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Found in the Supermarket

James O'Brien

I go to Kowalski's Ultra-Grocery only when I'm desperate. In lieu of a decent deli or basic grocery needs, the place is crammed with kiosks full of impulse-buy concoctions and assorted yuppie bait, but desperate is what I was the other day--starved for something to stir not only my tummy but my soul. After 15 minutes, I still hadn't found what I was looking for. Until...

Bottom shelf, tucked discreetly between thousands of varieties of granolas and sugar pops: a cereal box with the word "Zen" across the front. Zen, the cereal. The letters were painted across the package in blue, vaguely Asiatic script, beneath which there lurked a promise: "for inner harmony." Namaste, dude!

My heart pitter-pattered. I squatted down in the aisle in my best yogic asana, did some Pranayama breathing, and flipped over the box to behold a picture of sand dunes or crop circles. Or--talk about your cosmic coincidences!--a picture of a placid-faced young woman in yoga duds meditating. "Enjoy a Zen Moment Every Day," the headline said, followed by seven paragraphs of languid type about how the folks at Zen (actually "Optimum Zen TM") "have captured that satisfying essence and inner balance with a blend of organic whole grains, gently sweetened, combined with the subtle warmth of ginger, the tang of dried cranberries and the crunch of blended grains and soy. Optimum Zen TM provides a serenity and calm for your busy world."

My busy world? It was as if the cereal box had seen into my heart. My sense of fate about the encounter was only underscored by the fact it was the last Zen the Cereal box on the shelf. I peeked over my shoulder and nabbed it--no other but me was going to have inner harmony or peace this day. I brought it to the checkout counter and considered "Zen," a word that has been in the English language since 1727, and comes from the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese chan ("quietude"), which comes from Sanskrit dhy nam ("meditation"), and whose dictionary definition begins, "A school of Mahayana Buddhism that asserts that enlightenment can be attained through meditation, self-contemplation, and intuition rather than through faith and devotion."

Meditation? Self-contemplation? I only wish I had the time. But who needs a guru like Tupac Chopra when you've got Zen in a box? I offered up my $3.50 and thought of the hermitage in the mountains of Big Sur I visited last year and about all those monks I saw, off on their silent retreats, getting in touch with their inner thems. Suckers. I thought of the woman in my yoga class whose body is decorated with star, heart, and flame tattoos, including one on her leg that says, "Desire," and on the other, "Succumb to Fate." Now I understood: Desire and Fate had brought me this shot at inner harmony; the only question was, how would inner harmony taste?

I got the box home and put it on my desk. Before experiencing the blast of mindfulness it seemed likely to contain, I had to make sure I wasn't kidding myself. I took the box to the Dharma Field Zen Center in Minneapolis, hoping for some guidance and affirmation. The sign in front of the building said, "Everybody Welcome," and gave the times of the daily meditation classes, which I totally ignored because I had found Zen in a box.

The front door was locked, so I rang the bell. As I waited for someone to come and show me the way, I drank in the Rumi quote painted above the door: "Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing, there is a field. I will meet you there." But only by appointment, apparently. Even though all the signs said the center opened at 11:00 a.m., there wasn't a soul around. I grabbed some brochures about meditation classes and other grokfests. Chances were I wouldn't need them, but you never know.

My life road next brought me to The Universal Marketplace in Minneapolis, which describes itself as "the space where people come to grow, whether it's personal growth, spiritual growth, or career growth. We are a growing community who has united to help one another grow in any way we can."

All those growths sounded like cancer to me, or at minimum morbid obesity. I suspected my new brand of 200-calories-per-serving epiphany (240 with milk) was a much better deal. Still, I needed someone wiser than me to give my plan a benediction, or at least tell me I no longer need to meditate while stuck in traffic. But The Universal Marketplace was also closed--in the middle of the day. Which got me to thinking two things: 1) What if someone had a soul emergency? And 2) This spiritual teacher-gig might be the best one going, in terms of sheer flexibility of schedule.

I peered in the window and saw a book for sale. On the cover, there was a picture of a very peaceful- and happy-looking man telling me, "You have the ability to consciously access infinite information, knowledge, and wisdom. Find accurate answers that will save you time, create more success, and increase your well-being." I couldn't see how much the book cost, but it was surrounded by crystals going for $27 a pop.

I considered the class schedule, taped on the door: "Reformatting Reality," "Through the Eyes of a Shaman," "A Course in Miracles," "Basic EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique)," and wondered if I could sign up to teach my own class: "No Guru, No Method, No Mess: Snap, Crackle, Bliss."

It occurred to me that perhaps I was meant to travel this road alone. Did I have the courage to seek real peace? I went home and cracked the box. I read the ingredients, the money one being ginger, of which the sacred cardboard text avowed, "Asian cultures have long believed ginger may have a cleansing effect, help digestion, and encourage inner harmony."

I poured the cereal into a bowl, topped it with a dash of spirit-milk, and dug in. I had a mouthful of sinking loneliness, piercing unrest, failures and fears and lusts and ambitions. And guilt over every bit of it. Now it would be compressed into a ball of soul-twine and spit out like a maharishi cat rolfing up a hairball.

I put the spoon to my lips. I was close to the flame, at the cliff's edge of my mystery date with inner harmony. I inhaled. I exhaled. I opened my mouth. I slid the Zen communion wafer onto my tongue.

It tasted like trail mix and stale gummy bears.


Jim Walsh can be reached at [email protected] or 612.372.3775.

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