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.
The present is a nice place. I would give it five stars on TripAdvisor. I visited there recently and hope to return soon.
The casual observer of the inside of my brain might conclude I own a time machine. A quick tour would reveal imagined futures that often affect my life as if they were real: fear about how current projects will turn out, conversations that will never happen, infinite lists of unfinished tasks. And of course a small corner reserved for the chocolate radar.
Driving to work one day, all of that fell away through no particular effort of my own, and for a mile or two, I inhabited the space and time called now. The reality of the same pine trees, the same ocean, the same freeway I see every day suddenly broke through the usual fog I hang over my mind and senses.
My version of the present is narrow, but the actual present is spacious. I tend to see now as a place I’m passing through on the way to somewhere better or somewhere I’m supposed to be, but it is all that is. It is the only thing that’s real.
The future of my own creating is a shadowland. Right now is a force, a power, a beauty that we miss going about our everyday lives trying to get to what comes next.
Of course we have to plan and work toward things. All animals do this. But we tend to focus on the destination to the exclusion of where we are, and the destination we imagine does not exist and never will.
May the present break through for all of us and may we dwell in the spaciousness of the real.
Don’t take the cheese out of the refrigerator until you’re ready to slice it. That’s my deep spiritual insight for the week.
It came about when, you guessed it, I took the cheese out of the refrigerator, thinking I’d do two quick things and then cut up some dairy goodness to take to work the next day. I have no idea what or how many things I did, but by the time I got to the cheese, it had started to wilt.
Every day I create an itinerary for each hour in my head, and every day, it doesn’t go that way. I mean every, single day.
Often around 5 p.m. I think with a tinge of confusion or surprise, wow, that didn’t go as planned. Existence consistently moves along in ways we cannot predict as we trail after saying, huh, I didn’t think it would happen that way, even though it has never once happened the way we envisioned it. It is so difficult to learn that we are not in charge.
Maybe the late Irish poet John O’Donohue was having a cheese moment when he wrote the short poem “Fluent”:
I would love to live
Like a river flows,
Carried by the surprise
Of its own unfolding.
What freedom we’d have if we lived in openness to the surprise and unfolding of ourselves. Instead of trying to stay on a course we charted for reasons that no longer apply, we could inhabit the spaciousness that exists within and around us.
We are already flowing whether we know it or not, and the moment we are flowing through has never existed before and will never exist again. It is incomparably beautiful. It is more full of life than all of our plans. It is where we will meet ourselves and all of creation, cheese or no cheese.
I experienced a few moments of simply walking across the floor last week. You may not think that’s up there with, say, receiving an Oscar or eating a really good piece of chocolate cake—which for my money is more rare than an Oscar—but I was pretty excited.
Or more exactly, I wasn’t excited, as in, I was not in some self-inflicted state of heightened energy around one thing or the other. Here’s the play by play: I needed to close the curtains because it was dark. I was walking across the floor to close the curtains when all of a sudden, closing the curtains became unimportant.
This is why contemplation is not a spectator sport, not even with a good announcer. She’s walking across the floor, folks. It’s hard to tell whether she’s fully present in the moment or completely distracted by the task she thinks she needs to accomplish. Hold on to your seats. As soon as those windows are covered, we’ll be going courtside for an in-depth interview that will answer the question once and for all.
I spend almost my entire life focused on the thing that comes next—or several nexts down the road—and while I’ve become an expert anxiety creator, I have yet to succeed at being where I am not. Those few steps, on the other hand, were remarkably tranquil. I had no doubt I’d get to the curtains, and at the same time, it didn’t matter whether I made it or not—the moment was sufficient unto itself.
We’ve all had these times of waking up to discover now: new parents marveling over the perfection of their infant’s fingers, awe at the complexity of a flower or the particular electric orange of a sunset. It’s more difficult to see it in the everyday, so I’ve been reminding myself, “The purpose of driving to work is driving,” not getting there and finishing ten projects. “The purpose of washing this spoon is washing this spoon,” not finishing the dishes so I can go upstairs and write a blog and go to bed.
I forget this practice more often than I remember it, and that sense of presence hasn’t returned. But it might.