joy

Six Steps To Living in the Present Moment

The Challenge of Living in the Moment I was leading a telecall the other day with people who participated in my first spiritual retreat back in January.  At the beginning, we shared with each other brief updates about our lives--one high and one low over the last few months.  Most of us, including me, were wrestling with the challenge of how to be able to live more fully in and enjoy the present moment without being so obsessed and caught up in either the past or the future or the extreme busyness and demands of every day life.

I don't think we're alone in this challenge.  The ability to stay present at any given time is becoming a rare art with so many people.  We get caught up in the crazy and often overwhelming demands of staying alive and what we think comprises living life.  Consequently, time flies by without us ever really having lived in the moment.  We lose opportunities to create wonderful memories and experience deep enjoyment because we're so focused on other things.  And not living in the moment means that we're more likely consumed by the past or the future and whatever those two represent to us.

I shared the following story on our telecall out of which emerged during our conversation six powerful steps to being able to stay more fully present and plumb the depths of life.

A Parable

You've heard the zen story of the monk being chased by a ferocious tiger through the jungle.  He breathlessly comes to a clearing and is faced with a cliff right in front of him with a rope hanging over the side.  With the tiger catching up and no more options available, he quickly grabs the rope and shinnys down along the side of the cliff until he reaches the end of the rope.  He glances up and sees the tiger baring its hungry fangs.  He glances down and sees huge, sharp, jagged rocks beckoning to him 100 feet below.  What should he do?  About that time, two mice begin gnawing on the rope above him.  Now what?

strawberries

Caught between a rock and a hard place, he suddenly notices something that captures his attention.  It's a bright red, delectable-looking strawberry growing out of the side of the cliff an arm's length away.  Hanging on to the rope with one arm and both feet, he reaches out with his other hand, plucks the strawberry, and puts it in his mouth.  Eating it, he exclaims, "This is the most delicious strawberry I believe God has ever made and I have ever tasted.  Yum, yum!"

The Parable's Point

What's the point?  If the monk had been totally preoccupied with the ferocious tiger (his past) or the menacing rocks below (his future) he would have missed out on the delicious strawberry (his present).  Right?

I often realize, when I'm reflective enough, that I tend to allow the guilt or regret or memories of the past to weigh in on me, which can overwhelm my present.  Or I tend to focus on the uncertainties of the future which inevitably raises my anxiety level in the present.

Why do we allow this to happen?  As one author puts it,

"The past is already gone, the future hasn't happened yet; the only moment we have is right now.  Why waste it?"

Notice what the monk does as he finds himself caught between his past and his future which empowers him to live in the moment in a beautiful way.  Six Steps:

Six Steps to Living in the Moment

FIRST, he sees the strawberry.  He notices it.  He's paying attention.

Do you realize how many "strawberries" you and I miss out on because we're simply not seeing or noticing or paying attention?  You can't enjoy what you don't see.

SECOND, he reaches for the strawberry.

It's one thing to see something.  It's another thing to reach out for it, to take an action to engage with what you're seeing.

Sounds easy enough.  But why then don't we do this more often?

Because reaching out for the "strawberry" takes a risk.  Think about the monk.  In order to reach out for the strawberry he has to let go of the rope with one arm.  That's risky.  Letting go is difficult.  But because he takes the risk, he ends up getting the reward.

I truly believe that nothing good in life comes to us without some risk.  You choose to love someone and you risk being hurt or rejected.  You choose

THIRD, he takes the strawberry.  You can't just reach for something, you have to take it to enjoy it.

So much of today's culture is a spectator culture.  People are satisfied simply sitting on the sidelines watching the game of life happen in front of them.

The tragedy with a spectator culture is that people actually delude themselves into thinking that watching is enough; that watching is the highest level of enjoyment and satisfaction.

It certainly might be safer on some levels.  If you're in the stands watching football, you're not getting beat up and tackled in the game.  But it's interesting, isn't it, that if the team we're watching wins, we feel really really good and satisfied.  But there's no way that feeling can match the exhilaration of the players who gave it their all in order to win the game.  Right?

"This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy."  George Bernard Shaw

We delude ourselves into thinking that spectating is good enough for joy and satisfaction.  But we're missing out on the deeper depths of truly worthwhile living.  We're robbing ourselves of real living in the moment.  We can't enjoy the strawberries unless we reach out and take them in hand.

