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The Bodhi Tree and Community

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Bodhi is the Pali word for enlightenment.

Twenty-five hundred years ago, the story goes, The Buddha attained enlightenment following a week of meditating under a sacred fig tree with heart-shaped leaves in Bodh Gaya, India. When he stood up and gazed at the tree in gratitude, it became the Bodhi Tree.

Practicing Buddhist meditation -- and focusing in particular on the central tenets of impermanence and non-attachment -- has helped me enormously to deal with the inevitable disappointments of life. But I still felt pretty devastated when I learned that owners Phil Thompson and Stan Madson are closing the Bodhi Tree, their iconic 40 year-old West Hollywood bookstore that specializes in all things spiritual. It's sad but not surprising that the enterprise is a victim of the same forces -- the digital revolution and the corporatization and commodification of the arts -- that are decimating indie book and record stores all over the country.

I spent just about every Saturday afternoon of 1986-87 at the Bodhi Tree. I wasn't spiritual, just a transplanted New Yorker punishing myself for initiating my recent divorce by renting a dark, dank apartment a short walk from the store. It was the perfect place to kill time -- incense in the air, unreconstructed hippies standing in the doorway like gargoyles, thousands of books to peruse and interesting New Age honeys to be intimidated by.

I was in the throes of the part of psychoanalysis where the shrink tells you it has to get worse -- much worse -- before it gets better. So sometimes I'd spend a couple of hours in the psychology section, mocking Jung for sleeping with his patients and reading Freud's monumental The Interpretation of Dreams, still one of my all-time favorite books.

Other times I'd try to decode the messages I was getting from the "spiritual" women my friends fixed me up with. Though I couldn't find any books to explain why someone would claim she could make a certain Doris Day movie come on TV just by thinking about it, there were plenty of volumes with handy talking-points about various Eastern religions and philosophies and stuff like flotation tanks and laying on of hands.

Still other Saturdays were spent in miserable pursuit of trying to figure out what my boss -- who had a different spiritual epiphany every few weeks -- was talking about when he said nutty things, like "I can make it rain" or "Mike, A Course In Miracles is the greatest book of the 20th century." (Damn if it did rain when he said it would, but I don't think he'd read very many 20th century books, so how could he know about that?)

My first dose of Buddhism came from a series of talks at the Bohdi Tree annex next door. I don't remember who spoke, but the message was clear and potent: meditation -- sitting quietly and watching my thoughts come and go without judgment, even just for a few minutes a day -- might be my best hope for slowing the velocity of the pointless anxiety surging through my brain 24/7.

The store's owners plan to close up their irreplaceable enterprise -- an inspiring haven for thousands of Angelenos over the decades -- at the end of this year, and this presents a challenge: With all the real estate getting gobbled up by the chains -- and email, Twitter and Facebook dominating social interactions -- we need to find other ways to create community in Los Angeles.

We can't recreate the magic of The Bodhi Tree, and thankfully it'll be around for the rest of the year so we can say our long goodbyes. But Google "spirituality in Los Angeles" and you'll find a plethora of new possibilities for learning and connecting. And maybe it's time to start or join a meditation group, salon, discussion group or reading club.

The good news about the law of impermanence is that all bad things -- and feelings -- also come to an end.