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Mindfulness in Big Sur

My wife and I were in Big Sur for a few nights this week. First we went to good old Esalen and took a course on mindfulness meditation with a great Bay Area teacher called James Baraz, who often teaches classes in Berkeley.

There’s a zillion of James’s talks online, like a talk on mindfulness.

I might also mention the books and talks of Thich Nhat Hanh.

I really enjoyed the class meetings. All my life I’ve wanted to meditate — for a variety of reasons: to damp down my worry loops, to experience mental ecstasy, and to be more compassionate and balanced. I’ve tried to learn it from books, but it made a difference to be in a group, and to be able to ask the teacher a question like, “What if it gets boring?”

To this question, James said, “You can focus on the boredom and analyze what underlies it. A feeling of wanting more, anxiety of missing something, desire to be working. Stay with it.”

As I understood the talks, you want to stop getting caught up in passing thoughts and instead focus on something immediate, such as your breath or (variations) on the sounds around you, or the feelings in your body or even (in my case) a wind-rocking branch.

James suggested that, as a part of doing this:
(1) Notice what’s actually going on inside you,
(2) Stay in the present,
(3) Be aware that this moment will pass,
(4) Don’t judge your thoughts or the things you see and if you (inevitably) do judge something, don’t burden yourself with another layer by judging yourself for judging.

And, he added, when your mind (inevitably) wanders, don’t scold yourself, just bring the mind back, lovingly, like bringing back a puppy to his or her spot. And, at the end of a session, resist the temptation to think “that was a good one,” or “that was a bad one.”

Esalen—what a place. It’s so outrageously pleasant. Makes me frikkin’ proud to be a Californian. The hot mineral baths make your skin all smooth. I always think of Terence McKenna here because we taught an Esalen seminar together once. Life goes on and on.

We’ll see if I can keep up the meditation back home. I often do yoga in the morning, and maybe I can manage to tack on some meditation. I was in fact trying that today, but I was tempted to move and stretch instead of just watching my breath. And then when I’m moving my mind drifts off. That’s okay.

After Esalen we went further south to Lucia Lodge, a place I’ve always wondered about—it’s these old, like 1930s, cabins right on the edge of a cliff. Very comfortable, and nice to be so totally at the ass end of nowhere. “The end of the continent,” Sylvia kept saying

We drove up the obscure Nacimiento Road just after the Kirk Flats Campground, amazing views of the big elephant-like Sur hills.

Pushing it even further we drove five miles along the super-obscure, dirt South Coast Ridge Road and picknickicked it on a knoll, high pelikaans eyeing the wrinkled sea.

Some guy with a chain saw had cut a square out of a hollow tree. Kind of interesting looking. Like one of my characters Frek Huggins or Gibby the Grulloo lives in this tree.

Reminds me of the house in The Little Fur Family, published 1946.

We saw an oak tree from Mars as well. And then I encountered a guy with a backpack. “You camping here?” I asked him. “No, I live on that side of the ridge, and I’m hiking over to visit a friend on the other side. You’d best go back out of here the way you came.”

Then back to at Lucia Lodge, incredible to be so near the ocean. I’m hardly ever at Big Sur at night.

On the way home we stopped by the classic “dimensional gate” at Pfeiffer Beach—I’ve blogged about this place several times, for instance it was a big inspiration for Mathematicians in Love.

The clouds were interesting, with dangling wisps. Here we see a jellyfish on the left, and flying ghost on the right.

All the while, we kept remembering, off and on, to be mindful. When you remember that time is really passing, you have all the more impetus to experience the now. “You must be present to win,” says James Baraz, quoting a sign seen in a Vegas casino…

13 Responses to “Mindfulness in Big Sur”

  1. Vanderleun Says:

    The signs of Vegas stay in Vegas.

    Take a bong hit and be mindless.

    That James…. he is SATAN!

  2. Rudy Says:

    Now, Vanderleun, what if James sees your comment and thinks my readers are crazy stoner fundamentalists rather than the liberal gentlefolk such as lurk, I know, beneath your bristly hide.

    Reading up on Buddhism—about which, oddly, our educational system has failed to inculcate me—I notice that Buddha died about 500 BC. Interesting to think of him as a real historical figure..

    Actually the one book on Buddhism I read in the past was Ram Dass’s classic Be Here Now, like in 1969. Turns out this book also started James down the mindfulness road.

  3. Al Says:

    I like the fact that some of Christ’s teachings can be found in the Buddha’s. There’s good reason to believe that Jesus or the writers of the New Testament were aware of the Buddha.