Stay tuned for my next blog  the final three steps to plumbing the present moment for deeper joy and fulfillment.  "Six Steps to Living in the Present Moment."

Four Personal Reflections for You:

  • Which is your tendency more often:  living in the past or living in the future?  Why?  What is it about either of those that traps you there?
  • Describe a time when you simply missed seeing the strawberry in the moment--you weren't paying attention.
  • What are some risks you face in order to reach out to the strawberry?  Which risks are hardest for you?
  • Would you describe yourself more as a spectator or a participant?  Why?  Are there any excuses you have for watching more than participating?  What might be some fears you have of getting in the game more often?

How To Keep From Pouting Your Way Through Life

The Pouting Boy SFGate.com ran a brief story today about an incident at the San Francisco Giants home game last evening.  Interestingly enough, that story got more press than the impressive hitting by rookie Brandon Belt who belted a two out, two run homer to break the 3-3 tie and win the game for the Giants.  The story?  A little pouting boy.  Watch this 18 second clip that has made the rounds on ESPN.com and all over YouTube.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ooHMdr8-9Ac&w=425&h=349]

Now I certainly don't blame the little boy for being disappointed about not getting the foul ball.  It is after all every kids' dream (and even most adults') to catch a ball at the park to take home as a "I was there" trophy from your favorite player.  And it was also gracious of the Giants' organization, after seeing the boy so disappointed, to make a special trip up to his section and give him a Giants' baseball.  Everyone seemed happy in the end.

But there's something about that blatant pout that speaks to me about life.  It's concerning how we deal with disappointment and unmet expectations.  How easy it is to be experiencing something in the present and then suddenly wish we had something more, allowing our disappointment to take away our joy in the moment.  Just being at your favorite team's baseball game is a pretty special experience for any kid--enjoying a father-son outing, eating hot dogs and garlic fries and a Coke or Sprite, sitting in the stands watching your favorite players on the field, cheering for your team, doing the seventh-inning stretch, singing and shouting the "Take Me Out To The Ball Game" theme song, looking at the big screen and enjoying the view, caught up with thousands of others in the joy.  It's all a pretty great experience.  That's why baseball is such an All-American past-time.

But like that little boy, we put a little pout on our faces--we allow our desire for more to dampen and sometimes even ruin our joy in the present.  We start complaining about something:

"There's too much garlic on the fries!"  "I ordered a Sprite not a Coke so why did you bring me the wrong order?"  "I was standing up ready to catch the ball--it was coming straight toward me--so why did you have to reach up and grab it instead?"  "Why doesn't the sun break out of the clouds and make it warmer for the game?  It's always so cold here!"  "Why does the guy behind me have to shout so loud?  It's annoying!"   "These seats are terrible!  Why didn't you find us better ones?"  "Why can't we make enough money to pay for better seats!"

And before we know it, we've run joy into the ditch and allowed disappointment, bitterness, resentment, complaining, even sometimes anger to take control.  We lose the beauty of the moment.

Do you know any people who live like this?  Have you ever allowed disappointment and unmet expectations to ruin your moment?

Pollyanna Wasn't Naive

Leo Baubata, in his highly popular blog "Zen Habits," recently wrote a column in which he calls this kind of mindset "a fool's game."

"Many of us do this, but if you get into the mindset of thinking about what you 'could' be doing, you’ll never be happy doing what you actually 'are' doing. You’ll compare what you’re doing with what other people (on Facebook and Twitter, perhaps?) are doing. You’ll wish your life were better. You’ll never be satisfied, because there’s 'always' something better to do.  Instead, I’ve adopted the mindset that whatever I’m doing right now is perfect."

Imagine developing that kind of mindset and how that would impact your experience of life.  What you are doing right now is perfect.  You have everything you need right now in this moment.  It's perfect.

Is this too Pollyannaish?  Interestingly enough, I was reading a book recently which talked about Pollyanna's story and how misunderstood her experience has been by so many people.  Our culture uses her name to describe a negative quality--naive, refusing to face reality, living in a fantasy land, unable to handle the truth, etc.  In fact, as her story actually describes, Pollyanna was well aware of the foibles and dysfunctions of the people that she went to live with.  She had deep insight into their struggles and keenly felt the pain from their meanness and lack of respect for her.  But she chose to look on the bright side.  She refused to allow their attitudes to negatively affect hers.  She chose to see the good instead of the bad.  She chose to step into joy for the moment by looking for and finding and reveling in the positive experiences.

