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.

This Gift We Are Living

Thanksgiving is probably the wisest of our national holidays. President’s Day can’t quite transform our outlook or way of approaching the world the way gratitude does.

Perhaps gratitude sparks such a profound shift because it puts us in touch with the truth that every moment and every molecule of this life are freely and mysteriously given to us. Here are a few of the innumerable things for which my heart breathes a deep thank you:

The repetitive and enduring nature of patience—all the times we choose not to take a mistake too seriously, every time we remember that people are more important than outcomes, each hopeful beginning again, the infinite grounding of the world in Mercy.

The expanse of Reality—the Earth, the sun, the Milky Way traveling through space at 1.3 million miles per hour, the billions of other galaxies shaped like ours, the personal imperfections we will never overcome, our incalculable and inexplicable generosity toward other beings, the presence of God in all of it.

The daily amazements—the cat’s ability to jump onto the countertop, the whir of the hummingbird’s wings, the welcome from the giant sycamore tree near the University Union, the refreshing burst of a good laugh, the reliable supply of food in the grocery store coupled with the economic means to purchase it.

This graced and charged existence we share—this breathing, this intertwining of lives, this shaping one another, this distinct being here amid the myriad possibilities that could have arisen.

The people who bless my life—family, friends, coworkers, writers who died years ago and left their thoughts behind, restaurant servers, my mechanic, you reading this.

Happy Thanksgiving. May we all live in the wonder of this gift of existing.

Of Dentistry and Dulcimers

Yesterday, I started with a visit to the dentist and wrapped up the evening listening to a concert of Hungarian hammered dulcimer and vocals. I never would have believed beforehand that I’d find the same thing at both events.

My general attitude toward getting my teeth cleaned is resentment. Surprisingly, thinking that I shouldn’t have to waste my time in the dentist’s chair does not prevent plaque and tartar from growing in my mouth. My hygienist is extremely conscientious and always tells me places of concern to brush or floss more thoroughly, which I rarely appreciate because I don’t want to spend any more time on the nightly routine than I already do.

Yesterday I was lying there with my mouth open in my usual resentful way thinking that I would hate to spend the day looking at other people’s mouths when it occurred to me what a tremendous gift my hygienist was giving me. It is utterly amazing that someone is willing to stick her fingers in my mouth and scrape plaque off my teeth. It is remarkably generous that she cares enough about other people’s teeth to remind me over and over again to take my time flossing.

At the recital in the evening, the two musicians did twenty or so pieces, and the dulcimer player looked at his music for only one of them. About halfway through, I was thinking, musicians are incredible—how do they keep all that music in their head at once? I couldn’t do that. Then once again an awareness of the immensity of the gift they were giving us in the audience hit me. These musicians were willing to share their abilities with whoever happened to walk through the door.

Before yesterday, I wouldn’t have equated resentment and admiration, but it turns out they can sometimes both be about me. They prevent me from seeing and appreciating the generosity of those around me, from receiving the gifts they are literally pouring out.

What We’re Given

For those who have been anxiously awaiting the fate of THE REPORT, we dropped it in the big UPS box Monday afternoon, and it miraculously arrived at its multiple destinations, including Hawaii, the next day. I have added whoever invented overnight delivery to my list of personal heroes.

giant smiley face on garage door
My mom's reaction to our finishing the report. Yes, that is my garage door.

As I worked a few long days on the final details, it occurred to me that worrying so much about a report is a great luxury. People worry about much more serious things in this world: having enough to eat, living through the sickness or death of a family member, ending a relationship, avoiding land mines. In this context, I consider being allowed the time and energy to shape a piece of research and writing as perfectly as possible an extraordinary gift.

Gifts like this don’t always appear immediately useful. They don’t end world hunger or stop gang violence. Those of us who worked on the report hope it will lead to improvements; it may or may not. The effort must somehow contain its own merit.

A few years ago, a group of Tibetan monks came to campus and constructed an exquisite mandala. After a week of painstaking work, they prayed over it then destroyed it and carried the sand to a local creek to be washed out to sea—a lesson in impermanence. Knowing the mandala’s end didn’t deter the monks from studying for years to learn the art, from paying attention to each grain they placed, or from creating a work of stunning beauty.

I am not claiming that our report has the spiritual significance of a mandala, and I hope it doesn’t get washed out to sea or even accidentally deleted from the server. I like to think, though, that we made good use of the time we were given, that we honored it by producing something good. Because what is there to do with a gift but accept it?