One City

Here’s a story.

My mother is a retired church organist and choir director.  Growing up, my participation in religious life was fairly required.  When I was about ten or eleven, the church had a charismatic youth minister, a wiry, fierce, Princeton-seminary-educated former actress in her early thirties named Kim.  She attracted a large and devoted “youth group” following, which, like many suburban youth groups I have witnessed since then, was comprised of simultaneously horny and hysterical teens who body-rolled to Jesus Christ Superstar, made out on retreats, smoked cigarettes in the back of the church lot because they were ‘addicted’ and, dressed up in Rag-Store-reject swaths of polyester, recreated Jesus Christ’s walk with the cross on Good Friday while crying and holding each other, crying being a good excuse to press bodies with the opposite sex, an activity which teenagers, cross-denominationally, find interesting.


(Image courtasy of HarlanH)

By the time I was eligible to participate in this youth group I was staunch atheist and could not conscience making up a choreographed gesture-dance to “As I Lay Me Down” by Sophie B. Hawkins.  But when I was ten, the youth group, boasting young adults aged SEVENTEEN, aka the age of ultimate glamour, held a fascinating allure.  They had a bulletin board in the church annex.  Wandering the halls while my mother practiced, I would stare at that board – absorbing the hugging snapshots (they were seriously always hugging) and magazine collages and prose-poems.
The church I attended was also located in one of the WASP-iest towns ere to have played lacrosse.  As a result, the youth groups longest retreat would be an annual week-long stay at a ski resort, during which they would ski, drink hot cocoa, hug, and tell each other all their thoughts on God.  I remember very vividly reading their trip summations on the bulletin board. 

As I remember, every one of these teenagers, most skilled skiers, talked in these essays about feeling the connection to God/Jesus while concentrating and synching their mind with their body during the absorbing task of downhill skiing.  The certain level of tightness and looseness that skiing requires – the concentration to stay upright and in good form and keep your mind on your task, the awareness to field against other skiers, trees, bumps, ice patches etcetera, that balance reminded them, convicted them, you may say, of their faith.

I really don’t want to say anything about the veracity of these guy’s beliefs.  All I am saying is that the balance of mindfulness and awareness is profound.  It connects us to the nature of reality, and for those of us who study Buddhism, the interdependence, impermanence and slippery-ness of our experience.  I also want to say that teenagers love to hug.  A lot.

As I was walking over the Williamsburg Bridge following Hardcore Dharma last night, in which we discussed the nine stages of shamatha, the challenges of no-multitasking and I thought about how learning presence and mindfulness is like floating.  To float, you have to learn how to hold your body in a subtly disciplined yet relaxed way.  Only with the deliberate placement of your body will the water then carry you with ease.  Ambling along, I saw a group of people walking the wrong way in my lane, and like you might flinch at the brush of a substance that you think might be a jellyfish, I immediately reacted, thinking a jumble of derogatory thoughts about their choice of shorts, facial hair, age, entitlement and vest choice.  Then I caught myself.  You’re just seeing, Julia.  That’s all that is happening.  Phenomena are arriving in your visual field.  And I was able to let go of my judgment, relax, and, instead of violently treading against the waters of my thoughts versus emotions, I was able to float up into mindfulness.

Bully for me.  Today, attempting to recreate that moment, I’ve been yelling “hearing” in my mind in response to my Diana Ross-blasting coworkers.  For some reason it’s not as effective.  I suppose, in the words of Common Wisdom, my go-to advisor of all earthly experience, as hard as you might try, “you (just) can’t take it with you.”

Happy July 4th, everybody. 

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