young girl who could be carried away by that song. I wish I would have known her back then.
I think that the music we are drawn to when we are young, like the books we read or movies we watch, says a lot about who we are then and who we want to become. Caroline was drawn more to the poets than to the partners. Being introverts ourselves, she and I had that in common. Caroline’s go-to tracks were by artists like Jackson Browne and Laura Nyro. My guys were Gordon Lightfoot and Harry Chaplin. She read Carlos Castenada and The Prophet. For me it was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Caroline says that she used to be accused by some of her friends of being too serious. I can see that. Every teenager does his or her share of soul-searching, but I wonder if she was even more introspective than the average.
Here is the Caroline of today: Her current favorite musician is Eva Cassidy, who she started listening to on Pandora while on her morning runs. I have to agree that Eva is pretty great. She sings from a wide variety of genres but specializes in covers of classic Jazz, Blues and Standards. She has the ability to sing a song that is familiar to everyone and then make it totally her own. Her silken, soprano voice and effortless expression of the lyrics are mesmerizing. Shy by nature, she became better known in the U.K than the U. S., and her rendition of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” has become a beloved standard to be played on holidays in Britain. Eva’s version of Sting’s “Fields of Gold” is both haunting and beautiful, and Caroline liked it so much that she said, “You can play that at my funeral.”
But here’s the thing. Eva Cassidy died from cancer in 1996. She was 33 years old. She was relatively unknown during her lifetime and made few recordings. There’s only one relatively grainy video of her performing her music.
Pretty sad story. Eva died at first blossom, and you have to wonder what might have been.
Caroline’s reaction to learning that part of the story? Her first instinct was to write a letter to Eva’s mother. That’s the Caroline I know, the one who would think to do that.
Eva Cassidy: Two YouTube videos.
What I have written so far is background to the story of how Caroline found her way to Bali at this time in her life. This blog is about journeys, and this trip is the next chapter in hers. Going to Bali sounds great —they say it’s like paradise— but Caroline isn’t going for a vacation. The yoga instructor training will be rigorous, with dawn to dusk classes, extended meditation and four hours a day of practicing yoga. She will have only two days off during the month. She was assigned four books to read and write reports on before she arrived. Knowing Caroline as I do, and as I have tried to portray here here, I can easily see why she wants to go. She will be far from home and working hard, but people from all over the world go there, and based on the testimonials I have watched on YouTube, they feel that it is a life-changing, transformational experience.
Some have claimed that in world literature there are really only two stories. The first could be titled “Stranger Comes To Town” and the other “Hero Takes a Journey.” Every book written or movie produced can supposedly fit into one of those two categories. (Or some might fit into both, like The Wizard Of Oz or Alice in Wonderland).
“Stranger Comes To Town”- Robinson Crusoe, Pride and Prejudice, Lost Horizon, Walden
“Hero Takes A Journey”- Treasure Island, Grapes of Wrath, Lord Of The Rings, Lonesome Dove, Once And Future King
Of the second, the mythologist Joseph Campbell would add that every journey is a quest and the hero’s true search is not for a ring or a grail, but rather it is for self- knowledge. When you think about it, that fits for the stories of many of the best heroes. Think of Tom Joad, Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, or any of the others who thought they were searching for one thing but whose quest eventually led them to something else – personal growth and understanding. So, too, for Caroline, both before and during Bali. True, as well, for the rest of us, since we are all pilgrims on a journey and the heroes of our own stories.
I’m not looking forward to her being gone, but I see this as part of an inner journey Caroline has been on for most of her adult life. I wouldn’t want her to hold back nor to be less than the person who would be inspired to go in the first place. Early on, she offered not to go if it would put a stress on our relationship . I told her it would put a stress on our relationship if she didn’t go. Part of me doesn’t want her to, but even worse would be for me to stand in the way of her dream, her quest. We would both have trouble living with that.
So she went.
Caroline’s path and mine are not exactly the same, but I like to think they have their similarities. The introspective part we have in common, too much so according to some people. The stuff we like to talk about could bore the pants off many of our friends and family.
Our quests have converged, but I have to acknowledge that she started hers way before I started mine, and in some things I have learned to follow her lead. There was one year early in our relationship when we each made New Years resolutions, and her was to become more “self-actualized.” By comparison, I think that was the year my resolution was to have a colonoscopy.
Everyone’s on a journey:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau went to the woods. Carol went to Bali. I stayed home. Wherever you are you can choose to live your life deliberately.
Each of us, in our own way, is traveling on a private journey, and everyone is fighting their own quiet battles. Sometimes we race through life like we are driving a highway at seventy miles an hour, every bump flattened and indistinguishable; and sometimes it’s like we’re trudging down the road in our bare feet, feeling every crack and pebble. Sometimes we are in survival mode and sometimes we have time to think about other things. Sometimes our path is smooth, and sometimes it is not. The path is rarely straight, and a journey is about more than physical location.
Journeys of the Spirit:
I’m sure Thoreau would have been better at mindful walking and mindful living, than I. But I want more than that. I want more than hyper-awareness of the present. I want to also get a glimpse of what’s behind it all. Most people do, I think. Most people suspect there is more to life than what we experience every day and that what we know of the physical world is not the highest reality. We humans are conflicted beings; we strive to pay better attention to the present, but we have spiritual longings, too. Man has, throughout the ages, sought something beyond himself, something that cannot be changed by circumstances or human thought. Everyone has moments when we suspect there is something beyond what our senses are telling us, and we want to know more, which almost sounds like the opposite of mindfulness. Maybe it’s just paying attention but on a grander scale, like when you see the shadow of a bird pass by on the ground in front of you. You look up and see nothing, but you still know, even without hard evidence, that something was there. Or it’s like when you suddenly notice the rhythm section on a song that is being played and realize that that is what you were dancing to all along.
I want to know how to be in this world, since I’m staying only briefly. I haven’t attained the self-knowledge that all those heroes seek, and I have not found all the answers—probably never will— but I’m trying to get better at asking the right questions.
Caroline has always been a seeker, so I hope she finds what she is looking for over there in Bali. What that is, exactly, is best left for her to explain. I know that in body, mind, and spirit she is “all in,”so I suspect she’ll find something.
A journey of the spirit is something you do on your own. But that doesn’t mean you can’t invite others. Last year Caroline and I took part in a meditation workshop at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. We were taught that, as you prepare your mind for meditation, you should invite in a personal “retinue”, consisting of people you want to sit with you while you go inward. Your retinue can include people you know, but you should not be limited to them. You should not be limited at all, actually, so when I gather my retinue I don’t hold back. My group includes some of the biggies, like Jesus, Buddha and the Dalai Lama. I also ask people (unbeknownst to them) who are currently important and influential in my life. They are not expected to do anything other than be present in my mind, just sit quietly next to me.
Who would you want sitting by your side as you embark an your journey of self discovery and search for meaning?
I don’t know if I am in Caroline’s retinue but she is in mine.
Link to Zuna Yoga Website: