“I‘ve made you a list”, Lori said to me as I sat on the beach watching the waves. We’d booked the lovely tropical condo that our friends Rafe and Daria had told us about, and were enjoying the beauty and peacefulness of the island so much we were thinking of moving here. Jag, the resident cat, had adopted us, following us regularly down to the beach.
I gave Lori the one-raised-eyebrow-smiling look and went to take the paper from her hand, but she pulled it away. I looked up at her quizzically. “And this list is about..?” I asked her.
“It’s about how you will be when you’re Present. So instead of struggling and getting frustrated you can just ‘act as if’ you’re already there, and eventually you will be there, already doing the right, enlightened stuff. Brilliant, huh?”
I gave her a dubious smile and replied “Fake it until you make it, eh? I’m not sure enlightenment works that way.” When she mock-glowered back at me I added: “And I presume you’re going to read me this list?”
“Exactly”, she said. She took up an oratory pose, looking absolutely delicious in her bikini, and began: “First”, she said “you, (and I, when I visit) will be eating and sleeping mostly outdoors. Thanks to your amazing deck, you can do that, even in the coldest weather. You should take advantage of that. I’m going to make each of us a winter kimono that will make it even easier. And in the summer, we’re going to set up a tent in the forest next to your house, in that place we found where no one can see it from the path, and you’re going to spend every day and night possible there. Just as you’re trapped in the illusory security of your mind and thoughts, you’re trapped in the illusory security of your house, watching but not immersed in reality. This will free you.”
I was intrigued; what she said made great sense, and I was moved that she’d put so much thought into this. At the same time, I was, as always, distracted by her beauty, and as she read I slowly shimmied the blanket I was sitting on closer to where she stood, and thanked her, sincerely, while kissing up the inside of her legs.
“Pay attention”, she said, frowning down at me, and then added “But you can keep doing that as long as you’re paying attention.” She took a deep breath. “Second, you will be spending your alone-time differently. Instead of crosswords, video games, solo sex, solitaire or other escapist pursuits that indulge your mind’s desire to be always busy and the centre of your attention, you will do things that open space for awareness of your true self, things like walking in the forest or on the beach or in the rain or in the moonlight, and really noticing what you see, or meditating with music and candles and without thought, only paying attention to your senses. No more thoughts about the past or future, about what was or might have been or might be. No more imagining, unless you are writing a story that requires it. Being aware of all thoughts and feelings of sadness or anxiety or anger as they arise and just letting them go. Standing still and looking until you really see.”
“That will be hard”, I said to her, looking up into her eyes with a sigh. “My mind will not like it. My body will not like it. They like attention, stimulation, conjuring up pleasure. They will seduce me until I give in to them. Believe me, I’ve been working on this. I don’t think I’m strong enough.”
“You don’t have to do it all at once”, Lori replied, running her hand through my hair and looking at me intently. “For now it’s enough to be aware. Notice the seduction of mind or body as it arises, and notice your inclination to give into it, and then give in, if you must. Witnessing what is happening is half the battle. You are realizing that it is your mind and your body urging you, and that something is resisting that is not your mind or your body — the something that is the real you.”
I looked out at the waves pounding on the beach and sighed. I buried my face between her legs and wrapped my arms around her cute bum. She reached down and put one arm around my neck and the other on my shoulder. I sighed again, deeply, breathing in the scent of her, and said “Yes, you’re right. That’s what I should do. I will do that.” And then I began kissing her between her legs, tracing my fingers lightly around the edges of her bikini bottom. “How did you get to be so smart?”, I added, my voice slightly muffled by my activity. “You’re on this completely different journey from mine. How can you see where I should be going when I can’t see it myself?”
Lori was silent, just holding me close to her, watching as I began to nuzzle her gently where I had been kissing her, moving my nose and lips up and down the furrow between her legs in little circles, until she began to purr, delightful little noises coming from her throat. When I began to lick her through the fabric of her bathing suit she gasped and whispered “Hey, that’s enough, someone could come down to the beach any moment and see us, and I’m pretty sure what you’re doing is illegal in public. Feels wonderful, though. Let’s go back inside.”
“Half the excitement is the risk, though, no?” I told her, resuming my gentle caresses. “No one else has been by this section of beach for an hour, and no one can see us here from further along the beach or from the condos. When I’m pressed up against you it just looks like we’re hugging. You just keep an eye out and if someone comes, I’ll stop. And besides”, I concluded, “I haven’t heard the rest of the list yet.” I smiled up at her.