The Divine Nature

I'm reminded of the Bible text describing God which says, "Man looks on the outward appearance but God looks on the heart."  The divine nature is about choosing to view people and situations from the best perspective possible.  The divine nature chooses to give people the benefit of the doubt, to focus on the inner goodness and inherent value of people and circumstances.

This isn't a choice for naivete.  Or maybe it is.  Perhaps God chooses to be, like Jesus commended to us, like little children who tend to see the good, who quickly get over the negative and jump right back into relationship, who are quick to forgive, who do so well in living in the joy of the moment, grabbing all the gusto in the present rather than living in the past or the anxiety of the unknown future.  "Right now is perfect.  I have everything I need in this moment."

God certainly acknowledges lack, failure, inadequacy.  God lives with a constant keen sense of incompleteness in the world God created to be perfect.  God know what God desires and longs for and therefore what is lacking in the present.  But the fact that the divine nature in scripture is always described in the present tense--I AM--shows that God lives in the Now, this Moment.  And this truth about God sanctifies, makes holy, every Moment, Now.

The Empowering Secret

Reflecting this perspective on the divine nature, the Apostle Paul (one of the most prolific writers in the New Testament) gave his personal testimony with the words, "I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. 12 I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. 13 For I can do everything through the One who gives me strength."  (Philippians 4:11-13)

There is strength and power in focusing on the divine attribute of the Now, the I AM, the holy Present Moment.  God's presence lives in us, empowering us to capture the joy right now, to see the moment as perfect, to choose contentment by acknowledging "I have everything I need right now in this moment.  Let me enjoy this present."

It doesn't mean there isn't hardship or difficulties or pain or sorrow in our lives.  To deny that would be to short-circuit life.  Even Pollyanna, and certainly the Apostle Paul, knew their harsh realities.  But to allow unmet expectations and disappointment to run joy off the road is to live an unnecessarily unhappy life, never satisfied, never content, never at peace.  Pollyanna and Paul refused to live that way.  And their choice for joy and contentment paid them rich rewards.  They had the "secret" to strong living.

The Spiritual Practice of Now

Here's how Leo Baubata describes his spiritual practice of the Now mindset:  "I’m always happy with what I’m doing, because I don’t compare it to anything else, and instead pay close attention to the activity itself. I’m always happy with whoever I’m with, because I learn to see the perfection in every person. I’m always happy with where I am, because there’s no place on Earth that’s not a miracle.  Life will suck if you are always wishing you’re doing something else. Life will rock if you realize you’re already doing the best thing ever."

I don't want to pout my way through life.  I can easily fall into that trap--I know myself too well.  As a "maximizer," it's my tendency to always want to improve things.   That's okay.  But if I allow that to never let me step into contentment and joy in the present moment, I rob myself, and my "wanting more" robs those around me of the joy of the moment, too.  So when I saw that video clip of the little pouting boy, I was convicted to make a different choice in my life--to learn how to relish the joy of the moment--to practice saying, "This moment is perfect.  I have everything I need right now.  It's good and beautiful and I'm going to revel in it!"

And besides, who wants to get that "life sucks!" look on your face like that little kid every time something doesn't go your way?  Almost embarrassing!

Reflections on a Wendell Berry Poem

[If you enjoy this blog, please SHARE it with your friends and others who might be interested.  You can click in the column to the right and choose how you want to share this.] Critics and scholars have acknowledged Wendell Berry as a master of many literary genres, but whether he is writing poetry, fiction, or essays, his message they observe is essentially the same: humans must learn to live in harmony with the natural rhythms of the earth or perish.  I'm thankful that I came across one of Berry's poems this week, especially at this time of year when Spring reminds me of the promise of renewed life.  I find myself needing hope these days for a variety of reasons, but particularly in my work as I struggle with a sense of the lack of meaningful accomplishment.  Mr. Berry is writing to me.  So here's the poem, "The Peace of Wild Things."

