Every year, as the holidays roll round, I find myself again faced with the paradox of gift giving. Nearly everyone pays lip service to the notion that material values compromise the sense of contemplation, communion, and thanksgiving that should be uppermost in our spirits this season.
But however deeply you subscribe to the dictum that "it's not the gift, it's the thought that counts," an actual gift comes in handy, if only as material symbol of the thought. This isn't a problem if you share some special spiritual interest with the person you're gifting; then a copy of The Roswell Hoax or Feng Shui for Pets or A Commentary on the Yoga Sutra of Pata�i suggests itself.
But it gets tricky when you want to express support and admiration for a seeker but aren't all that familiar with the goals of the seeker's particular quest. Hit the right note, and you grow closer; miss by a little, and you get the spiritual equivalent of "I thought you knew I was diabetic/lactose-intolerant/observant/ vegan/in a 12-step program." Try for a safe compromise, and you end up with harmless, but also worthless, stuff like a Rumi desk calendar.
I personally have had better luck appealing to the spirit in the body rather than directly spirit to spirit. One person's gospel is the next person's woo-woo, but the body's not so choosy. And there's no better place to check out gear for the body aspirant than a shop called Zenith Supplies Inc. (6300 Roosevelt Way N.E., 525-7997).
Zenith is in the business of provisioning professional massage therapists, and you can spend a small fortune there on massage tables, massage chairs, and the like. But the store also stocks dozens of more modest mechanical aids to a more relaxed musculature: rollers, scratchers, indescribable knobby things designed to loosen up clenched feet and knotted shoulders.
There are also massage oils in bulk, some light as water, some thick as honey, and dozens of fragrance essences to scent them with. There are dried herbs, some familiar, some obscure, some suited for sachets and potpourri (hibiscus, orange blossom, raspberry leaf) and some (mullein? coltsfoot? valerian root?) that wouldn't look out of place on a Hogwarts student's shopping list. Not interested in making your own scented candles or soaps? How about your own bath bombs or lip balm? Zenith is a kitchen-chemist's dream shop, a place to let yourself go imagining a multimodal sensory surprise for a friend.
Speaking of sensory surprises: Have you ever considered giving a friend a massage?—by professional proxy, I mean. It's amazing how many people never consider treating themselves to a full-body massage, though there's no more flesh-and-soul-refreshing experience to be had. Most massage therapists will issue gift certificates. Ideally you should "give" the services of one whose hands-on worth you know, but you can find a roster of licensed practitioners at Zenith, too.
Zenith has a modest selection of books on the body-spirit link, but for a wider selection of tour guides and cookbooks for spiritual exercise, you need only walk a block up Roosevelt to East West Book Shop (6500 Roosevelt Way N.E., 523-3726). The array of alternative spiritual ideologies displayed on these shelves is bewildering. Even if you know your incipient giftee's particular mind-bent, with so many books to choose from on each subject, browsing's the only answer. But looking for the perfect item for someone else, you may find one for yourself.
I had that experience a couple of years ago. Seeking a straightforward, nondenominational introduction to Buddhist meditation for a friend, I encountered Seeking the Heart of Wisdom, a collaboration between two experts in Theravadan meditative practice, Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield. Concretely and temperately outlining the process of self-exploration called seated meditation, it's not just an introduction to the thought of a particular religious sect but a service manual for anyone who wants to understand their own mind.
Where Goldstein and Kornfield's book teaches you how to delve into the mulch inside you, there's another book that aims the opposite direction, aspiring to understand what role the phenomenon we call spirit plays in human life. Written over 100 years ago by a pragmatic scientific atheist, William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience is one of the greatest works ever written on the nature of the soul, right up there with the best of Nietzsche, St. Augustine, and Proust.
If you don't think books are appropriate for your spirit gift list, and body-related gear or goos wouldn't strike the right note, there's still music. For some reason, the finest composer of soul-calming and -warming music in our time, the man who taught a thousand New Age noodlers how to warble, is less well-known than any of them. Brian Eno's wryly titled Music for Airports created the "ambient music" genre, but it went much farther, showing how background music could be neither dulling nor distracting but focusing, clarifying. The ever-seeking Eno himself has moved on to ever-new areas of musico-technical research, but his Airports, Thursday Afternoon, and his collaboration with Harold Budd, The Plateaux of Mirror, remain touchstones, sounds that purify the ears and quiet the mind, refreshing us and renewing our ability to hear the music in the sound of the world's passing.