It has been years since I had a shower.
By this I mean a shower enclosure in my home. When I built my little house in the big woods, I installed a 100-year-old clawfoot with a cranberry-red exterior. Found on Craigslist, it’s provenance was a Victorian house in north Portland. Both my contractor and plumber tried to talk me out of it, calling it impractical—the tub was heavy, old and worn, and challenging to install. Yet while this was true, they couldn’t see their misguided motives, clearly the result of too little bath-taking. They encouraged me to install a generic shower enclosure with a bathtub. But anyone who’s tried to recline in such enclosures knows the tubs don’t conform to the human body, being we are not shaped like praying mantises.
I have a penchant for submerging in water. Though it’s indulgent, I bathe every morning, and soak in an outdoor mineral-salt hot tub every night (my friend Shonna suggests I’m a selkie—a seal-person in Irish mythology). Submerged in water is, for me, the most sublime posture, and both tubs invite prayer and staring off into the woods. While in high school, my daughter did prefer showers. To prove my tolerance, I installed a curtain enclosure and shower head over the clawfoot. But now she’s a bather, thanks be to God. My husband converted as well. I removed the curtain and showerhead years ago, for why preserve the sham of harboring shower-takers?
Bathing slows people down. Hot water makes us soporific, a feeling unappealing to those rushing to get out the door. Bathing requires rising early, taking it slow. One must wait for the water to run. Who has time for this? … Who doesn’t? If you have a tub you fit into (some are simply too tall), you’ll find few cheaper pleasures or better therapies.
Jon Kabat-Zinn speaks of cultivating intimacy with the spaciousness of our minds, and bathtubs are a great place to practice this. What he describes is an old practice known as “contemplation” in religion. It assumes our minds are spacious, and that we become intimate with that spaciousness—noticing it, feeling how it feels, observing our thoughts, listening for wisdom’s quiet whisperings—as we practice presence. I would align this spacious kind of “mind” with the unconscious mind—the part of us most conducive to (a conduit for) Spirit. On the other hand, the conscious mind is the part most unkempt and cramped, like an old filing cabinet. It is where we store learnings that we are aware of, our neurosis, fears, and prejudices, as well as fact-learning, positive emotion, memories. As the conduit for Spirit, our unconscious minds are as vast and spacious as the universe (while also harboring the cerebral space-junk we are unaware of). Intimacy with the unconscious offers endless possibility for inspiration, insight, and growth.
We can also cultivate intimacy with the less spacious parts of our minds, however—the cramped attics where hoarding of life’s clutter leaves little room to navigate. If we don’t go into the attic with the intention to acknowledge the mess and clean it up, we forever struggle with disquiet and act out of confusion.
Without time to listen introspectively, I become agitated. Usually the agitation comes from feelings I haven’t acknowledged and felt, or from insights Spirit is trying to teach me that I need space to see/hear/absorb. Surveying the world around me, I sense a lot of disquiet, and expect this stems from a lack of contemplation in modern life. I am an introvert, so the need for solitude and introspective recharging is pronounced in me. Yet one of my close friends is a consummate extrovert and she too requires contemplation to hone in on precisely what needs processing—even if she ultimately processes verbally.
The ego (the illusive sense of a “separate self” we feel we must guard and promote; the vehicle ushering our own kernel of eternal Spirit through this world) is forever concocting expectations out of what we want and think we deserve, incessantly reaching for rewards. When the ego isn’t satisfied we have a sense of disquiet. Only moments of true listening and contemplative observation allow us to see what’s happening, how we’ve been led down another rabbit trail of expectation and reaching, so we can stop and remember we are cared for. Most importantly, contemplation reminds us to take a deep breath and trust.
Contemplation or thoughtful, mindful listening is different from the deluge of endless self-absorbed thought-babble the conscious mind serves up in heaps, like food at a cheap, small-town smorgasbord. Some thought-babble happens all the time whether we get quiet or not. It happens while we’re giving directions, while we’re “conversing” with our siblings, while we’re watching TV or our kids’ soccer game, while we’re collectively praying in church or trying to meditate. But if we’re able to observe and notice the thought-babble, it somehow loses momentum and quiets down. Such observation is called “mindfulness.” Next time you’re worrying what your co-worker thinks about you (for example), stop and take note: “Interesting. I am worrying what Agnes thinks about me again.” And every time you take note, the thought’s ability to run away with you diminishes. Babble thrives on being unwatched.
Thought-babble even takes place while we are (gasp!) bathing. Since contemplation isn’t our human default, it requires not just being in quiet and space, but doing so with a bit of intention and awareness. It usually requires experience with contemplation. I personally find baths to be great for such practices. But for others, walking may be more conducive, or sitting in a quiet room, lying in bed, cooking a meal alone, even dancing.
My cats are models of quiet presence. Lately I’ve been travelling with them on weekends, packing them in crates and taking them to Mom’s while I rent my cottage on AirBnB. They are not thrilled with this arrangement, thank you very much. But when we return and I open the crate doors, letting them hop from the car onto home turf, they are fully present. They don’t spend the whole week fearing the next time they’ll be absconded to the car, replaying grievances over and over in their heads. They just experience the week—or the moments that comprise the week—whether they’re curled up on the porch, sleeping in shards of sunlight that cut through the windows, watching vigilantly for the neighbor-dog, hunting hapless creatures lower on the food chain, or being doted on by me. Sometimes Lupe even visits while I’m bathing. If I’m in the hot tub, he bats the water with his paw and licks it to taste the salt.
Now that is a good metaphor for contemplation, come to think of it: dipping in and tasting the salt. Life is full of flavor. And we are here to taste it.