Sunday, September 02, 2007

Present Moment Wonderful Moment

On a cool autumn morning about nine years ago, I was a bit bored of selling books at the Yoga Journal Conference in Estes Park. The conference attendees were all in their yoga classes, and the exhibit hall felt as lively as a deserted chapel. Actually, that is exactly what it was. A dark, dank church on the grounds of the Y.M.C.A. of the Rockies, without a decent view. I practiced yoga, but I had little interest in reading any of the yoga books we had on display. How much can you really say about downward dog or the sun salutation? I also didn't know the brand new bookseller that had been sent along to help us at the booth, and I wasn't in a mood to start a conversation with a stranger.

I grew restless and was upset that I hadn't brought along a book to read. The newspaper, as usual, was filled with talk of impeachment and the upcoming midterm elections. I really wasn't in the mood for politics, and I couldn't bring myself to even open the paper. I sent my buying assistant and the new bookseller off on a break, and I roamed around the booth, desperate for a diversion. I needed to appear engrossed in something, so that the woman from the aura photography booth wouldn't wander over and try to convince me to have my picture taken. The previous day, I'd told her I didn't have an aura, but that hadn't put an end to the hard sell. I also noticed that the woman with the crystals seemed to be sizing me up as a potential customer.

My eyes alighted upon a slender book sitting on our sales table: Present Moment, Wonderful Moment by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. I'm not a Buddhist, but living in Boulder does make you much more aware of Buddhism. The Shambhala Center is three blocks from the store, and several of our employees have been students of the only Buddhist university in America, Boulder's very own Naropa University. One time, the bookstore's owner, a Buddhist, had a monk come in to bless the store by throwing rice everywhere. It took over a year for my computer keyboard to get back to normal. I must admit that I also had developed a passing interest in Buddhism back when I read Herman Hesse's Siddhartha as a teenager. In short, a Buddhist book seemed like a better option than staring at photos of people standing on their heads.

Upon reading the first few passages, I was struck by the simplicity, the clarity and the humbleness of the language. Present Moment is in part an instruction manual for being mindful in your everyday life, and yet Thich Nhat Hanh takes the basic idea of being present and aware at all times and makes it interesting. My favorite section was on washing the dishes. His thoughts on soaking your hands in the warm water and going slowly, savoring the process of this simple task has stayed with me. Often, I think about trying to enjoy this chore because of his words that I read all those years ago.

By the time my assistant and the new bookseller came back, I had read over a dozen passages, and my boredom had fallen away. For the moment, I was the zen master of the bookstore's Yoga Journal booth. When the slow period struck in the afternoon, I took a walk around the Y.M.C.A. complex with the new bookseller. I noticed the breeze against my face, the sound of the wind rustling the aspen leaves, and I made a particular effort to slow down and listen to my co-worker as she told me about her life and how she'd come to Boulder. We poked our heads into different buildings on the grounds, and even saw a herd of elk wandering amid the pine trees. For that afternoon, every step seemed like a discovery.

It was with these thoughts in my head that I drove up to Estes Park, to that same Y.M.C.A. camp, to lead Thich Nhat Hanh down to Boulder for a signing last Tuesday. He had been in Estes to lead a retreat, and at the last minute we had gotten word that he would be willing to do a book signing in Boulder. It wasn't exactly last minute, we had about 12 days to prepare, but in bookselling, with its mapped-out schedules and elaborate author request protocol, it was extremely short notice for such an important event.

Accompanied by my buying office assistant, who happens to be a Tibetan Buddhist, I entered the small lobby of the building where Thich Nhat Hanh was staying and looked around. There were about a dozen monks or monks-in-training (sisters and brothers, as they refer to each other) all dressed in simple brown robes. Most of them were quite young, but there were a few older than me. Many were Asian, but some were Westerners. We were shown the boxes of Thich Nhat Hanh's new book, The Art of Power, that we had dropped off the previous week. He'd signed almost 300 copies for the event. We put "Autographed Copy" stickers on each book, and then we waited for him.