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

I don't know if you ever feel a sense of despair over parts of your life or the lives of those you care for.  I do ... especially lately.  Maybe it's the stage of life I'm in, roaring into my second half with lots of dreams and hopes, when at the same time having to come face to face with a more honest acceptance of mortality and that all my dreams might not end up being fulfilled and that many of them could've been a tad unrealistic anyway.  Maybe it's a wrestling with what success is and isn't - the difficult task of having to redefine it in more congruent ways - and yet still deal with a deep passion to have my life count for something significant.  Maybe it's also seeing my parents reaching their sunset years and struggling with health and mortality, realizing that I'm the next generation in line to take their place, having to pay more attention to my own health needs as time goes on.

We all face a sense of despair in various ways and for various reasons.  Sometimes it steals our sleep.  Often it steals our peace.  Too often it robs us of joy.  We lose hope.  What then?  Pop the pills?  Swallow the antidepressants?  Escape or run away?  Stay in bed?  Smother the ones we're worried about with our presence?  Hang on for dear life just because we're afraid of losing?

Here's where I'm moved by Wendell Berry's perspective.  Notice his process of dealing with his despair.  "I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief." Berry has discovered that nature's ability to exist in peace is directly related to it not "taxing their lives with forethought of grief."  One of our homo sapien challenges is that because we have the ability to ponder, reflect, and evaluate everything, we are tempted to live in the past or in the future, with regret or fear, rather than in the moment.  We consequently tax our lives with "forethought of grief."  And wow, it is a tax burden, isn't it!  We're making payments from our emotional bank accounts all the time because of that tendency.  Grief is the result - a constant feeling of loss (loss of hope, loss of reputation, loss of significance, loss of meaning or fulfillment, loss of purpose, loss of love, and the list of grief from losses goes on and on).

Berry noticed that the wood drake ducks and the great herons seemed to exist differently.  He watched them sit quietly in the still waters, and patiently pick food out of the waters, and stand in the shallow water simply being in that place and in that moment.  It was a scene of peace to him.  So he intentionally placed himself there from time to time - and discovered that during those times, he was able to mirror that peace.  His mind and heart became still like the pond water.  He entered as fully as possible into those moments, letting go of his worry, fear, grief, and losses.

Looking up into the sky, he knew the stars were there behind the lighted firmament even though he couldn't see them at that time of day.  They were "waiting with their light," knowing that the time would soon come when after setting sun their light would be seen again.  Berry felt a sense of hope for his own life return.  Nature has its cycles, its seasons - times of fruitfulness and times of fallowness.  Nature seems to know this and it empowers its peace and persistence.  Day-blind stars will shine in the evening.  The barrenness of winter gives way to spring's new life.

I'm thankful for this reminder today.  Just reading this poem takes me to a place of more hope and peace inside.  Visualizing the wood drake floating quietly in the still waters, seeing the great heron now standing, now feeding, a bite here, a bite there - neither one obsessing or worrying or "taxing their lives with forethought of grief" - simply being and doing what they always do.  Can I allow myself to be in that place, too?  If even for a moment?

Berry ends his poem with, for me anyway, a helpful reminder:  "For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free."  For a time.  We can't always live in this kind of secluded peace.  Life happens, the good and the ugly, with its joy alongside despair and grief, and we often can't predict it.  But I need more times to "rest in the grace of the world."  I need to carve out moments of grace, where simply being is enough, where I am all I need to be right then, and I am loved and embraced there, period.  Maybe that's what the Hebrew poet had in mind when he wrote about the Creator God, "Be still, and know that I am God."  In life's stillness and quietness, I feel the divine, the Sacred, and I embrace my enough in the mirror of the true Enough.  Resting in the grace of the world.  Does it sound as inviting to you as it does to me?

Spiritual Lessons From the Rainbow

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Don't you just love seeing rainbows?  There's something both ethereal and inspiring about them.  People get so excited when they see one in the sky, telling whomever's around, "Look!  There's a rainbow!  Over there, over there!  See it?"  And everyone strains their necks to get a glimpse of those spectacular colors in the sky.  It's almost as though seeing a rainbow brings some kind of unique gift to the observer (kind of like the proverbial treasure at the end of the rainbow).  And if you're really lucky, you might see a double rainbow sometime - double the luck or blessing. Rainbows have been centrally portrayed in art, literature, music, and sacred scriptures for millenniums.  For example, in John Everett Millais' 1856 oil painting he titled, "The Blind Girl," he used the rainbow - one of the beauties of nature that the blind girl cannot experience - to underline the pathos of her condition.  Notice how she sits there, totally incapable of seeing this double wonder of nature that the little girl in her lap is craning her neck to see and enjoy.  A rainbow is so powerfully evocative of life and hope, if you can't see one, you've missed a profound human experience.

