My father-in-law was a simple man, and the things he said could ring with unintended clarity.
Every time he ate something, like a piece of chocolate cake, for instance, he would say, “This is the best chocolate cake I’ve ever tasted!” He meant it, and it was true, because it came from the exuberance of a mind emptied of critical thought. A mind like that can seem silly and childlike. It is, and that’s what makes it so wise.
Last night I finished a small book that was the best chocolate cake, and I’d love for you to taste it. At the start, you might not think this kind of cake is for you. Nearing middle age, a man faces himself honestly, courageously, admitting that he is gay, a liar, a cheater, a thief, a phony, a creep, a mindless alcoholic and ugly drug addict, and here’s the sweet spot—despite his serial failure at suicide—he wants to live. Does this sound even remotely like your kind of chocolate?
He envisions for himself the sort of idealistic quest that is the stuff of parody. He travels to India in search of enlightenment. What you find in India is, well, India. And what you find on a quest is yourself. But he tells his story with such beauty and feeling, such flavor and artistry, that I could not resist the whole thing.
At the end of the book, he is finishing his trip with a trek to Nepal in the company of a young guide and porter. His months of meditations and mantras, vows and renunciations seem to have failed. On the trail he is back to being angry and resentful, feeling foolish and even exploited. The objects of his spite are the two poor servants who are attending him. Does this sound even remotely like what happens daily in your kitchen, your home, your neighborhood, your world?
I remember the promise I made to myself to keep my heart, mind and senses open for the rest of my stay. My journey was coming to an end too fast. There was no more time to drift off in daydreams, or to lose myself in petty complaints. But all that resolve had flown off like a bird from an untended cage and the hours given over to anger and self-cherishing are now gone forever. What sights, sounds and joys did I miss as I sealed myself off from the world?
This is the practice. Watching my actions, watching my words, watching my mind every day. It does not only occur at holy pilgrimage sites or on retreats or in the presence of great spiritual masters. It occurs everyday, with the people who are with me right now, in this time, in this place.
“Hey, Chris!” my guide waves to me with a big smile. “Your dinner is ready.”
He wipes off a seat on the rough little bench and hands me a bowl of stew and when I look down into the steam and the goodness of it, I already know it will be the best meal I have ever tasted.
I really, sincerely, wholeheartedly recommend The Narrow Way by Chris Lemig. Buy yourself two copies: one for you, one for a friend. Leave a comment below and you could win the copy I’m giving away on Friday.
Update: The winner of the book is commenter #12, Robin Gaphni, whose blog is Grief & Gratitude.
There is still time to register for the Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat on Sun., Feb. 24 at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in LA.