Adventures in the Here and Now

Los Angeles Central Library

As I have written in another post, I usually travel downtown on Thursdays to visit the Central Library on 5th Street between Hope and Flower. I like to show up at opening time (10 am) and reading for about two hours. Then I scan the stacks for books I want to read, check them out, and go to Conference Room A for the weekly Mindful Meditation session guided by John Kneedler, an instructor for the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC).

The whole point of mindful meditation is to learn how to live in the here and now. Most of the time, one’s thoughts are all over the place. Take this classic example from Aldous Huxley’s Those Barren Leaves, in which Miss Thriplow tries to concentrate on the nature of God:

God is a spirit, she said to herself, a spirit, a spirit. She tried to picture something huge and empty, but alive. A huge flat expanse of sand, for example, and over it a huge blank dome of sky; and above the sand everything should be tremulous and shimmering with heat—an emptiness that was yet alive. A spirit, an all-pervading spirit. God is a spirit. Three camels appeared on the horizon of the sandy plain and went lolloping along in an absurd ungainly fashion from left to right. Miss Thriplow made an effort and dismissed them. God is a spirit, she said aloud. But of all animals camels are really almost the queerest; when one thinks of their frightfully supercilious faces, with their protruding under lips like the last Hapsburg kings of Spain… No, no; God is a spirit, all-pervading, everywhere. All the universes are made one in him. Layer upon layer… A Neapolitan ice floated up out of the darkness. She had never liked Neapolitan ices since that time, at the Franco-British exhibition, when she had eaten one and then taken a ride on Sir Hiram Maxim’s Captive Flying Machines. Round and round and round. Lord, how she had been sick, afterwards, in the Blue Grotto of Capri! ‘Sixpence each, ladies and gentlemen, only sixpence each for a trip to the celebrated Blue Grotto of Capri, the celebrated Blue Grotto, ladies and gentlemen….’ How sick! It must have been most awkward for the grown-ups…. But God is a spirit. All the universes are one in the spirit. Mind and matter in all their manifestations–all one in the spirit. All one—she and the stars and the mountains and the trees and the animals and the blank spaces between the stars and… and the fish, the fish in the Aquarium at Monaco…. And what fish! What extravagant fantasies! But no more extravagant or fantastic, really, than the painted and jewelled old women outside. It might make a very good episode in a book—a couple of those old women looking through the glass at the fishes. Very beautifully and discreetly described; and the fundamental similarity between the creatures on either side of the glass would just be delicately implied—not stated, oh, not stated; that would be too coarse, that would spoil everything, but just implied, by the description, so that the intelligent reader could take the hint. And then in the Casino… Miss Thriplow brusquely interrupted herself. God is a spirit. Yes. Where was she? All things are one, ah yes, yes. All, all, all, she repeated. But to arrive at the realization of their oneness one must climb up into the spirit. The body separates, the spirit unites. One must give up the body, the self; one must lose one’s life to gain it. Lose one’s life, empty oneself of the separating Me. She clasped her hands tightly together, tighter, tighter, as though she were squeezing out her individual life between them. If she could squeeze it all out, make herself quite empty, then the other life would come rushing in to take its place.

Many people avoid trying to concentrate their minds because they are too harsh with themselves. The mind resists being in the here and now: During today’s session, I thought of where I would eat lunch, what book I would read next, whether Martine would stage another departure. I kept coming back to the simple inhalation and exhalation of my breath. So I am nowhere near perfect. But I keep trying.

 

Wandering Mindfully in DTLA

The Millenium Biltmore Hotel on Pershing Square in Los Angeles

I am facing a change in my life relating to my relationship with Martine. It appears that, before long, we will not be together. The odd thing is that we still love each other: The reason for Martine’s desire to leave has more to do with how she feels about herself. There is a French expression bien dans sa peau: Feeling comfortable within one’s own skin. Ever since she got a pinched nerve in her back early in 2013, she has not felt well. Plus, she seems to just want to leave Los Angeles, which I cannot do at this time without quitting my job and running through my savings..

My first reaction was anger and sadness. The sadness is still there, but to make her feel even more depressed would be doing her an injustice. All I can do is hope she will discover that life with me is indeed preferable—even if it is in Los Angeles. My door will remain open for her.

How am I coping with this event? I will concentrate on my mindful meditation practice. I wandered around downtown LA (a.k.a. DTLA) after my meditation session at the Central Library. I ate lunch at the Bugis Street Brasserie at the Millenium Biltmore Hotel on Pershing Square. The red awnings at the lower right of the above photo is where the restaurant is located.

Then I stopped in at the Last Bookstore at 5th and Spring, looking for more Teju Cole books. Apparently they sold out. Then I took the Dash D bus to Union Station and waited for the Santa Monica Big Blue Bus #R10 to take me back home.

Home will be a different experience, but I am resolute about not poisoning the well.

 

Mindfulness Is the Key

Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh (Born 1926)

When I was cut back to two days of work in May 2016, I felt as if my world were shattered. Just by happenstance, within a week or two, I found myself at the Los Angeles Central Library at 5th and Hope downtown on a Thursday. Every Thursday at 12:30 pm, the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) gives a guided 30-minute meditation in Conference Room A. I have come to depend on these Thursday sessions, plus my own efforts at meditation whenever and wherever, to give me a feeling of living in the present moment and enjoying glimpses of happiness.

I have also read several books by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, most recently No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering and also The Art of Living. According to Thich mindfulness is the key to enjoying such happiness that we can experience in this life.

In answer to a question about the danger of dualism of the mind and body, Thich replied:

Maybe intellectually people know that they should live in the present moment, but the habit energy that has been there for a long time is always pushing them to rush around, so they have lost their capacity to be in the present moment in order to lead their life deeply. That is why the practice is important, and talking is not enough. You have to practice enough to really stop your running around so that you can establish yourself in the present moment. That is the very beginning of the practice: stopping. Stopping, looking deeply, and finding happiness and liberation—that is the Buddhist path.

On the existence of suffering, he writes:

Suffering and happiness inter-are. We can recognize happiness only against the background of suffering. It’s like when you recognize the white against the background of the black. Only if you have been hungry can you experience the joy of having something to eat. If you experience the suffering of war, you can recognize the value of peace. Otherwise, you don’t appreciate peace, and you want to make war. So your experience of the suffering of war serves as the background for your happiness about peace. Therefore, to have some suffering is very important. You learn from suffering, and against that background, you can recognize happiness.

There is a deep tendency in us to seek pleasure and avoid suffering. It is rooted in the store consciousness, called manas in Sanskrit. Manas is always seeking pleasure and trying to avoid pain and suffering. Manas isn’t aware of the danger of pleasure-seeking because there is ignorance in manas. It is like a fish who is about to bite the bait and does not know that inside of the bait there is a hook. Manas isn’t aware of the danger of pleasure and does not know that suffering has its own goodness. It is good to experience some suffering, because when you suffer you develop compassion and understanding.

If you are interested in the simple practices that have meant so much to me in my recent life, I suggest you check out the website of MARC at http://marc.ucla.edu/. And see if you can find any of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books.