I could feel her legs quivering as I resumed my slow, insistent licking, and when she answered me I could hear the quiver in her voice too: “OK, but you have to stop the second I say, OK?”
“Agreed”, I replied. “Thank you. And thank you for having legs just the right length. And thanks to the makers of unlined bathing suits. I think I’ve discovered Victoria’s ‘Secret’. OK, I’m ready for item three on the list”.
Lori was breathing heavily, alternatively lowering her face to my hair and gently kissing me on the head, and glancing around to make sure our furtive love-making wasn’t being witnessed. The material of her bikini was so thin and stretchy my tongue could feel every curve and ridge through the fabric, and my mind registered exactly where my tongue and lips needed to go to take Lori over the edge. The danger of discovery, small as it was, was definitely turning her on too.
“Item three:”, she said, in a breathy half-whisper. “In the presence of others, especially those of us you love, you will be more alert, more attentive, more appreciative, more demonstrative and more reflective (without of course trying to ‘fix’ anything), but perhaps in the process you will be less attached, less ‘responsive’ and less indulgent. When we’re feeling blue or furious or terrified we want to know that you care, and we want you to show us that, not tell us. And we don’t want you to feel our feelings in those moments, just show us you hear what we’re feeling and that that matters to you.”
I had managed to sneak two fingers under the edge of her bikini, and in the process had uncovered the two spots I had been focusing my tongue’s ministrations on, allowing direct contact that was, I knew, enough to bring Lori release. She broadened her stance slightly and braced her hands on my shoulders and, a moment later, cried out almost loudly enough to be heard over the surf. I held her against me and let her come down slowly and then, smiling broadly, replied “That would be even harder for me. I’ve learned not to try to fix things, but I still freeze when I’m dealing with someone in emotional distress. I don’t know how to not take that on myself, to not panic, to not blank out and not just want the whole situation to go away while I hide. It’s been my coping mechanism for too long, I guess.”
Lori was still breathing heavily, catching her breath, so I drew her to her knees and held her in my arms and slowly scooted our blanket back against the palm tree, and we just knelt together like that, while I stroked her hair and kissed her shoulders.
She laughed gently and said “Whew.” Her voice and body were still quivering. I wondered if what we had just done, the way I was feeling then, so full of love, was Present or not. I was lost in her, the smell of her and the feeling of her skin, as if the real world had fallen away.
“Perhaps”, Lori said, recomposed at last, “the next time we’re with Daria and Rafe I could try to model this for you, just show you a couple of things I am able to do that seem harder for you. I’ll signal you with three fingers, since this is new behaviour number three on the list. And I’ll signal you and hug you when I see you modelling it yourself.” She settled down onto my knees and we both sat under the tree, Lori in my lap curled into my shoulder. Jag the cat came over for attention, and Lori stroked her fur gently.
“OK, onwards,” Lori continued. “Number four: Less time (and more focused time) online. Only replying once a day to personal messages, and only to people you know well. And only blogging to add to your ‘auxiliary memory’, to write stuff like book summaries you want to be able to refer to later, or to post your creative works. And, as soon as possible, no more Facebook.”
“Agreed”, I replied. Lori gave me a surprised look, and I nodded back. She continued: “Wow. Number five then: A shift in how you play, to simple, joyful, unpurposeful forms — dancing, yoga, swimming, tag — play that doesn’t involve thinking or competing, that engages the body but not the mind. But only as that comes easily, not if it arouses any anxiety in you. Take it slow.”
I smiled at her, rose and drew her to her feet. We danced, slowly and lazily and a bit clumsily across the sand and into the waves. With her arms around my neck, reading her list over my shoulder Lori continued: “Six: As you will no longer have to devote time to ‘meditation’ (since eventually everything you do will be a kind of meditation), and as your awareness that there is no scarcity of time, that there is only Now, grows, and makes you less stingy with your time, you will gradually become more of an activist, volunteering for projects, even risky ones, that you believe will mitigate destruction and suffering, even if only for a while. In fact you will seek out such projects, your answer to the question ‘Who needs my gifts now?’ ”
I thought for a moment, and then replied “OK. Not doing stuff that just gets me worked up, but rather stuff I care about where there is some unique and effective role I know I can play. The Sweet Spot, but for volunteerism rather than paid work. Makes sense. Awesome.”
