I took my teeth to their bi-annual early morning cleaning, and walked back up through Chinatown. The day was one of those rare ones in which there were no appointments or pressing work to do, so when I passed Molinari’s I made a detour and landed in Caffe Trieste. It’s not my usual place, but I do admire its musical and poetical story. I ordered a cup of black coffee and sat at the back corner table.
The coffee was hot, so I sat and waited. The sun was coming in the transom-like windows at the top and the center of the room was beaming. Folks were lined up along the windows and the walls, reading newspapers, looking at phones or computers. In the center of the room there was a family, tourist-seeming, and the light was shining on the brown hair of the teenage daughter and son, who both seemed restless and irritated with their parents. The sound of the steamers was going, and the conversation at the coffee counter had a rhythmic rise and fall.
One of the men along the window talked non-stop. His voice was in a range that bounced pointedly off of surfaces, but his topic was not coherent enough to catch from my seat. I believe it had something to do with baseball. He was sitting with another man and sort of facing the rest of the window-seat dwellers, and he pontificated joyfully at all. I don’t think he stopped at any point for any feedback, but that may be an exaggeration. I saw his face as he left. He stood and said his goodbyes, which took a while, and he smiled happily at the barista and I saw him, an older gentleman with grey hair ringing his rather swarthy scalp, with a joyful demeanor to him as he headed out into the street. I imagined his life as solitary, and these café mornings were where he could spill out his mind’s activity of the past 23 hours. I could be dead wrong about this, but it was a kind of a hunch.
I realized that sitting in a café without looking at reading material was unusual for me. I had a sense that the only time I had ever just sat and witnessed like this was when I was waiting for someone. At first, I felt a kind of unease and self-consciousness. I was the only person in the room not occupying herself with a task or distraction, and it felt intimate, invasive, as if I was upsetting the balance of the room. I felt strange looking around at people. It was like breaking the fourth wall, somehow, to just be fully present in the chair.
Nisargadatta, the awakened Indian master, attained enlightenment in three years. He ran a business, had a family, went about the matter of living his life, but all the while he was practicing a game in the background of his day. Whenever he found himself getting caught up in his mind, in his thoughts, in what Eckhart Tolle would call “psychological time,” he would call himself back with the simple phrase “I AM.” This would ground him in the present moment, in the true self underneath the thoughts of “I am this” or “I am that.” Outside of thoughts of the past or thoughts of the future. A kind of cosmic “Attention! You Are Here.”
I have been home this week, with the family all away, so I figured these solitary days would be a good time to double down on this practice. I meditate often, but more than that, when I’m up and about, I do my best to notice flights of thought, and to bring myself back to right here.
The phrase “I AM” is powerful, and when I find myself outside of the present moment, I bring up the phrase and feel myself drop into that open, spacious feeling of presence. I feel it in my body, which seems to instantly hollow out and get lighter as the words come to mind. When I do this, I look around and the world is just a little more vibrant, the light a little more shimmery. I feel the blood vibrating my veins and hear that soft ring of tinnitus in my ears. Sometimes, my eyes do this funny thing where they seem to focus and bring objects into proper placement. The details of the world sing out.
My thoughts are always of the past or of the future, as Tolle says: identification with the past and continuous compulsive projection into the future. That is what the mind does. I just keep on with it, patient and when not patient, I notice that too. A thought comes up. “I AM.” The day becomes brighter. I am here.
I sat in the café and hollowed out, gradually forgot myself and watched the light cascade into the room. I looked around and noticed the janky wiring of the place, old black wires snaking their way up pillars and across beams, and noticed how uneven and old all the surfaces were. I felt love for it all. I saw all of the ways that things had been fixed just so, and I loved how probably no one who worked there even saw it any more. I reflected on how a place can look so different when you see it every day, when you view it through a filter of expectation based on how it has always looked.
The coffee cup cooled enough for me to hold in my hands and it was such a satisfying size. It was thick and heavy and I set my elbows on the table and brought the hot coffee to my lips. The edge of the cup was thick and smooth and the taste was even and the smell energizing. I used to not like coffee… I AM. In this moment, the coffee was delicious.
In this presence, I let go of my body and the self and there was no self-consciousness. How could there be, with no self? I just sat. I let go of thinking about what anyone thought of me; what was there to think? I realized that always, I am watching myself as my mind runs commentary. A young woman often watches herself being watched, and in a flash I recognized that I am learning to let that go. I AM. My body hollowed out and I just felt my breath. I was alive.
A woman came in and her eye caught mine and we smiled, and then she quickly turned and stepped behind the counter. I let the interaction fade into the dusty window light. I looked into a few faces and noticed that all of them had their mouths turned down and their eyes elsewhere. I let go of judgment, and just noticed. I AM.
I love the phrase of Tolle’s: Surrendering to the Now. When my mind goes to the past, my body feels uneasy and frustrated. When my mind goes to the future, I feel either worried or a kind of hungry sensation of desire. To notice this is a gift. This, I guess, has been the purpose of the meditation, the reading, the different diversions and paths. Now I see that really, there is only one thing for a seeker to do. Notice where your mind wants to take you. Let go of your attachment to it. Then, notice where you are. You are here. The light shimmers.
I sat in the café, and in presence I saw that there is no separation between any of us: the pontificating baseball lover and the stoic barista and the lady buried frantically in her computer and the teenage girl with the light in her hair. When I am here, we are here together, a divine emanation of molecules that mingle and dance. The coffee aroma and the sounds of the room fell through my now porous skin. I felt how waves and vibrations swirl around and connect us all. My heart opened, but that is redundant. There is only heart. I AM.
I left a little coffee ring at the bottom of the cup and brought it to the counter and stepped into the morning light, through the group of men at the outside tables, across the crumbling asphalt, into the screech of construction noise and the hum of the city as it set forth its scurrying. A thought came that I would love to be surrounded by the quiet of trees, and I made the decision to head to Mt. Tamalpais.
Two hours later, I am in the quietest place I know, with only the sound of the fog getting sucked into the trees, the distant crashing of waves on the shore, and occasional airborne racket, human-made, bird or fly. The scuttling of lizards through the brush agitates a tiny ripple of the warm day. The past of the coffee shop is gone. The evening will hold what it will hold. I take the day into my lungs and through me, into this moment. Then this one.
A thin dragonfly sets down alongside the path on my walk back through the trees, and it stops me cold. It is a color of blue that seems unimaginable. His big eyes swivel to look at me for a long time. I swear he looks happily curious. He has a blue band of a flag at the end of his long body, and I just lean down and marvel at it. For some period of time, all sound is gone. The air is still. The dragonfly quivers in delight and then stills, quivers then stills, and we share the stillness.
It occurs to me to leave, and I follow that thought, break the trance and take a step before he seems ready to see me go. He startles me by streaking in front of me, the blue a neon light trailing across my vision. Surrender To The Now! his banner waves. I AM.