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Pancakes and Consciousness

In Search of Coffee… and the Shabby Reality of Consciousness

I’m going to attempt to take you on a journey from an extremely cold Airbnb boat in Weesp in the Netherlands through a momentary experience on a train, onto a small pancake shop outside Central Station in Amsterdam, and finally to what I am calling the shabby reality of consciousness. As I write this introduction I wonder if it will be possible to complete this journey, but with your permission, I would like to try, so let’s begin…

It’s 7.30 am and -2ºC and the unheated ‘cabin’ on my Airbnb boat abruptly propels me into wakefulness, or so I think. After 20 minutes of hatted and coated mindfulness practice, I head off to a local cafe to find a warm cappuccino and some much-anticipated breakfast. 

It’s Saturday and they don’t open until 9.00 am! 

I walk to the train station to find my elusive first coffee of the day and then catch a train to Amsterdam Central. 

This cafe doesn’t open until 10.00 am!  

So, I buy a ticket and walk onto the platform and find it shrouded in cold mist making us waiting passengers look like ghosts in a black and white gothic horror movie. The train arrives and I sit down opposite another passenger, both of us embraced by the welcome warmth of the carriage. This passenger and I look kind of similar, slightly unshaven, beanies on our heads, pseudo adventure coats around our torsos, jeans on our legs, and brown boots on our feet. The only real difference is that he is obviously younger and less weathered by life. I notice I’m a little envious of him. I sometimes have this futile wish to head back into my younger years and try again.  

Then something happens that is so disconcerting that it takes my breath away and shocks me to what I imagine might be my core. It is something that seems totally unconscious, habitual, and automatic. It was almost as if I had not really woken up while on the boat. The moment we are comfortable in our seats we both reach into our pockets and with the smooth movement and flow of well-trained ballet dancers we take out our phones, swipe to gain access, and focus our attention on the screen, alert to the potential notifications that remind us that someone or something thinks I am alive. Wow! For me, there was no conscious decision, no awareness, and presence in the moment. I see myself mirrored in the person opposite me, catch myself in motion, close my phone, catch my breath, notice the judgment I have projected onto my fellow passenger and then look at the scenery out of the window and reflect on the nature of my being. Is this what I am, a series of automated unconscious responses, a sleepwalking bundle of neuroreceptors? As both a possibility and a current reality this feels uncomfortable, unsettling, so obvious and so, so scary. 

Well, that’s the first two parts of the journey, but what about the pancake shop and shabby consciousness

 Having time to waste after a much appreciated- if only semi-hot- breakfast I take the passenger ferry to North Amsterdam. It’s a little quieter here. I know of a cafe where I can sit and continue my reflections. The winter moisture hovering above the river’s surface reminds me that it is not always possible to see all things all of the time. 

One thing that I had not seen was, the cafe does not open until 11.00 am!

Amersterdam Pancakes

I return to Amsterdam Central to seek a tourist-free cafe that is open and during the short ferry ride a sign on a small slightly shabby building emerges from the mist on the river bank: 15 years of Amsterdam Pancakes. Nothing unusual about that, you might say. Amsterdam has many pancake cafes, yet there is something that doesn’t quite make sense about this sign and the building it is attached to. I can see people sitting at tables eating and drinking (some cafes do open before 12.00 pm), and then I see what it is, the cafe is in the middle of a building site. There is a security fence all around the perimeter of the land where the cafe is situated, diggers are digging, builders are building, managers are managing, and lorries are… (can’t think what the verb of lorry is, sorry) and all the time the cafe is still being 15 years of Amsterdam Pancakes.  

I smile and wonder if the owners of the Amsterdam Pancake have decided to stay due to:

  • A positive obstinance, a deliberate act of rebellion against the updating of the riverbank facilities. 
  • A head in the sand and fear-driven reaction to an inevitable tide of progress
  • A harsh financial reality that means moving to a different location is not possible 

Or, maybe, just maybe, Amsterdam Pancakes is ok being Amsterdam Pancakes, a little shabby space in the middle of a busy building site. There is no need or desire to be anything more than it has been for the last 15 years: Amsterdam Pancakes. 

So a cold Airbnb boat, a brief moment on a train, (3 closed cafes), 15 years of Amsterdam Pancakes, and what was it I said at the start? The shabby reality of consciousness… there is some leap yet to make. 

Let’s imagine for a minute that the latter of the 4 choices for 15 years of Amsterdam is true and that the owners of 15 years of Amsterdam Pancakes are truly aware of the cafe’s place in the world;  they are not drawn to it being anything other than what they and it is, a slightly shabby presence in an ever-changing context. 

There is something powerful about the image of this small cafe being what it has always been, yet now surrounded by busyness, security fences, and change. It makes me wonder what the slightly shabby constant is that sits within my busyness, emotional and mental fences, and constant shifting that is life.

  • What is the thing that experiences and notices my automated reaching for my phone? 
  • What is the thing that notices my projecting judgments onto others? 
  • What is the thing that notices my not being really awake? 
  • What is the thing that notices my reflections on my own reality?

What if that slightly shabby thing that is constant is consciousness? The thing that will not move or change: not because it is obstinate, or holds no fear of change, or is not interested in gain but because it can’t. It is fully constant because that is what and how it is. Whatever digging, building, managing, ‘lorrying’ happens around it, whatever fences are put up to contain it, it will remain what it is; shabby consciousness, or in this story, 15 years of Amsterdam Pancakes.


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