Normally, this would have made me antsy. What if we didn't get back to Boulder in time? We were now in rush hour -- the traffic could be terrible. How were we going to get him into the venue once the doors were open and hundreds of people crammed the entrance? Instead of being preoccupied by all these anxieties, I had quite a different feeling. If not truly peaceful, I was, at least, resigned. The sisters and brothers seemed utterly at ease. So we waited. It was a beautiful late summer day with a storm moving in over the mountains. A few drops of cool rain fell on us as we meandered outside, and I couldn't help but grow nostalgic for that day nine years ago when I'd first read the words of the man I was about to meet.

After an hour or so, Thich Nhat Hanh appeared. Everyone called him Thay, which means teacher. He was bundled up in a heavy brown robe and a simple, but thick knitted hat. He sat in the corner of the room, and I forced myself not to stare. My assistant, who I figured might be able to help me with the etiquette of the situation, was intent on getting a picture taken with him. To be honest, I had thought I'd want one too, but now that I was sitting in the same small room with him, I realized that my camera would stay in my pocket. I didn't want to put anything between me and this moment.

In a few minutes, he got up, and we moved outside to the cars. He moved slowly, yet it was not the walk of an old man, but of a meditative or thoughtful one. He is over 80 now, but he looked barely 60. My assistant managed to get one of the brothers to take a couple of pictures of him walking with Thich Nhat Hanh while I smiled in the distant background.

The event was amazing -- simply one of my most satisfying moments as a bookseller. Almost 600 people attended, and the energy in the room emanated a sense of peace and quietude that is rarely seen in a public place. Before the event even began, dozens of people thanked us for hosting it and giving them a chance to be in Thich Nhat Hanh's presence. As Thich Nhat Hanh walked to the stage with eight of the sisters and brothers, there was complete silence from the standing crowd. As he reached his seat on the stage, he smiled, bowed, and motioned everyone to sit.

His talk was simple. It started with a brief, meditative breathing exercise. He was trying to get the audience into that awareness of the present moment by concentrating on breathing in and out. Deep breaths in and long breaths out. In this exercise, I simply failed. Well, I was not a complete failure. I did not asphyxiate. My mind, as always, was racing. Occasionally, I'd focus and take a few good breathes, but mostly I was just taking in the whole Boulder scene. There were people in nice button-down shirts and there were people in torn T-shirts. There were hippie parents with their kids clinging to them and yuppies who carefully checked their blackberries in the moments before the event. But in this moment, most of them were in rapt attention and focusing on their breath. The room seemed to breathe as one.

My favorite part of the talk was when he discussed going to Vietnam this year and ending 40 years of exile. My wife and I were in Vietnam for three weeks in 2005 and fell in love with its land and people. It was easy to imagine him there, leading thousands of people in healing prayers. He explained that in every part of the country he held services to heal the wounds of the Vietnam war. He spoke with gratitude and amazement about how he was not censored by the Communist government. I found this fascinating. When we traveled through Vietnam, it was almost impossible to talk to people about the war. "It's over," they'd tell us. "Why do you want to talk about such old history?" they'd ask. It was difficult to get a true idea of how they felt, especially older people. It's easy to imagine how Thich Nhat Hanh, with his clarity and humbleness, could break through that and bring out something meaningful.

After his short talk, Thich Nhat Hanh opened it up to questions from the audience. The last question of the evening was one about love. Thich Nhat Hanh paused for a minute or two before answering, as he did with all the questions, and then he gave a beautiful answer that seems like it's worth all of the books in our relationship section combined. "Love is about being there. You must be open and available to your partner. You must be present for their suffering. You must be there emotionally. You cannot be distracted."

As he described his vision of love, I reached over to my wife, sitting beside me, and squeezed her hand. You see, it was in the spirit of those words that we met. She was the young bookseller sent to help me at the Yoga Journal booth in Estes Park nine years ago. She was the person that I made myself available to on that day, as we walked around the Y.M.C.A. camp and got to know each other.


Celia said...
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Dullcinema said...

And today, reading your comments a few weeks after their writing, it's even more moving to think of the monk in the world in the moment, as the Buddhist monks lead the people of Myanmar/Burma down the streets of Rangoon as the military takes aim.