Espresso for the mind
Born and raised in Arkansas in the 70’s and 80’s, I was not exposed to coffee. And for that matter, so was most of the U.S. I might have tried the horrid concoctions that passed for coffee, but it never stuck. When I went to the Marines and underwent the dry, tortuous, boring training that was avionics at Millington, TN, I was forced to drink coffee to stay awake. I’d take whatever coffee was made and add massive amounts of sugar and cream to it in order to stomach it.
Fast forward a few years and I am out of the Marines and living Irvine, CA. At this time I started going to bookstores and libraries and reading philosophy and psychology, though at a very beginner level. I started to going to cafes and, aside from listening to whatever poetry or music event was occurring, I wrote a lot. I have stacks of journals where I am clumsily jumping around all the new ideas that I’d never been exposed to when growing up in Arkansas. It is my opinion that if you do not know who Kant or Whitman are, your education is severely stunted.
The coffee I drank at these cafes around Orange County and later Houston were still sweet mochas. Another couple of years and I moved to Eugene, Oregon and I was also learning more about the Beatniks, Kerouac, Miller, Ginsberg, and espresso kept coming up in satelite. My favorite coffee shop, the old Theos Coffeehouse (before they moved to The Strand) had a great mixture of people, humanists, atheiest, calvinists, protestant, unitarians, catholics, buddhists, pagans, and more that would visit the shop, sip coffee, play chess, peruse books, and strike up conversations. I’ve had several good, decent, and respectful conversations there. I believe that if they had stayed at that location, the fertile ground and environment was such that something great might have bloomed in the mind of someone there. As it is, it moved to a location that is much too noisy, busy, and so forth to allow this unique fertile ground. I wish them the best, however.
It was at a coffeeshop in Eugene that I sat down with an espresso and tasted it. It was bitter and my mouth instantly rejected it. This wasn’t the mochas that I drank a lot of. But I knew that what was going on here was that I had an expectation of what the taste should taste like. And like many things in life, when we place a should in there… things get pretty messed up quickly enough. I knew that at a low, subconscious level, I was expecting the taste to be wildly different and, because of such, I disliked the difference. That should was problematic. So I sat there on the patio, a bright summer day and sunshine was beaming down on me. I had a stack of books on the table, an open notebook before me, and this small cup of espresso. I breathed in the present moment, accepted the life around me, and asked myself why I wanted the espresso to be something it wasn’t. It really sounds strange to write it, but this is how the brain works. Once I was able to set aside my expectations, I picked up the espresso and took a sip. Instantly I tasted the complexity, the caramel and smokiness. I cannot stress just how much the flavor was dramatically changed by my being open to the experience. The bitterness was still there, but instead as a negative it was now a signature aspect. I embraced it and welcomed it.
That experience changed my coffee drinking forever. Today I seek out good roasts, prefering it black much of the time. I look forward to my morning coffee. It is true that I go through the motions on many morning, making coffee in a cup to go and heading to work. But some days I am mindful of the cup, the taste, the presence of mind to drink what is in my cup.
Compare this to driving in traffic. I’ve never been great in traffic, but not terrible either. Though it could be a source of frustration (L.A., Houston), it wasn’t a source of pain in my life until after my deployment to Iraq in 2004. After this I found that any drive in traffic was enough to set me in a foul mood, even the 2 miles from home to work! I went through brake pads on my truck quickly, and a few times down to the rotors. I drove angry.
Therapy and personal effort to change my behavior and peace, resulted in my becoming less and less frustrated with traffic. This was put as a priority when I got a job as a coordinator for a 7 county area and entailed me travelling hundreds of miles a week. My blood pressure was up, my stress was up, I knew that if I didn’t change things, I’d have a heart attack in a year. And I did manage to make great strides. However, the notion of a roadtrip was synonymous with insanity to me. Why would anyone do this to themself?
Then I put my truck in the shop and was loaned a 2013 Mustang convertible. I was so thrilled at its driving, the way it handled the road, the steering, that I was filled with joy with every mile. I got stuck in traffic, in construction zones, and more, and came out the other side happy. Why? Because instead of focusing on what should be (me driving without hindrance) I focused on what is, (I was sitting in a fun car). After a few days I traded my truck for that car. Some people have told me I was nuts, most have said it was cool. But the quality of life has gone up a lot for me with this purchase.
It is important to note here that it isn’t the car that is making me happy. I could do all of this in a Prius (and I have, while driving around Klamath Lake) but I am a human, and I sometimes need a boost. Just like the ritual of making my tea and sitting in the window helps me become more present, many times driving the Mustang is the environment where I find it easier to enter into a present state.
And so I search for those things are are espresso for the mind, that are tools that help me let go of my frantic life of shoulds and expectations and instead live with mindfulness.