[ This piece was written when I was still living in Menlo Park, CA. I don’t live there any more, but the experiences I had at Cafe Borrone in Menlo Plaza were some of the most formative in my enneagram education. This is how it went… ]
At 7:14 AM the express northbound from Palo Alto roars through Menlo Park. I stand at the crossing, savoring the tremendous clattering and rushing as tons of metal and flesh hurtle by six feet in front of my naked face. I am swept up in the sheer power of the experience, overwhelmed by its raw intensity.
Then, suddenly, the crossing is empty, except for a storm of blowing leaves and dust. I step into space that was filled only moments ago by a howling, deadly machine. The gates rise, the bells stop, and cars move across the tracks. By the time I reach the plaza, the train has vanished into the bright morning.
The rushing train has awakened something that was sleeping since last night. All at once, someone is here, right now, actually present in the world. A vast, empty immediacy grips me. I tremble on the knife-edge between the past and the future, poised in this eternal instant of moving time.
Bright sunlight glitters on wet jasmine leaves. A purple daisy screams with intense passion as a skipper lands for a drink. A blue and white jet floats across the sky, its engines full of good, clean fire. Behind the dumpster, under three layers of ratty blankets, an old woman snores loudly.
Through it all, this body moves, carrying along with it a curious, fresh presence. Who looks through these eyes today? A cool breeze blows through the mind.
Tony is still putting out the chairs and tables. “Hey, Nick.” He waves cheerfully. I wave back. I walk into the cafe, past aromatic boxes of bananas and strawberries. A man in overalls pushes a dolly with four crates of milk. Tina holds a clipboard and checks things off. She signs it and hands it to the man. The empty dolly rattles across the square.
“Coffee?” Rita smiles and reaches for a clean mug. “Yeah, and one of those.” My usual, a ham and cheese croissant. Too much sugar puts this body out of commission by noon.
Carrying the mug and plate, the body knows what to do next. Sit. Sip, bite, chew. Sip. The exquisite familiarity of this ritual draws the mind, heart, and body into an easy meditation. Sip. Pause. Breathe. Is that fresh immediacy still renewing itself in every moment? Am I centered in the present? Does the flow of experience move through freely, unobstructed?
Sip, swallow. Warm coffee fills the mind.
I have become transparent, empty and clear. Around and within, the day continues, but I am no longer an active agent. The body breathes, sips, chews, all on its own. The body and the cafe are filled with emptiness. Sarah’s beautiful, curly hair is no more than a pattern of light on the surface of an infinitely deep ocean of perfectly empty void. Gradually, I sink further into invisibility.
By 7:45, I can no longer feel the edges of the body. There is a pair of hands on the table, holding an empty mug. The mug is as much me as the hands and the table. In one sense, I fill the whole cafe. In another, I am nowhere.
From a place of calm and silence, there is a moment-to-moment witnessing. Two men with colorful ties walk in and inspect the pastry. A blackbird hops onto a table, and pecks at a muffin. Someone waves it away and sits down. Linda puts out little bowls of sugar packets. She flashes a tired smile. Was she up late last night? My friend Jim sits down across from me and nods congenially. He unfolds the paper, adjusts his hearing aid, and sips his coffee. We exchange comfortable ritual greetings.
Every subtle event is witnessed, experienced, and released in an instant. How else to make room for the next moment? Each moment lives for only a moment, as an infinitesimal, infinitely deep expression of eternal Being. Is this a paradox?
Laverne works a big silver machine. Cachunk-a-chunk-a. Hissssssss. “Harold?” She calls out the name, and a tall, thin man with a needle nose and aviator glasses gets up and walks to the counter.
With infinite delicacy, the witness spontaneously expands across the space and touches Harold’s being. Suddenly, the emptiness fills with a new flavor. The experience is so subtle, so light, that only in the deep silence can it be clearly felt. How can there be room in this heart for Harold unless it is empty of me?
Harold’s presence tastes like paper and pencils, and narrow lines of numbers. There is a sharp, hard rigidity, but also an easy-going kind of relaxed peace. He smiles shyly as he picks up his order, and the witness experiences in that moment a fragile brittleness and a careful discipline. This flavor is unique, because it is Harold’s own distinctive being, and yet it is familiar. I’ve never seen this man before, but I feel like I know him.
Touching another in this way, how does my experience of him change? What does it mean to taste the flavor of another human? Does any part of Harold’s being notice the subtle contact? Does he respond in some way, at some level?
There is a deep, tender affection in this tasting. Harold’s personal flavor carries with it traces of past pains and joys. Is it possible to sense the subtle flavor of another person without also discovering compassion? How can I not love this brother, this other me?
The witness reaches out again into empty space, and touches another. She is a large woman with a bubbling laugh and a carefully painted face. She tastes like big bowls of chicken soup, engulfing hugs, and lots of little children running happily in the yard. She tastes like possessive love, and maybe just a touch of anger. Her body carries a feeling of self-assertive pride, but the witness also tastes a deep longing for genuine relationship. It’s a complex mixture with a fine, subtle bouquet. Her tensions and self-congratulations add a peppery note to the musky, motherly mixture that she radiates. What an interesting, bittersweet flavor!
Is it real? Is it magic? Is it a spiritual experience? Are these subtle flavors really flowing into an empty heart? How can I know whether I am projecting my own biases? Is there real, essential contact?
Am I living in the moment, touching each instant for an instant and instantly letting it go? Am I completely open and silent? Is there total acceptance of whatever comes through? Is there a feeling of deep respect and value in the experience of this “other” person? Do I compare the experience to something from another time and place, or is it completely now?
Is there love in this tasting?
The morning flows on, smoothly passing through the emptiness of the moment. People come and go, each one radiating a different flavor. Many are constricted, cluttered with thoughts, emotions, and inner conflict. A few seem to shine with glorious light. The witness in the void watches and tastes, loves and learns, opens to each moment with new freshness.
Is this just another Tuesday morning?
What is the taste of the fruit of the tree of life?
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This is the end of Enneagram 101, an introductory course in the enneagram of personality.