Hold It Lightly

The happenings that remind us of the uncertainty of life are usually big and often unwelcome. I had the good fortune to experience a simple one over the past couple of weeks—being on call for jury duty for a court that was three hours away.

I had to check in one day to see whether I needed to serve the next, but if I was called, I would be sleeping in a hotel that night and possibly for the rest of the week. All the activities on my calendar would be cancelled, and no work would get done.

My approach the first week was to not plan or prepare. I didn’t buy groceries because I might not be home to eat them. I neither made new plans with friends nor cancelled existing ones.

The second week I made tiny plans, such as if I’m called, I’ll try to get together with friends in L.A.; if not, I’ll cook a pot of beans. And then for perhaps the first time in my life, I held the outcome lightly. I didn’t expect either the visit or the beans to happen, didn’t develop a preference for staying home or traveling to L.A.

A friend often recommends holding whatever we’re aiming toward lightly, but until last week I had no understanding of how to put that idea into practice. In losing my ability to pretend I knew what the next day would hold, I could see that my knowing was an illusion to begin with.

Every day our lives could be profoundly different when we wake up in the morning, but we live as if we know exactly what we’re going to do the next day. To some extent, this is necessary. We need to buy groceries after all, but there’s an openness that comes with remaining conscious of the uncertain nature of our existence.

It reminds me of how one would hold a small, injured bird—gently, with an open hand so as not to hurt or scare it. You might take the bird home and put it in a box. Perhaps it will recover, perhaps it will die. Or, as you’re carrying it, it might shake itself and fly right out of your hand, surprising you both.

Take a Drink

We have so many beautiful ways to pay attention.

I heard an interview with David Barrie who wrote a book about animal navigation and all the different ways animals find their way—light, the pattern of waves, the Earth’s magnetic field, and many more. Animals know that their survival depends on paying attention. I’ve never seen a distracted, non-human animal.

We humans, on the other hand, tend to believe that what’s going on in our head is reality instead of attending to what exists around us so that we can discover reality.

My sister sent me an announcement about some paintings that are currently showing in a gallery nearby. I was in the same part of town as the gallery yesterday but didn’t even remember to look for, much less at, the paintings. My mind was occupied with the list of tasks I’d decided on for the evening.

One morning I poured myself a cup of assam tea but thought I had brewed some Earl Grey. For the first few sips I couldn’t figure out why the tea tasted bad. The tea tasted fine, but the flavor didn’t meet my expectations. We often ask the question, “What does such and such taste like?” wanting to fit it into a pre-existing category. Instead, we could take a drink wondering, “What is the taste of this tea?”

We have the capacity to plan for the future and remember and learn from the past, but we live in the present. Right now, the beauty of the world is yearning to relate to us. Right now we can hear the mockingbird showing off his repertoire. At this moment, we can walk through the dew on the grass, feel wetness, and look back to see the impression our miraculous feet made, dark against the startling green.

And maybe, if we’re still and silent enough, we’ll remember the pull of Earth’s magnetism.

Just This Minute

Yesterday felt like altogether too much before I even got out of bed, and then a small voice inside said, “Just this minute.” As in, live only this minute that you are actually experiencing right now.

I often worry about whether I’ll have time to do everything in the evening as I’m packing my lunch at 7 a.m. Sometimes, to bring myself back to the present, I focus on why I’m here, but that doesn’t always work that well.

I’m not sure why is a useful question. It puts us directly into figuring-it-out mode, and no matter what answer we come up with, we can then evaluate ourselves on the basis of that answer. But evaluation is too limited to be our main tool in this life. Our existence is much richer than reason will allow.

It’s almost impossible to conclude we are an incredible success or a massive failure in a minute, regardless of what criteria we’ve chosen. Perhaps this is why wisdom traditions recommend staying present—it keeps us from thinking life is about something other than living.

“Being present” could answer the question, how do I live my life? Or how do I life my life most fully?

When making a decision, Jim Finley recommends asking the question, all things considered, what’s the most loving thing I can do right now—for myself, for the person I’m talking with, for anyone who will be affected by my decision? The “right now” part of that advice is important. Not in an ideal world, not if things were different, not if I had my act together, but right now.

Choosing to live in the minute we’re in may be one of the most loving things we can do at any time. It removes so much of what may motivate us other than love and reminds us that, no matter what else may be going on at the moment, we are alive. This is the gift from and through which all other gifts flow, and it is cause for great rejoicing.

The Joy of Presence

Instead of a license plate holder that says, “I’d rather be golfing” or “I’d rather be hiking.” I want one that says, “I’d rather be present.”

All the great spiritual traditions recommend dwelling in the here and now (or at least, as in the old Trident commercial, four out of five do). I tend to view being present as an accomplishment to attain, but maybe it’s simply a joyful place to be.

When we’re present, we can see that creation is one big current of love. Trees are manifesting love in tree form, grass in grass form.

Even we humans, confused as we are, walk around as electric charges of love. It seems improbable amidst all the horrors that we inflict on each other and on the Earth, but if it’s true of the hollyhock and the quail, it must be true of us. What else could we be when we are manifestations of God, of Infinite Love?