    Some of my favorite Buddhist books are Shunryu Suzuki’s “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” (lectures he gave in Los Altos in the 60’s), and the more technical “What the Buddha Taught” by Walpola Rahula.

    As for getting stoned, a good Buddhist eschews intoxication–which is one of the reasons I’m such a mediocre Buddhist!

  4. Gamma Says:

    hey this brought me out of the easter bunny rising up & pinned to flutterbye-bo tree – what next lets invade Tibet & release that old prayer wheel containg the 9 billion names of God – tomorrow as i writ is Good Fridave init

    good work

  5. Witt Says:

    Thank you for the reflections and beautiful pictures.
    It is almost like being there.

  6. Vanderleun Says:

    Well, I knew Ram Dass before he was Ram Dass and let me tell you it was chop wood, carry water even in those days.

  7. Jim and his Karma Says:

    “You can focus on the boredom and analyze what underlies it. A feeling of wanting more, anxiety of missing something, desire to be working.”

    All day long the mind analyzes. We identify with this constant mental output, falsely concluding that it’s what we are. Meditation is about temporarily quieting the dynamic analysis and narrative, the grasping and recoiling, so we begin to realize there’s actually a deeper, static underpinning, not directly accessible to mind. Meditation is the time for quieting the analysis, not launching new lines of analysis.

    Self inquiry (the use of mind to get beyond mind) is a fine thing, it’s a sort of analysis that can truly help. But it is not meditation. Intentionally flexing one’s mind during meditation goes entirely the wrong way. Meditation is about letting go utterly.

    I share your poor experiences with about learning meditation from books. But do try one more:
    It’s the most stripped-down, non-ritualistic, de-mythologized, and extraordinarily efficacious meditation technique ever taught. It’s part of AYP (Advanced Yoga Practices), a free series of Internet lessons that has given thousands of students what you seek. I’ve spent 30 years on zen, yoga, and taoist practice, and nothing can compare. If you prefer to surf free before checking out the more in-depth book, the lessons are at and the meditation lesson is #13

    I was a big fan of your writing even before it got popular, Prof. Rucker, and I’d be absolutely delighted if this tip “gives back” a little.

    Standard disclaimer….I have no financial interest in AYP, and I offer the link to help, not to promote (in fact, if you erase my comment but check out – and benefit from – the teaching, I’d be utterly satisfied).

  8. Tudgedelta Says:

    I took an 8-week mindfulness meditation course at, of all places, a former corporate employer’s office. My instructor was Charlie Johnson, and he was wonderful, teaching pretty much the same as what you describe. I love the advice about not judging your stray thoughts. Such meanderings would take me off my meditative state, and this advice was like a Homer “doh!” realization for me, except instead of “doh!”, it’s “oh, that’s a stray thought… moving on…”

    I must admit that I’ve not kept up an explicit daily meditation routine, but Charlie taught us how to instantly shift into a state of mindfulness, even if it’s just for a moment (which is forever)…right here, right now…

    Anyway, I’ve not checked your blog in a couple of weeks, and was pleasantly welcomed by this post, accompanied by beautiful pictures. Thanks!

  9. linus r. Says:

    I have both books by Suzuki and Rahula…. if you want to hear something really funny…. order on-line the historic Jiddu Krishnamurti dialogue with vague abstruse Tibetian Buddhist scholars with severe foreign accents and perspectives (I believe Walpola Rahula was in this halarious dialogue) if you can just imagine Krishnamurti trying to reason with thousands of years of an arcane lingo and idiom….

  10. nick Says:

    Thanks, Rudy, for the great Big Sur pix and commentary. When I first came to Esalen in the early sixties I was immediately captivated. Here is what humans were meant to do. With all the land masses completely explored and mapped, the final frontier was inside the mind. And that was what Esalen is all about–a no holds barred encounter with the mystery inside us. And when I was given the chance to invite edge explorers to the big E, you, Rudy, were one of the top candidates–Rudy I eat the Mystery of Existence for Breakfast Rucker. I recall one crazed night in the baths when you and I came That Close to breaking thru into another reality. But we missed it. Don’t worry. We’ll catch the next wave.

    Recently Jeffrey Kripal has compiled an official history of the Esalen experiment which he sees as a variety of Western Tantra: “Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion”. Worth a look.

  11. Jim and his Karma Says:

    Oh, and one nice benefit of a consistent and rigorous meditation practice is you learn what consciousness is. Hint: it’s non-local.

  12. Al Says:

    That sounds really bizarre, linus r! Thanks.

  13. abbi Says:

    Great discussion! You’ve got a good blog going here.

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