Monday, December 20, 2010

Living in the Moment (No, Really!)

I have just a couple of weeks left with Zen Buddhism, which means I have to start drawing a conclusion or two. Having nearly finished my time now with the Quakers and with Boundless Way, I am just beginning to realize the massive extent to which I have to skate across the surface of each tradition I am taking up. But I am forcing myself to stick to the premise I set for myself last summer—short periods of immersion in each tradition—in order to allow me to survey a wider range of religious beliefs and experiences.

This week I want to focus on two lessons I have taken from my time with Zen Buddhism, the first of which comes in the form of a cliché that you hear people repeat all of the time: living in the moment.

Today is Monday, December 20th. In four days it will be Christmas Eve, which initiates a great few weeks for me: mass and then dinner with friends on Christmas eve, Christmas day with the family, then a trip to Disney world, a visit with my father, and then a couple of weeks remaining in winter break for me to write and get ready for the semester.

But there are four days until that wonderful sequence of events begins, and for all I know it won’t be nearly as wonderful as I hope: someone will get sick, our plane will get grounded in a snowstorm, it will be raining in Florida, and so on. So I have only now begun to understand—while I won’t begrudge myself the pleasures of anticipation—that waiting for the future means ignoring the present. I have the gift of four full days to savor between now and Christmas Eve, and every one of those days holds the promise of as much joy and meaning as any day I might spend in my glorious few upcoming weeks.

But everyone knows that, right? Live in the moment; don’t while away your days wishing for tomorrow, when you have today here to enjoy it. I would have said that before I began sitting with Boundless Way, and I doubt anyone reading this would disagree.

So the second thing that I have learned over the past couple of months has been the wide gulf between speaking that sentiment and living it. Instructing yourself to “live in the moment,” without making any effort to understand what that means , or to practice doing it, can be a hollow exercise—as it would have been for me just a few months ago.

Sitting in meditation practice has taught me the techniques that help actually put this philosophy into practice (and which are described more fully in recent posts): sitting quietly, back straightened, concentrating on your breathing, and clearing your mind of everything but what you notice around you. I find that I get better at all of these techniques with each day of practice, and that they all help me live more fully in the moment.

If I am driving along in the car and I find myself wandering into worry about the future, I turn my attention to my breath and those unpleasant thoughts just drift away. If I find my attention wandering away from the present moment, I look around me and see what I notice: this warm café in which I am sitting, the hot chocolate on my table, the snowflakes and people drifting by outside, the medley of conversations around me. In every one of these things I can see reason for gratitude. In every one of them I can experience the present.

Of course none of us could survive without thinking about the future from time to time, or reflecting on the past. I still probably live more in those places than I do in the moment. But, at the very least, I have learned from the Buddhists to make an effort to make every day sacred.

Each day, like each moment, offers the potential for peace and joy—as long as we learn how to live in it.

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