What is now is all there ever is. There is only ever what is, even though we are often obsessed with what comes next or what came before. Maybe this is because as individuals we are always trying to solve the problem of ourselves. An endless pursuit of solving the problem of ourselves. This is like living life with the cart in front of the horse. When we realize that what is now is all there ever is, we stop seeking to solve the problem of ourselves. The search is over. This is like putting the horse in front of the cart. We become more present, aligned with reality, balanced and we can move forward in a more graceful (less anxious) manner. If we are always preoccupied with what is not now, then we are living our lives harvesting crops from an imaginary field. Why live like that? In continual pursuit of something we will never be able to find because it is not what is now. What is is often very ordinary. It is the ordinariness of everyday life. This moment. We often don’t realize that being fully present in this moment is what we are ultimately looking for. To be able to be present, calm, aware and content in the ordinariness of everyday life. This is the end of the endless need to solve the problem of ourselves.
I was sitting next to my meditation teacher at the San Francisco Zen Center one cold and rainy Monday night. His classes were often not that crowded, which was one reason I went to them. I would go to his meditations and talks once or twice a week to practice and study formal Zazen meditation. Everything was silent and calm. I could hear the rain coming down outside. And then he farted. Some people laughed. I noticed a feeling of revulsion and disgust arise in me for a moment, but then I let it go.
Often during his meditations, the teacher would yell out, “Watch your judgments!” “Watch your judgments!” Other times he would do things with the intention of creating strong judgments in us. He would make annoying noises by tapping the wood floor with various objects. He would yell out various things like, “Watch the breath!” or “Watch your mind!” He would even say things like, “Isn’t this boring?”
Some people found his teaching style too offensive and/or bothersome. Sometimes during his talks he would talk about offensive things. He swore a lot and he would sometimes drink whiskey during his classes. He continually pointed out that the more a person attached to judgments, the crazier they became. His teaching style was based in provoking strong judgments in his students, so that we could learn to not be as attached to all the judgments that came into our minds.
I found his teaching style helpful in dealing with my own judgmental mind. I also found him to be very entertaining, poetic and authentic in a world where people often hide behind masks.
The definition of mindfulness that I like is, “The awareness that arises, when we pay attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” By non-judgmentally, what is meant is not that we do not judge. The brain is a judging machine and judges all the time. To not judge is almost impossible for humans. By non-judgment what is meant is that we are aware of when we are judging. This makes a huge difference because when we are aware that we are judging we are not as defined by our judgments.
Why would we not want to be defined by our judgments? Because like my meditation teacher said, judgments make us crazy. Most of the judgments that we attach to during the day are negative and distorted perceptions of reality. When we judge we are only causing ourselves to become negative people. We end up separating ourselves from things and people as they are, and this often leads to a very unhappy, fearful and rigidified way of living.
When we can be aware of our judgments, but not be as defined or rigidified by them, we have a greater opportunity to live a freer, more mindful life because we are better able experience and accept things as they are.
What my meditation teacher meant by crazy, was living a life that was not able to be aware of and accepting of what is (this is similar to the idea of suffering, which is also the inability to accept reality as it is).
Whether it was him farting, yelling things out during meditations, drinking booze, talking about his love life or making annoying sounds during meditation- my meditation teacher’s instructions on learning how to watch judgments, rather than be defined by them, has been one of the most important teachings and practices I have come across in my life.
And I suppose I am a little less crazy as a result.
Here I sit, in front of my digital typewriter. It is a Saturday morning and the sun is hanging bright in the blue sky. I just finished watering my garden. I wanted to drench the plants, trees, flowers and grass in water before the afternoon summer heat consumes them. As I was watering I noticed a snap of Autumn in the air but as quickly as a snap comes, it went away.
There were butterflies, dragonflies and hummingbirds that I presume showed up in my garden to grab a drink of water from the hose. They flew through and around the water like children at play in a park. I noticed the warm sensation of my feet making contact with the grass and the rays from the sun soaking themselves into my skin. My breathing was slow and shallow and I noticed that my mind would continually wander off thinking about a hundred different things and I would continually bring my mind back to the awareness of just being present in the garden.
I feel grateful for mindfulness practice because without the skill of being able to be present more than I am not, I imagine my life would be filled with anxiety and dread. I don’t care much for thinking about the future nor do I really tend to the past. But my mind will travel to these foreign places without my say so and I am grateful that I have the awareness, trust and the ability to bring my mind back into the present moment.