It’s easy to mythologize being present, seeing it as a state of perfection in which our mind is quiet and focused and our emotions are tranquil. While I’ll certainly take that when it comes, maybe presence is simpler than we think. Maybe all it requires is holding to a vision of life as it is, which is love.

Love does not make everything OK in the way we are accustomed to think of it. It doesn’t erase suffering or loss or insulate us from them, but as Jim Finley says, it offers “freedom from suffering in the midst of suffering.” It shows us the beauty of the bigger picture, the unchangeable nature of our and reality’s true identity regardless of the current circumstances.

Being present—being love to ourselves and others and recognizing love as the nature of all creation—is available to each of us every moment of every day, and it’s the most joyful choice we can make.

Choosing What Is

I spend a lot of time with the “should”s and the “have to”s. They’re not the most fun group to hang out with, but they’re very insistent.

In a recent meditation, Richard Rohr wrote, “Trapped people have to do what they want to do. Free people want to do what they know they have to do.” I’m quite adept at turning activities I enjoy into tasks that carry some vague but ominous consequence if not completed. I have to go to farmers market. I have to email my friends. Or what? I’ll buy vegetables at the grocery store, God forbid, but I invest that event with such power to define me.

On the other hand, I have a few friends who are caring or cared for loved ones with various health problems with great good will. I’m sure they have their moments of frustration and despair, but they maintain and return to an underlying gratitude for the other person and for being able to care for him or her. Though they choose their actions, the deeper choice is in how they continue to live out these relationships in their hearts.

“You are only free when you have nothing to protect and nothing you need to prove or defend,” Rohr says. He is describing how to live in the present. Protecting, proving, and defending our ideas of who we are prevent us from showing up as ourselves. If we are trying to be someone or something else, we cannot enter into what’s actually happening.

What we are is freely given love, and what’s happening is a movement of love constantly creating all that is. The only true choice is to choose what is, a dialogue facilitator once said. When we choose the love that we are, we will see that all we have to do is love, and we will want nothing more.

None of us are capable of living this way all the time, or perhaps even much of the time, but we can practice, we can remember and return. “Admittedly, it takes a while to get there,” Rohr says. It’s a journey worth setting out on.

Still Life with Jello

I often ask my cat, Tux, questions he must be completely uninterested in, such as, what did I do with my keys? Others he may be tired of hearing, particularly, do you think I’ll ever get there?

“There” of course doesn’t mean to his food bowl; it means to that mythical place where I’ll have everything spiritually figured out. These days I ask it less often as I’m more and more aware that there doesn’t exist, but still, wouldn’t it be nice…

That question and I entered a new phase of our relationship this week. Intellectually I’ve understood for a little while that it’s not a useful question because “there’s no there there,” but in practice, I had just substituted “here” for “there.” Why not? Only one small letter apart.

I’ve been telling myself, if I could get really present, I would experience everything I associate with there—an uninterrupted state of peace, infinite reserves of compassion, an end to resistance, a better attitude toward the existence of jello. So being present came to mean being those ways. It became another there.

But that’s not it at all. There’s nowhere to go, period, and it doesn’t matter whether we get there, not even a tiny bit. On first blush, this sounds like a reason to eat a lot of jello, lime jello. Throw in the mini marshmallows and the pineapple bits. If it’s not getting any better than this, why not?

Considered in another way, though, it means that this moment is sacred, this one, right here, the one in which I am beating myself up or feeling annoyed or have just acted in a way that can’t quite be described as charitable. When the bathroom is dirty, when work isn’t going well, when failure or separation or despair threaten to engulf us.

That’s the miracle and mystery of it all. We are no further from God and God’s love at those times than when we are standing on the podium of life at our most shining and impressive. That’s the reason to be present—because our Life is here, right here.

Tuning into the Divine Frequency

Life would be so much easier if fulfillment could be found in exterior things. The world’s most amazing piece of chocolate cake exists somewhere, so find it and bam! you’re done. Mission accomplished. Life well lived. Carefree from here on out.

But nothing outside of our selves—space intended—will ever satisfy us, a reality that can cause a lot of joy or a lot of suffering.

So many things seem as if they describe or comprise our selves but don’t: our accomplishments, our responsible-ness, our moral conduct, others’ opinions of us. Sometimes, though, we really mess up all of these things—I mean really, or at least I do—and so they can’t be who we are.

What’s left when everything our society teaches us to value or work toward is not us? In a recent meditation, Richard Rohr writes, “Gospel holiness…is almost entirely about receiving God’s free gift of compassion, mercy, and forgiveness.” Or to put it another way in another tradition, “We don’t need to look outside of the present moment to find inner peace and contentment; when experienced with awareness, everything becomes a source of joy,” according to Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche.

This sounds great but can be frustrating because there’s nothing we can do to make ourselves happy or become who we want to be once and for all. We are more than anything else receptors, and the best we can do is attune ourselves to the divine frequency, a station that only plays in the present moment.

“I am a hole in a flute that the Christ’s breath moves through,” says the Sufi poet Hafiz. When we allow that music to flow through us, our actions become notes in the divine song—natural expressions of our true selves. I suspect this receiving and giving is better than chocolate cake.