Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Empty Beach

The Empty Beach

I just got home from Long Beach, California. I was travelling for work, reviewing grants for the National Institute of Health (NIH) for two days. Each day after the meeting ended, I laced up my running shoes and headed out to the beach for a long run. In late-October, it turns out that California temperatures are still between 70 and 75 degrees. When you are travelling from Buffalo, NY that is nothing short of grand.

The first day we got out late and I was tired from travelling. Still, I had run a good stretch of ocean-side, four-lane thoroughfare. About 1.5 miles in, I found the beach.  Pausing, hands on my hips and sweating from the run and the heat, I looked down the vast stretch of coastline. For miles, the beach was nearly empty. Determined to finish my mileage and get back to the hotel in time for room service and some bad television, I set my eyes on the horizon and kept running. I was not aware or present. My mind moved on to the next thought about the meeting, how it went, and how I thought I was doing. These meetings are fascinating- so many brilliant grant proposals- so many brilliant reviewers. It is mentally exhausting. I missed my daughters and my husband. I feel safe and loved with them. Within the tired knots of thoughts, I reflected, meaninglessly, on how empty the beach was.

Long Beach, CA (10/2014)

The second day, we were done early. I had an entire afternoon to run and walk down miles of beach. And that, I did. I grabbed my room key, my music, headphones, and a credit card just in case, laced up my running shoes again and headed out.

This time I was clear. Less to ruminate about. My work was done and I was flying home first thing in the morning. I smelled, in the beach air, the windy saltiness and the cycle-of-life undercurrents. I noticed the many different varieties of birds and foliage. I think I saw at least three different types of seagulls- small tiny seagulls, classic seacoast and parking lot gulls, and rougher, scraggly, seemingly street-smart big, grey and brownish ones. I saw light russet birds with long beaks and long legs and tiny sharp, quick, darting white and grey birds with almost no beaks at all. There were palm trees of all sizes and stages of being from new growth to old trees that seemed to have grown too high for their own good. I think I saw aloe and at least one cactus garden- one confirmed as it was labeled, “warning cactus garden” and the other not labeled yet clearly filled with prickly stalks holding goal-post arms. On the ground before me, I saw seaweed and tiny pieces of shells. I thought about how the sand was different from the sands on Cape Cod or the gravel in the Adirondacks. It was soft, a combination of seashell fragments, sand, and earth.

A different kind of tired, I stopped running and shifted my gaze and squinted so I could see the horizon more clearly. Looking long down the beach, I once again noticed how empty it was. Instinctually, as if called to do so by some urge that must have been felt by others for lifetimes before me, I took my shoes off and walked for miles on the edge of where the water met the sand.

I thought about how the elements, the first four chakras, were all here. Earth- as my feet sank into the sand. Water- meeting the earth, waves both crashing and lapping onto the beach.  Fire- as the sun moved closer to the horizon surrendering into the water. Last, air- the endless expanse of sky, the invisible scaffold that was holding the gulls in the air, and the Pacific air in my lungs. At the beach, they are all so clearly here. I dug me feet into the sand, the wet sand, felt the sun on my cheeks and shoulders, and breathed. “My God,” I thought, “this is beautiful.”

The beach was nearly empty.         

I wondered if people who live in California forget. If the beach is always there, right there, do you forget? Take it for granted? I acknowledge that I was in Long Beach and not Maya Tulum, Mexico or some other paradise-like beach. Still, I noticed it there too. In Mexico, the beaches were full of tourists. Not the people who live there. There is this thing humans do. We seem to turn our backs to the beauty, especially the beauty right in front of us. Like when you forget to notice how handsome and kind your husband is or how the house you live in is the house you always wanted as a kid. That is, unless we consciously set intentions and make plans- we simply don’t spend time there- in the beauty of it.

Then, I considered that the beach being right there is sort of like mindfulness and meditation always being right there. Mindfulness and meditation are like a California beach in the sun- there for all of us. It is as if  we all have condominiums whose lofts and patios opened right up to the beach. When I was running by- those days on the beach- I could see people sitting inside, busy with their lives, and backs to the beach. Forgetting. Not seeing.

When I get present, mindful, and meditate, it is peaceful. I feel a relief from my daily worries, calming, and clearing- just like this walk on the beach was for me. Yet, until rather recently I would neglect presence. I knew how good it felt, the benefits, all of that. Presence, mindfulness, and meditation were and are easily accessible. Your brain and body are- literally- always right here with you. There is no time, no moment, that it can’t be done.

I am writing as a reminder that we all have beaches that we are ignoring.

You have immediate access to beauty, peace, and stillness.

It is right there. Turn. Look.

Yeah, life gets crazy, stressful, and busy. And- turn around, watch the sun set, breathe the air and dig your toes in the metaphoric sand of your life- just for five minutes- do it anyway.

And- those of you who live at the beach- for God’s sake, go outside.

Why? Because you can and I am here to remind you how beautiful it is.

Catherine Cook-Cottone
The Yoga Bag

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