“Thank you”, Lori said, pulling me up to my feet again. “Last item coming up, and it’s the best of all.” She jumped into my arms, wrapping her lovely legs around my waist and her arms around my neck. “Dance me inside while I conclude the list”. As I did, she read over my shoulder: “Seven: Start, and maintain, a ‘Like List’. This list will be an inquiry into things you appreciate. Kind of like my Gratefulness List, but better suited I think for your Presence journey rather than my Grace journey. The list will be specific qualities, things and noticings that you dispassionately but strongly Like or Appreciate, such as: the sun’s warmth on your skin when it comes out from behind the clouds; flute melodies with those exquisite little trills; lamplight shining on leaves during a windstorm at night; the scent of lilacs after a summer rain; fresh raspberries fed to you with a kiss; this particular shade of orange-yellow-purple sunset;” — she pointed to the sky and I spun her around in my arms to see it — “the feeling you get after you’ve been running fast and well for a long time; giggle fits with someone you love that just go on and on and you can’t stop; that powerful old woman we saw on the beach yesterday with the tiny black killer ‘in your face’ bikini proclaiming to the world that she didn’t care what anyone thought about what she wore. You get the idea. Stuff you really like, instinctively and invariably, and know why you do. Not stuff caught up in emotions or ideas. Stuff that focuses your attention on and increases your comfort with being Present. Stuff that’s real and now and eternal.”
I agreed that this was an excellent idea, and wondered whether it made sense to index the ‘qualities and things and noticings’ in the Like List by the sense they appealed to, including the intuitive ‘sense’ and the ‘senses’ of astonishment and beauty and cleverness and wonder and all the other senses that stretched beyond the five bodily senses, yet were not bound up in analytical thoughts, belief systems or reactive emotions. I envied Lori’s extraordinary creative capacity — she somehow came up with things like the Like List out of nothing. “Out of nothing”, she said, “except wanting to show how much I love you”.
Later that evening, we went for a walk along the beach in the moonlight. We took along our headlamps so we wouldn’t trip over anything or step on the sand crabs, but we hardly needed them with the moon so full and the sky so clear. There was a brisk warm breeze and we could smell the tropical fruits and flowers in the air, and the smells of the ocean. We wore nothing but sarongs — Lori had fashioned a half-sarong for me to match her full one, and the light caress of the fabric and the feeling of freedom of movement were delightful. The beach was so quiet and secluded we could probably have made the mile-long walk naked, but we decided to play it safe in case we ran into hotel beach security people (who probably would have just laughed and sent us on our way anyway).
I had asked Lori to explain what she called her Journey to Grace, and how it differed from my search for Presence.
“I think the difference”, she said, taking my hand as she wandered through the low-tide surf, “is that rather than trying to transcend my emotions I’m trying to really connect with them, re-engage them, take them back from the damage that was inflicted on them and on me when I was young. Maybe it’s because I’m a woman that I find the whole transcending-the-self thing a bit disengaged, a bit facile, a bit ungrounded. I know the non-dualists say that it’s about unattachment rather than detachment, but to me that distinction is muddy.”
“Eckhart would probably argue”, she continued, “that the disconnection we feel from the rest of life on Earth is because the brain got so clever at creating representations of reality that it began to mistake those representations, including the representation of a separate ‘self’, for reality itself. But I would argue that the emotions of fear, anger and grief evolved for perfectly sound evolutionary reasons; they are not aberrations to be transcended.”
“It’s true, I think”, she explained, “that our human minds, always looking for patterns and meaning and predictability, have created unhealthy feedback loops that prevent us from properly processing emotions like fear, anger and grief, and from moving past them when the situation that provoked them has passed. But it makes more sense to me to try to learn how to process them more effectively, ‘shaking them off’ as wild creatures do, than to try to see these emotions as fundamentally useless and unhealthy, the result of a supposed attachment to fictional stories about fictitious selves. You’re a phenomenologist, Spence, you trust what you see. To me that also means trusting what you feel. You know, like in that song you love so much where Neil Young sings ‘Though we rush ahead to save our time we are only what we feel’. We may well be all manifestations of one consciousness, but that doesn’t mean the Self that consciousness manifests itself as, in each creature, isn’t real, doesn’t have some individual existence and responsibility and free will to become, to act, to heal itself, to make things better. That process of becoming and acting and healing and making things better and ‘feeling better’ is my journey to Grace.”
