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Coffeehouse Stories: An awakening in Arlington

You have to know John Michel a little while before he reveals the secret in his pocket.

He carries it everywhere, day and night. He is sitting with it at the Java Shack coffee house in Arlington. Every few moments, he looks up from his book, breathes deeply and gazes out the window at the busy morning traffic on Wilson Boulevard.

“The present moment, the now is all we really have,” he says.

Michel is 61 years old. He is a retired Navy supply officer, and he lives near the Pentagon. He is totally bald; the sunlight filtering through the window shines his head. Though he doesn’t watch TV, Michel has been told more than once that he looks like John Locke, from the TV show “Lost,” so he checked out some photos of the character. He confirmed the resemblance.

Michel is interrupted while reading “A New Earth: Awakening Your Life’s Purpose,” by Eckhart Tolle, a spiritual teacher and lecturer. Wikipedia says that “Tolle had an unhappy childhood in Germany and Spain, and was depressed as an adult in England until he underwent what he calls an ‘inner transformation.’”

Michel is on page 251. He just read this: “Your inner body is not solid but spacious. It is not your physical form but the life that animates the physical form.”

He likes those sentences a lot but goes back to some others a few pages earlier: “You will find that by feeling the subtle flow of air in and out of the body as well as the rise and fall of your chest and abdomen, you are also becoming aware of the inner body.”

Michel breathes deeply a lot. At a table across the shop, another customer is multitasking -- he’s on the phone, pecking a keyboard, trying not to spill his iced coffee, running a business. Another customer taps on her iPhone. Judging by her face, whatever she is doing is very, very important.

“It’s easy to focus on the past or the future, but it’s really hard to focus on what’s happening right now,” he says. “We don’t focus on the now.”

He discovered as he swam every morning, he would think about the past or what he had to do in the future and he could not feel the water on his body, whether it was even warm or cold, or how his arms felt stroke after stroke. “Did I even swim?” he would think to himself afterward.

A school bus passes by outside. Someone is parallel parking a Jeep. Someone honks.
Above the window, there is a framed picture of Java Shack owner Dale Roberts, with his shirt off, holding a machine gun, in Vietnam. (That really isn’t him in the photo. “That’s Photoshopped,” he says.) On the other wall, there is a still life painting of three pears. The painter is Anne Browne. The painting is selling for $425.

“I feel relaxed when I’m here,” Michel says. “I think it’s peaceful. I’m just trying to live in the moment, to be more spiritual.”

The ceiling fans create a nice breeze. Suddenly it’s overcast outside. The shop is crowded, but quiet. There is no music. Michel has been sober for some 20 years. He takes out a small medallion from his pocket that reads: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

By Michael S. Rosenwald  | July 28, 2010; 6:31 PM ET
Categories:  Local Life, coffee house newsroom  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Coffeehouse Stories: Crossing borders in Gaithersburg
Next: Coffeehouse Stories: Two decades of wisdom in Del Ray


The Java Shack used to be the headquarters of the American Nazi Party back in the '60s.

Posted by: ronjaboy | July 29, 2010 7:08 AM | Report abuse

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