There’s a book by Jon Kabat-Zinn called Wherever You Go, There You Are. It’s all about mindfulness, being in the moment, focusing.
The idea is that if you focus completely on whatever it is you’re doing—chopping wood, carrying water, washing dishes, folding clothes, listening to someone squeegee the very last eighth of a teaspoon of yogurt out of their little plastic Yoplait container—you will become clearer, calmer, centered.
Ocho and I recently spent a Saturday at Spirit Rock meditation center in Woodacre. It offers the uncentered masses classes with names like “Transforming Our Rage Inheritance,” “Whole Body Breathing,” and “Essential Dharma.” I signed us up for something a bit more suburban-sounding: “The Art of Acceptance.” I figured there was plenty I needed to accept.
The Art of Acceptance involved free green tea, hours of meditation and a 40-minute talk on the Art of Acceptance. During the first of what easily were hour-long sitting meditations, I would hyper-focus on Ocho’s breathing and the shooting pain that started at the base of my neck and ended at my coccyx. After a few sitting meditations, the speaker sounded the gong and announced that we’d be going outside for a walking meditation. I tried to high-five Ocho, but he ignored me. (And it had nothing to do with his shortage of fingers.) No matter. I was overjoyed that we were going to have recess, if only for a few liberating minutes.
What do you visualize when you hear the words “walking meditation”? When it was announced, I had a visual of myself trotting through the mossy, fog-blanketed hills of Woodacre, while someone back at the yurt fluffed my zafu and zabutan. Instead, I discovered that a walking meditation consisted of the 120 people who were recently sitting and meditating and breathing beside me, together (but individually) walking the Spirit Rock grounds at a snail’s pace in the pouring down rain.
And it is impossible for me to exaggerate the pace or the rain.
Here’s what it’s like to walk meditatively: Imagine picking up your right foot and s-l-o-w-l-y motoring it forward. Two whole minutes later, you carefully put your foot down on the wet ground, while the rain drips from your nose to your chin to your now palsied foot. Then you do the same thing with the left foot. And on and on. Forever and ever. “You all look so stupid,” was the phrase that was doing a continual loop through my increasingly irritated consciousness.
Back inside the center, I tried to meditate. Like surfing, it is harder than it looks. I found all kinds of distractions, most of which involved my looking around when I was supposed to have my eyes closed. Who had the best posture? Who had a cute haircut? Who looked like they lived in Marin? Who was the stillest? I also was distracted by sound. The sound of the heater kicking on. The sound of the blinds slapping against the window frame when the heater kicked on. The sound of Ocho’s allergies.
The sound of my stomach rumbling momentarily distracted me from the sound of Ocho’s breathing. The green tea, even four cups of it, wasn’t holding me.
Just in the nick of time, the speaker sounded the gong and announced lunch. Before getting to Spirit Rock that morning, Ocho and I had stopped at Whole Foods in Mill Valley. We stuffed almonds, wasabi peas, berries, brown rice cakes, curried free-range chicken salad, organic yogurt and recycled plastic spoons into our reusable grocery bag. Some people went outside to eat; others stayed inside and either sat in their chairs, on their zafus or meditation benches, or lounged on the floor. Ocho and I lounged on the floor and shared our Zen-y goods. I desperately wanted to tell him about the bet I’d wagered on the “race” between the dude with the dreads and the woman with the matronly gray bouffant and the pink windbreaker. I wanted to see who would get to the door last after the gong sounded. I didn’t have the opportunity to tell him this exciting development, however. We’d been instructed to eat in silence.
After lunch, we had our sixth or seventh sitting meditation, followed by our fourth and final walking meditation.
I went outside hatless. The rain had turned into a mist. While walking up toward the hill, I looked around me. Everyone was outside in the mist, their movements almost imperceptible. The grass and the leaves on the trees were heavy with rain. The air smelled like wet earth. The fog was slow and dense. I took a deep breath, and I thought, “Wow. I can think. I don’t have to rush. I can focus only on what’s happening and what I’m feeling in this very moment. And these people around me? They’re trying to think and focus, too.”
I went inside. Clear. Calm. Centered.
Ocho and I collected our things. “Are you going to finish that yogurt,” he asked. I glared at him. “Touch that yogurt, and I’ll stab you in the eye with this recycled spoon."