So there I was at Esalen last night, under a half moon and resplendent Jupiter, in view of the pulsating sea, great graceful swells the sound of which might be mistaken for a high wind in the trees if the air were not perfectly still. I was just back from a soak in the hot tubs with a bunch of other naked people, having a cup of anise tea, and found myself on the periphery of a conversation hijacked by a guy who, overhearing someone mention he was from Canada, shared his dilemma about whether to move there or not. He had dual citizenship, so it was possible. He was seeking a safe place to raise his kids, afraid of the implosion that he saw coming for this country.
Down in hot tubs the conversation had been much less apocalyptic, though how reality-based I’m not one to judge; one woman fantasizing about putting a wind turbine on her roof, another about growing a vegetable garden, inspired by the gardens up the hillside. Someone did mention, in passing, something about the fires down south. A man quickly changed the subject by wondering out loud what those constellations were overhead. Did anyone know? Someone just happened to have his electrogizmo handy, and sure enough, there was the summer night sky at our latitude but nobody was interested at that moment (blessed be) in an antiseptic bit of info on a tiny screen.
It was my first time at Esalen. The reputation of the beauty of the place was not exaggerated, and not only the setting. It was easy to see why that woman was inspired by the gardens, though inspiration wasn’t my response. I didn’t get past the homage stage. Heavens, they are extravagant; robust lettuces and broccoli, stately kale, tender spinach, parsley, basil, baby bush beans…row after long row. Interspersed among edibles are great swaths of sweet peas, sunflowers, dahlias, marigolds, and much more. I had to laugh; it is such a muchness. I won’t even mention (except for the anise tea) the apotheosis of all this gorgeousness: the bounty spread before us each mealtime. If the office still had a copy in stock, I would have bought the Esalen cookbook. (My friends, should you read this, don’t die of shock.) Perhaps I was inspired.
As for the workshop, the excuse, if you will, for shelling out the beans, the lettuce, the berries, the cabbage, the cherries…the hard-earned greenbacks, in other words—what about it? It was entitled, What You Practice is What You Have, and led by the Zen teacher, Cheri Huber. “My all-time favorite quote,” she said, “is, ‘The quality of your life is determined by the focus of your attention’.” During one session she asked participants for words that might apply to the kind of awareness practice she teaches, and among the usual ones such as “accepting,” “compassionate,” and “peaceful,” someone said, “sustainable.” At another point, she asked what had we been practicing. “Fear,” “resentment,” “intellectualizing,” “dissatisfaction,” “stress,” and “criticizing” were some of the responses.
One of my father’s occasional phrases, “Them’s the berries,” might be translated, “It is what it is. Deal with it.” In that there’s a simulacrum of acceptance, generally of something that one might not have chosen and would rather do without. Another slang meaning of “the berries” is a card hand so good it’s practically unbeatable.
Life is the berries. Which meaning applies (now and then I get a glimmer of this) depends on the focus of my attention.