I nodded, in the dark, taking it all in, trying to see the world as Lori saw it. She had reminded me, earlier in my walk, that I always insisted, when I met new people, on asking them what they really cared about right now, rather than what they ‘did’ (for a living). She wanted to know why I asked that, why it was important to me — me who claimed not to like or care about most people very much.
My first thought in response to that was that I was looking for common ground, kindred spirits. But perhaps, I wondered, I was looking for reassurance that I wasn’t the only one who thought the behaviour and beliefs of most of the people around me, and those purporting to be our culture’s ‘leaders’, were completely insane. Lori said that when she asked that question, what she was listening for were the differences, the things that people cared about that she didn’t know about, because there was something important there to learn.
I marvelled at her generosity, her openness, and for a few moments doubted everything I believed, and began to wonder if my search for Presence was just self-absorbed folly. Was I looking for Presence as a consolation prize for giving up wanting to always be in love, a reward for overcoming my inexhaustible craving for supposedly ‘escapist’ pleasures? Was the real me a part of a single unfathomably complex universal consciousness, or a simple fool for love and lust? And if I was the latter, barred from (or expelled from) the world of eternal Presence, was there a pathway from my folly to Lori’s road to Grace? Her purpose, it seemed, was always learning, becoming, always being open to what cannot be known, and that suddenly seemed much wiser than my goal of knowing and being in some crude, absolute sense.
When I said this to her, Lori smiled at me, made a little signal with three fingers, hugged me, and then, pulling away from me, drew her hands together and bowed her head toward me. I was entranced. How could anyone be more graceful than this, I wondered?
As we made it back to the stretch of beach in front of our condo, Jag the cat came out to greet us, so we just sat together in silence, in the moonlight, watching the waves. There was a sand crab just inches from where Jag was sitting, and to my surprise the cat just watched it intently, seemingly unprovoked to pounce on it when it emerged again and again to shovel out another pincerful of sand from its burrow. Lori, noticing my astonishment, nodded to me and then at Jag, whispering, “Zen Master”. Full of both presence and grace, I thought.
I pulled one of the webbed lounge chairs from the lawn to the secluded beach below the condo. I lay the lounger’s adjustable back down flat, and placed our beach blanket over it, motioning to Lori to lie down on it. We both pulled off our sarongs and as she lay down I lay a towel beside the lounger and knelt on it. I drew the bottle of coconut oil from our bag, poured a generous amount into my hand, and began to gently caress it into Lori’s achingly irresistible skin. For the next two hours we were silent as my fingers and hands tried to convey to every inch of her body just how much she was loved. Jag the cat tried to help, jumping up on the lounger and licking the sweet-smelling oil from her body until Lori was convulsed with giggles and then uncontrollable laughter. I thanked Jag and shooed her away for a while.
As I softly massaged Lori I looked at the moon and its reflection on the thunderous ocean, and eventually on the parts of Lori’s body I’d massaged, now glistening in this perfect, silent moon-pierced darkness. Lori knew what was happening and whispered to me “It’s OK to cry, you know, you sweet romantic fool. This is all too beautiful not to.”
I was breathing it all in, and it was almost too much for my senses. The touch of the breeze and of each other’s skin. The smell and taste of the oil, of jasmine and orchid, of our bodies, and of approaching rain. The sound of surf and palm trees rustling in the breeze. The sight of moon and reflection and the now-sleeping, softly breathing Jag. And of Lori, also softly breathing. Everything was so alive I could scarcely dare breathe — I wanted it to stay like this forever, to memorize it, this flawless, sparkling, incandescent Now. Everything was so alive, as if the whole universe was breathing in harmony. I was awash in a rush of rhapsody, and felt as if all the parts of my body were opening, exploding outward at the speed of light, as if I were flying, weightless, imbued with light and colour and energy and magic.
It was all mixed up — the exquisite chemical bliss of being in love and in lust, which even now my mind was warning would not and could not last too long, and the ‘spell of the sensuous’, the immediate, raw physical connection through the senses with what is real and infinitely beautiful and unceasing and boundless. How could I disentangle, or choose between, a thousand precious moments of staggering unimaginable ecstasy in a lifetime of brokenness, and a forever of dispassionate, joyful, perfect, endless but not-quite-so-delightful presence?
Part of me wanted to learn to be forever free from want, and the suffering it caused. The other part of me, at least for this brief passing moment of eternal Now, didn’t want anything at all.