Love in the grocery aisles: mindfulness and compassion

About eight years ago, I attended a brief women’s metta retreat. Following a weekend of meditation and near silence, re-entry back into the “real world” proved surprisingly difficult even though I’d participated in previous retreats.

The challenge started once I left the rural retreat center and attempted to merge onto the freeway. I found that I couldn’t force myself to drive any faster than thirty-five miles per hour – big problem, even in the slow lane! Drivers swerved around me, honking their horns.  Eventually, but oh so slowly, I increased my speed and somehow made it safely home.

Later that day, I visited a crowded grocery store, one that I usually dreaded. However, that afternoon, I felt something inexplicable arise within me from the moment I pushed my rickety cart through the grungy automatic doors and gazed around at the sea of shoppers. An unfamiliar emotion, something that I’d never experienced in that grocery store before.

I felt love.

I stopped, just inside the entrance. Once again blocking traffic, this time in the middle of apples and bananas and pears. Shoppers streamed around me and each person resembled someone I’d just said goodbye to at the retreat center mere hours earlier.

It didn’t matter that most of these shoppers wouldn’t ever step foot inside a meditation hall. It didn’t matter that we were literally strangers. In that moment, all I saw – or rather, felt – was our intimate connection. How we belonged to one giant, human (shopping) family. I practically swooned with this revelation. How could I have missed this? My heart broke crazy wide-open with love; I wanted to hug every person in the store.

Instead, I finished my shopping. But while the people around me filled their carts with produce, I loved on them without their knowing and maybe they left the store with more than groceries. (Or maybe they didn’t and that’s okay, too.)

I’ve thought about this experience often, over the years.

Fast forward to the current COVID-19 pandemic. In mid-March, after the stay-in-place orders were issued in my state, my first grocery run was to a different store. I walked through deserted aisles, past half-empty shelves, while stressed-out store employees scurried from place to place. Most of us customers avoiding eye contact. A few people already wearing makeshift masks.

This time, I won’t tell you that I stood in the middle of a grocery aisle and felt my heart burst open with love. Quite the opposite, in fact. I was squarely in the red zone.

The check-out line was a small disaster. I clumsily bagged my own groceries while I chatted up the white-haired female cashier, oblivious to the long line growing behind me. And then I barked at another shopper who had moved too close to me as I tried to finish my credit card transaction. Afterwards, I fled to my car with my groceries. I sat behind the wheel, applied my hand sanitizer, and tried not to cry.

Could these two experiences be any more different?

In the recent edition of Sun magazine, a poem about life “two weeks after a silent retreat” struck a chord. In the poet’s lines, I recognized the revelation from my first grocery aisle experience.

Lately, I’ve decided to form a mindful intention when I enter stores, beginning in the parking lot, or ideally, before I leave home. I listen to one of the mindful self-compassion guided exercises or practice the three-minute breathing space or engage in savoring in nature practice or offer myself self-compassionate touch (while trying not to touch my face!).

My practice continues with a silent wish of loving-kindness, directed toward the shoppers and the workers I encounter – and myself:

May you be safe, may you be happy, may you be healthy, may you live with ease. 

And I make eye contact – despite and especially because of the masks that we now wear for the protection of others. Without speaking, I want those in the store around me to know: I see you. We’re in this together.

At some point in the future, the pandemic will end. We will merge back onto the freeway of our lives, although I can’t anticipate what might change even in the next few weeks.

Yet, many things haven’t changed. Mindfulness and self-compassion practices are still available, and indeed, these tools remain just as essential as food. Nature is still open. Acts of kindness are all around us – and hopefully, alive within us as well.

And I pray that we each of us has the opportunity to be swept off our feet, at least occasionally – in the grocery aisles, in our gardens, on our meditation cushions, or through our Zoom screens.

Note: a version of this post has been sent out to my Mindful Self-Compassion community’s newsletter for publication at the end of this month. Stay safe and well, friends.