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.

How to Cultivate Pervasive Unsatisfactoriness

This week, my life kindly provided a perfect demonstration of what Buddhist teaching calls “pervasive unsatisfactoriness.” Sometimes this idea is translated as “suffering,” but not being satisfied better describes my habitual state of mind so much of the time. The Buddha does not recommend this state, in case you’re wondering.

But if you want to try it out and your unsatisfactoriness is not pervasive enough, if you feel enlightenment creeping up on you, here’s a quick way to fix that. Start by getting attached to an outcome, say, catching the van to work. Any outcome will do, but if you want to try the advanced track, choose an additional outcome that makes the first one difficult to achieve, say, sending a particular email before leaving the house. Now—and this is the tricky part—base your happiness on attaining both of these outcomes. Finally, sit back and watch as your peace of mind evaporates.

I had front row seats at this show while driving to the van stop at the last possible minute. For one block, the SUV in front of me drove at a glacial twenty-eight miles per hour, and my life was ruined. Then he turned, leaving the road empty before me. The sun burst from behind a cloud. The bluebirds lined up to sing a chorus in the magnolia trees. Life was looking up. Then I checked the clock and returned to panic.

The lightning quick change in my outlook showed me that we really are making it all up. In the space of a few seconds, I went from crushed to rejoicing and back again. Our states of mind and emotion are often no more lasting, no more substantial than that, yet they’re so convincing that we mistake them for reality.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t have emotions or that we shouldn’t recognize the emotions we have, but we might not always want to take them so seriously. Sometimes they indicate a deeper reality, and sometimes, like this time, we use them to keep ourselves dissatisfied.

“Right now, it’s like this,”—as an unattributed quote I saw recently said—is the only road toward satisfactoriness. We need to remember both parts: “right now,” not forever; “like this,” not the way we wish it were. From that place, we can act effectively and—here’s the tricky part again—leave the outcome to God.

Now

This is not an easy world to live in. A glance at any of the “Top Stories of 2016” lists will tell you that, but smaller, everyday occurrences reminded me of this truth at the beginning of 2017.

A friend’s grandma died. I learned another friend will undergo five months of chemotherapy. A third friend wrote about caring for his wife who is losing her memory.

Why start a year this way? Because it is the way the year has started.

These are not simple stories. On one hand, they tell of physical suffering, loss, grief. On the other, my friend’s grandma lived a good life; the cancer is not fatal; husband and wife still connect in beautiful ways.

These events hold pain and grace, and though we think of them as out of the ordinary when they happen to us, many people share these experiences every day. Their regularity does not diminish them. They are not war or famine, but they are hard.

A few years ago, a similar coincidence of the sad and the difficult inspired me to write this poem:

My Friends

One runs machine gun-guarded laps
around Bagram.
Two looks through the locked
door of her dad’s descent
into Alzheimer’s.
Three waits with her husband
for the report that will
read leukemia.
Four searches for her mother
after Fukushima—
fifteen thousand missing.

Today I saw a kestrel dive. His
wings stopped the world before
breaking through
bright green grass. My friends,
I will hold those wings for you.

We can do small, important things, like bring food, but most of all we can be present to the time and place and circumstances we live in and the people and other beings we live with, not forever, but for now. And now is all we have to offer. If we give it unreservedly, it may not change anything, but it will be enough.

As I hung up the phone after speaking with my friend who has cancer, I heard the first drops of rain falling on our parched California earth, and I felt deep joy—the resonance of beauty in our souls. All this is happening now.