Make no mistake about it, a person needs a lot of trust to be present. Most people are too filled with anxiety to be present. They feel like if they are present their lives will somehow fall apart or not be worth living. They will not get done what they need to or maybe they feel like they will have nothing to do. This is a myth that is simply not true. The opposite is actually true- the more present we are the better we tend to things. I am grateful that I know this to be a fact through my years of practice. I never thought about the possibility of having a beautiful garden at some point in my future. I don’t think about if I will continue to have this garden. All I know and care about is that it is here now.
It is only this moment which is real, everything else is just a fiction created by our minds. A fiction only because it is not what is happening now. Most tend to live a life in fictional places. Maybe this is why so many people do not like reading fiction- because they already spend so much of their lives in fiction. I don’t know. But I do know that if we spend too much time in fictions, we neglect things now. If I can be present while watering my garden, I will do a much more thorough job. Over time, my garden will be much healthier because I tended to it with presence rather than rushing through and possibly not giving the plants, flowers, grass and trees the water and attention they need.
The sound of an ambulance siren just raced past my house. Whenever I hear an ambulance or fire engine siren, I always think that there is someone in great need out there who is probably very relieved to be hearing that sound. I used to be aggravated by the loud sound of sirens but that was selfish of me to be frustrated by a sound that is bringing with it the help that someone needs.
For me, the sound of a siren is a continual reminder of the fragility of all life. It helps me not take things so seriously. At any moment, at any time the siren could be coming for one of us. After being ill for the past month, I became very aware of that fine line between being able to be independent and suddenly needing help. Whenever I hear a siren, I am not only grateful that it is not coming for me, but I am reminded of the importance of living in the present moment because who knows when it will be.
In meditation retreat centers, singing bowls are used throughout the day to remind a person to gently guide their attention back into the present moment. Since I live close to a busy street where ambulances and fire engines often pass through, I use the sound of the sirens in the same way I would use the sound of singing bowls when on meditation retreat. I gently bring my attention back into the present moment. I notice my breathing moving in and out. I become aware of sensations in my body. I notice smells and sounds that I am hearing. I lean into the present moment. And then I am just here, present in my life without trying to gain anything. No future, no past, no need to get something more. Just this moment.
This is how you earn a life.
Why can’t you take care of yourself?
What the hell is that supposed to mean?
You don’t know how to take care of yourself!
Why do you say that?
Because you don’t! You sit around. You let things go. You withdraw into books. You are struggling in your work. You struggle to exercise and get outside in the sun. You are unfulfilled and feel stuck in your life but still you do nothing!
I think you are being a bit critical. I do things.
You do the bare minimum just to get by.
Yes, and then you expect others to pick up the slack. To take care of the things you don’t want to take care of. To take care of you.
I don’t know about this. I have a business where I help others every day.
Yes, but you are a fraud. You are no better than your clients. You are trying to get well or to manage, just as they are. I do not think you are fit to serve. Just like you need to be fit to run a marathon you need to be fit to serve. Maybe the reason why your job does not make you happy is because you are running in a marathon without being in good shape?
I have not thought of it like that. I think I am fit to serve because I am trying to be a better person every day. I am trying to more effectively deal with the crap I have inherited from my parents- my past conditioning. I am trying to manage it more effectively so it does not make me a miserable person. This continual effort I think makes me fit to serve.
Maybe. You have part of the equation correct but you are still unwilling to do things that would make you happier and healthier in life.
What do you mean?
What do you mean?
You don’t want to take charge. You don’t want to cut the bullshit. You don’t want to stop staying stuck. You don’t want to do the hard work that it would take to change things for the better. You don’t want to push yourself.
Maybe. But I do what I can. I try.
Yes, but this is not enough. You are just staying stuck in the convenience of habit. You are not willing to change and so you make do with what is. This is bullshit! Push yourself man. Do not be so fearful of hard work!
Maybe it is about accepting what is. Maybe it is about not trying to change anything but instead just making peace with what is? Maybe the reason why humans are so fucked up is because we are not able to just make peace with things as they are? We are very critical of ourselves and others and think things should be how we think they should be. Maybe when we become really critical it does not actually motivate change but instead creates more depression and unhappiness. I think you may be going about it the wrong way.
You are saying that it is about accepting things as they are? Accepting your lack of motivation. Accepting that you do what you can (which, by the way is never enough), accepting that you can’t really get things done, accepting that you have a hard time taking care of yourself? You are basically saying just accept that the garden is not being taken care of and let it stay in its disheveled and dried out state?
I suppose I am saying do what you can and accept that. Maybe a person is not meant to have a beautiful garden because they, for whatever reason, are not able to devote the time and energy needed. In this case the person needs to be able to accept that they have a garden that is not perfect. That is partially dried out. That it is not much tended to. Such is life. What I am saying is that in just accepting things as they are, even though they may not be desirable, it releases a person from all the stress and unhappiness that comes up as a result of trying to fix and change things and thinking things are not good enough. Maybe change happens through accepting what is.
I don’t know man. I think this is the greatest act of rationalizing one’s own illogical bullshit that I have ever heard. I think you are just perpetuating the status quo. You are just trying to accept the status quo. Anyone who is great never got anywhere with the perspective you are articulating. No one has ever mastered anything or become really skilled and successful thinking like that. That train of thought will get you nowhere besides right where you are which is struggling to take care of yourself.
I understand this. But maybe my work is in accepting that I will not be that person who is great, masterful and successful and super productive. That that is not who I am. This is just not in the deck of cards for me. Perhaps happiness for me is in accepting that this is just not who I am.
But you have talent. You have potential. You could do whatever you want. You could be great. You could have a beautiful garden if you pushed yourself more.
Maybe so, but maybe I am just not that kind of person. Maybe I am more fated to live an imperfect life. A life of slowness or no great achievements. Maybe I am just going to be average. Maybe I am going to need help along the way. Maybe I am just that kind of person.
And you are ok with this? You really want to accept this?
I see no other way if I don’t want to be miserable for the rest of my life.
Bullshit man. You know this is bullshit. You just don’t want to do the hard work.
Maybe so. I don’t remember ever being a fan of hard work.
Ok. There is no making sense with you. You are not getting it. You want to keep sitting on your ass and just let all the potential in your life go- go ahead. You want others to take care of you. You don’t want to deal with the hard stuff. Ok. Fuck it. I am not getting anywhere with you.
You know, what? I don’t like how you are talking to me. I think this conversation is done.
This seems to be the most difficult concept for humans to grasp- that none of this is as real as you think.
Sooner than later the life you are living right now and everything going on in it will be the distant past.
Will not exist anymore.
Your life will eventually be a life that was once lived a long time ago.
You are not immortal.
Trying to forget about this does not help anyone.
It especially does not help you.
I was made very aware of this while reading Jack Kerouac’s book “Desolation Angels” this morning.
In it he describes an entire world, so full of life.
All these people.
All these lives living in 1950’s San Francisco.
Kerouac masterfully portrays this vibrant and thriving world that was so alive at one time but does not exist anymore.
All these characters that he describes.
All these families, friends, problems and achievements- all of it gone now.
And I am reminded that the same thing will happen to you and I.
Our lives, which feel so important and real right now, will be the distant past soon enough.
And then there will be people in some future time reading about this time in which we lived, thinking that it all seemed so alive at one time but now it too is gone.
It is so important to not get too caught up in things.
Our lives depend on it.
We get so stuck on various day-to-day problems and worries.
We treat our lives as if it were something that will last forever.
We treat life as if it were continual tasks to be accomplished.
How misguided we are.
We forget that we too (and everyone else) are mortal.
All of this will disappear.
All the more reason to try and be present with it while it is still here.
I too get caught up sometimes and forget.
I treat my life as if it was this thing that will be around forever.
Sometimes it makes me sad that I do this.
I sometimes do not appreciate the passing moment and I create problems that would not exist if I could stay aware of the transitory nature of everything.
The mind often tricks us into thinking that everything is so real.
But if everything is just going to be a distant memory before we know it, how important are we really?
Why get so caught up in our preoccupations?
Why take ourselves so seriously?
What happens when we stop forgetting that we and everyone we know are quickly passing lived lives, is that we appreciate the moments we do have much more.
We stop trying to make life something that it is not and appreciate what is here now.
A feeling of gratitude and release from pressure and stress arises.
We can settle down and appreciate our time and the people and things around us before it is all gone.
We can do the things we want to do more.
Knowing that it is all just going to pass, gives us the freedom and courage to live the kind of lives we want to live right now.
Without this realization we are just wasting something very valuable.
Valuable only because it can never be gotten back.
Mindfulness is an attitude or a way of perceiving reality just like being identified with thoughts and feelings is an attitude or a way of perceiving reality. Just like everything else in life, possessing an attitude of mindfulness is a choice. A choice that ultimately leads to less suffering. Here are six thing you can do right now to create more mindfulness in your life:
1) Are you identified with negative judgments right now? Not liking someone or something? Wanting things to be different than how they are? Feeling bad or critical about yourself or thinking that you are right and others are dumb? Being identified with negative judgments is like burning ourselves with a flame. It hurts. As long as we identify with our negative judgments we will be unhappy people. It is not that you will suddenly stop having negative judgments, but see if you can just be aware of them without acting upon them or articulating them. Just leave them alone and notice how when you do this they go away.
2) Are you reacting to distressing feelings? Do you continually try and push away, deny or get rid of feelings of distress? Feelings of distress are as normal as the sun coming up in the morning. If we do not learn how to skillfully deal with our distressful feelings we will suffer. See if you can notice when distressing feelings arise in you and then just welcome them. Even though distressing feelings are uncomfortable, who said life should be comfortable all the time? Why keep fighting against it? How about just letting the feelings of distress be there? Become mindful of your distressing feelings and leave them alone. Notice how the moment you welcome them (rather than react to them) they lose their potency and are no longer as distressing anymore.
3) Are you accepting your life as it is in this moment? Or are you trying to change or fix things about this moment? Make things how you think they should be? Good luck. This is a mountain that no one ever reaches the top of. Life just becomes a continual climb to nowhere. Not wanting to feel what we are already feeling in this moment is the surest way to make what we are feeling worse. See if you can just be aware of where you are at in this moment. Notice how it feels. Now see if you can just accept it. Leave it alone. Let it be. Stop trying to swim against the current. Acceptance is the key which opens the door to a more peaceful and calm life. The trouble is that most of us can’t seem to find the key. I am handing you the key. Here. Accept what is right now. Leave it alone. Alan Watts said, “Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone.”
4) Are you in a hurry right now? Do you want to get rid of some uncomfortable feeling in your body right away? Do you need to have things the way you think they should be now? Do you have to have everything all figured out and tightened up now? Good luck again. How about being patient? Isn’t patience a fundamental virtue? So just be patient. Leave things alone. Stop trying to change or fix things. Be willing to accept things as they are and then just be patient. Patient requires a kind of faith or trust that everything will work out. When we are patient we are willing to sit with uncertainty and not knowing. We just leave things as they are and find patience in learning to live with the uncertainty. Another way to think about being patient is be willing to be comfortable with the discomfort. This is a fundamental aspect of meditation practice and of living a good life. Life is uncomfortable so it is very beneficial to learn how to be comfortable with discomfort.
5) Daniel Higgs, a poet, wrote, “Anything outside of the present moment is a form of slavery.” Mindfulness is a way of being that is aware of each passing moment. Life is viewed as moments to be lived rather than task after task to be accomplished. As we grow older years seem to pass by in the blink of an eye but moments or even hours seem to maintain a similar duration as when we were younger. When we create so many problems and issues and things to do in our lives we are no longer aware of the passing moments. We are being pulled into the future continually or dragged back into the past all the time. We rarely seem to tend to the passing moments in our lives and then when we reach 40 or 50 or 60 we think, “Wow, my life went by so fast!” Yes it did. You were not aware of the passing moments. Be present. Tend to the moments of your life if you want to live a life that feels longer. If you don’t want to do this, that is fine, but please don’t be surprised when it feels like life went by so fast.
6) Are you lost in your head right now? Thinking about all kinds of things? Judging what I am writing? Thinking about other stuff? What about your body? What is going on there? Our bodies are always present. Our noses, our toes, our ears, our lips, our lungs, our heart, our knees- they all exist in the present. It is only this small portion of our brain that creates thoughts that usually have something to do with some place other than right now. We have been conditioned to be more identified with this very small section of our brain rather than the other 99% of what is going on with our bodies. Being aware of our senses is an incredible satisfying experience. Notice the various sensations in your body. Notice smells and tastes. See if you can pay attention to hearing, breathing and really notice things that are around you. Mindfulness is a way of fully inhabiting the space where our bodies are already at. See if you can be more in tune with the sensory experience that you are having from moment to moment, rather than ignoring all of this because of being too lost in thought. Sometimes we get so lost in thought that a panic attack seems to be the only way our body can get our attention. It doesn’t have to come to this. See if you can tune your mind into being more aware of your sensory experience as you make your way through your day.
And finally, I forgot who said it but I wrote this quote down in my notebook: “If we love the little moments ferociously, than maybe we can learn to live well not in spite of death but because of it. Let death be what takes us, not lack of imagination.”