In most religious cultures, the rainbow is a symbol of the divine presence, the bow of God, the brilliant light display of glory around God's throne.  So the rainbow evoked a kind of deep spiritual fervor and hope for a divinely blessed life.

And here's where this beautiful symbol and metaphor takes on expanded meaning.  Experts tell us that there are 7 basic colors to the light spectrum we see in the rainbow:  red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.  But in reality, as they point out, there are infinitely many wavelengths between 380 and 740 nanometers - the visible spectrum of light. That doesn't even count the different tints and shades obtained by mixing in white, black, etc. So, in truth, there is an infinite number of colors, if you look at it that way.

"The actual estimate for how many different colors the human eye can distinguish varies between one and ten million, depending on the reference which you consult. However, the perception of color varies from one person to another, so there can be no single number that is true for everyone. The number of different colors that you, as an individual, can distinguish also varies dramatically according to the conditions; it drops to zero in low light conditions, in which only the rod cells of the retina can function, as the cone cells of the retina are required for color vision." (Paula E. Burch, Ph.D.)

In other words, the whole color experience and reality of the light spectrum is about diversity, differences, innumerable options and shades and perceptions.  No one person sees it the same way.  And there's infinite variety in what can be seen.

So here's what we have with the rainbow:  a powerful universal symbol of Hope, of the divine presence and blessing, and of the amazingly rich diversity in the human experience.  Amazing, isn't it?  That which has always been a symbol for God is also a picture of infinite diversity.

Like sometimes happens when we end up missing the opportunity to see a rainbow because we're perhaps looking somewhere else or distracted by something else or simply not looking for one, could it be that we too often miss experiencing a profound divine blessing because we don't appreciate the rich diversity of life?  We don't see God in the midst of life's variety and infinite spectrum of life because we've boxed God inside boundaries that are in fact too limiting to the infinite God of life - boundaries of belief, boundaries of faith, boundaries of the way we think people should be like.   We allow ourselves to have such narrow expectations of ourselves, others, life, and even God and end up shrinking our souls a bit more and more as time goes by.  If spirituality involves the experience of the Sacred and Divine in all of life, then our spirituality is diminished by refusing to let God encounter us in the midst of the rich diversity and variety and differences inherent in the fabric of life all around us.  To experience diversity is to experience God.

So why would any one of us think we had the conclusive picture of reality and life?  Why would any one of us think that there's only one way to look at God, or there's any one religion or organization that speaks exclusively for God, or there's only a few ways to be human, or there's only one perspective on an issue, or that some people are better than others?  It's too much of a tendency for me to put people in boxes or to place my expectations on others, thinking they need to be more like me.  It's too easy for me to sometimes feel threatened by someone else's views or contributions or life, thinking that if they get away with their perspective, I'm diminished in some way - rather than embracing the truth that all of us are strengthened and deepened if we each are given the freedom and encouragement to be ourselves.  The very nature of life, as the rainbow so beautifully portrays, is the beauty and divinity of diversity.

No wonder William Wordsmith's 1802 poem "My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold the Rainbow" begins:

My heart leaps up when I behold

A rainbow in the sky:

So was it when my life began;

So is it now I am a man;

So be it when I shall grow old,

Or let me die!…

I love the passion for life he portrays.  He feels his heart "leaping up" when he sees the rainbow - he willingly enters into the joy of life, allowing himself to be ushered into the chambers of awe, wonder, mystery, and Spirit.  It's so valuable for him to experience this divine reality of life through the rainbow that if he can't have it, he would just as soon die.  Why go through life just trying to make it to death safely?  That's not living.  That's being dead already, even though the heart might be pumping and beating.  Wordsworth's reality is that life leaps for joy when it sees the rainbow - the depth and richness of life happen in the midst of variety and diversity and difference.

I want a deep and more joyful life, don't you?  So maybe we should open up the box more to include more, to appreciate and value more, to be aware of more, to experience more.  Maybe we should let God be more.  And then watch ourselves be surprised by the God of the rainbow!