When I was 17, I noticed a book about yoga in my local bookstore. On the cover, a man with a beard was sitting in what seemed an impossible position. He looked like someone from a circus sideshow except that he had the most beatific grin on his face. I ipped through the book - the grin was on every page. The guru beckoned me and asked, Remember? And someone in me answered, Yes. Soon, this little-known Sri would be keeping company with Hesse's Siddhartha, Ram Dass' Be Here Now, and Salinger's Franny and Zooey. Over the ensuing decades he would be followed by a distinctive line of spiritual teachers.
Maharishi Mahesh YoG1 Proclaimed that if I practiced transcendental meditation twice daily, I'd be enlightened in five to eight years. I did it for 15, including a levitation practice, but despite months of blissful meditation retreats, my consciousness would crumble as soon as I hit the city streets. I was no longer sure there was such a state as enlightenment, or if there were, I suspected that precious few on earth sowed and reaped its fruits.
After the requisite year exploring my Hebraic roots through a Kabbalistic maze, I turned eastward and floated toward the simple yet credible teachings of the Buddha. Maharishi had said that life is bliss and I needn't suffer anymore. The Buddha told me I could count on life being suffering, but I didn't have to let it get me down. Both were probably saying the same thing, but the Zen semantics appealed to my long-suffering Jewish nature. I also appreciated the notion that the present moment is all there is, that I could breathe my way to a more mindful life.
But I wonder about my progress. For years I've watched myself breathe, think, and stretch during meditation and yoga practice, and I've tried to stay present during my daily activities. But "try" is the operative word. Sylvia Boorstein says, "It's Easier Than You Think," but I'm not so sure. I doubt if I'm in more than one of every 12,000 moments. After 30 years, isn't it time I did more than try to be enlightened? Isn't it time I just was?
Lately I've been asking myself whether people such as Don Miguel Ruiz, author of The Four Agreements, and Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now, are enlightened. From their books, it sounds that way. Ruiz practices his four agreements, which means that he speaks impeccably, takes nothing personally, makes no assumptions and, if he falters, compassionately reminds himself that he's done his best. Tolle is even more daunting — he is not only firmly planted in the Now, he's certain that I can be, too, if I "realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have. Make the Now the primary focus of your life." Don't you think I'm trying?
I console myself with Phillip Lopate's essay "Against Joie de Vivre," in which he says the present is "much overrated" and "has a way of intruding whether you like it or not. Why should I go out of my way to meet it? Let it splash on me from time to time, like a car going through a puddle, and I, on the sidewalk of my solitude, will salute it grimly like any other modern inconvenience."
But I can't say I agree with Lopate, because those one of every 12,000 moments when I find myself suddenly, miraculously, Eckhart Tolle-esquely immersed in the Now, my contentment does not depend on what the moment presents. Whether I'm scrubbing a pot, kvetching to my husband, or weeping over a lost loved one, the effect is the same: I am floating in a parallel universe, watching myself with sincere, almost scientic, interest, loving myself with motherly compassion and enjoying a happy distance that convinces me this is a state to strive for.
Wrong verb: strive. This is a state to be for. This is the state I am being for. This is what it is, but I don't usually know it. Is it because I'm too busy striving for it? Don't ask me that now, because I'm too attached to my self-image as a spiritual seeker. Ask me in about 12,000 moments; maybe then I can tell you the truth.
Barbi Schulick's work has been published in Yoga Journal, A Real Life, and Chrysalis Reader, and aired on the NPR affiliate WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts.