My Problem With The Present



Look to this day!

For it is life, the very life of life.

In its brief course lie all the verities of your existence:

The bliss of growth, the glory of action, the splendor of beauty;

For yesterday is but a dream,

and tomorrow is only a vision;

But this day, well lived, makes every yesterday

A dream of happiness

And every tomorrow a vision of hope.

Look well, therefore, to this day.




From: The Miracle of Mindfulness, by Thich Nhat Hanh

In the United States, I have a close friend named Jim Forest. Last winter, Jim came to visit. I usually wash the dishes after we finish the evening meal, before sitting down and drinking tea with everyone else. One night, Jim asked if he could wash the dishes. I said, “Go ahead, but if you wash the dishes, you must know the way to wash them. Jim replied, “Come on? You think I don’t know how to wash the dishes?” I answered, “There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.”

If, while washing the dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact, we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked way into the future--and we are incapable actually living one minute of life.



From We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For

A useful meditation would be for you to sit with your child or grandchild and eat a peach together. First have the child hold and smell the peach, remembering that it is in full sum that its scent is strongest. Let your child or your grandchild (or your neighbor’s child or grandchild) sniff and feel the fuzz of the peach. When he or she bites into the peach let the juice run down her or his chin. Ask a simple question: Where do you suppose thins comes from? The child will not know, of course, any more than you do. What is left then is simply to enjoy.


MEDITATION:    This being human is a guest-house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,

Who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture.

Still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide.       Rumi



H.L. Mencken said it succinctly, “You are here and it is now. All the rest is moonshine.” Sure, it’s true. But why do most of us find it hard to be in the present?

I once had a serious problem with the present.

Most of you know my story. I showed up here six years ago this month, two years after finishing treatment for the most aggressive and deadliest breast cancer there is. At the start of chemotherapy, I’d asked my oncologist what my chances were of surviving, and he told me that I had a 47% chance of a recurrence--and quite possibly a deadly one--within 5 years. So I retired early to make the most of my life, and then spent two years walking around with a brain full of my own anxious chatter about what was possible in the possibly very short rest of my life. I knew what I wished I could do, which was to plant myself firmly in the present and learn to live every minute. I wanted to stop ruining my present with anxiety about my future. I found--thanks to a referral from a new UU friend--a very good therapist. And one of the best things he did for me was to teach me how to meditate.

Chatter of one kind or another is the norm for all of our brains. It’s what William James called “the blooming, buzzing confusion of the ordinary mind state. In other words, none of us ever shuts up. As Alan Watts put it, “If we are talking to ourselves all the time, we are never listening, we have nothing to think about other than thoughts, and are never in relationship with reality.”

Scientists who study the brain estimate that we have somewhere between 50,000 and 70,000 thoughts in a single day, and many of them are in a sort of feedback loop. They’re the same thoughts we have every day. And often, our thoughts aren’t what we know. They’re what we think we know.

There are lots of ways people shut off disturbing thoughts, and many of them are not helpful. On one end of a spectrum there’s drugs and alcohol. On the other, there’s shopping, spending hours on Facebook or watching television, to name just a few. I stand before you a self-confessed viewer of every rerun of every episode of Law and Order ever made. I read recently that technology is turning lots of folks into TV marathoners. If you have Exfinity with On Demand you can watch entire seasons of your favorite show until your brain becomes bludgeoned. I’m glad I didn’t have that option six years ago.

In the practice of mindfulness meditation, we are not trying to shut off our thoughts. We begin by focusing our attention on our breathing. We inhale, with nice diaphragmatic breaths. And we exhale. We become aware of thoughts, notice them when they arise, but then return to the focus on our breath. Having thoughts doesn’t mean you’re no good at meditation. When we meditate, we allow ourselves to have thoughts from the trivial to the tragic and we are fully aware of how we feel, because we cut ourselves off from our feelings at our peril. So we entertain all our guests, as Rumi says, “even if they are a crowd of sorrows.” In mindfulness meditation, we sit with feelings and then return to our breathing. We’re not disconnecting. We’re awarenessing. We are developing the ability to focus attention in a non-judgmental way on whatever we’re experiencing. And we come to an understanding of what Shakespeare meant when he had Hamlet say, “Nothing’s good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Sometimes it helps to have a phrase to focus on. My particular brand of meditation relies sometimes on poetry. I have a lot of poetry committed to memory. There’s a portion of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets among the inspirational words at the back of the gray hymnal. For several years, when I have needed to fortify my ability to be patient in the face of chronic pain, I’ve used a different section of that body of mystical work.

“I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope for hope would be hope for the wrong thing. Wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing. There is yet faith, but the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.” I’ve shortened that now to simply, “I said to my soul be still.” The amazing thing is that this works. I have grown patient with pain and discomfort. I’m aware of it, but it doesn’t dominate my thinking. So I can feel patient and I can have hope, that feeling I have that the feeling I have isn’t permanent.   And I can be open to the possibilities available to me, even when I’m experiencing physical pain, which is now neither good nor bad. It just is. And the payoff of meditation has been proved by science. We have brains that are flexible, that have something called neuroplasticity. When we meditate we develop paths to the parts of our brain that respond with compassion and empathy. But we have to practice, because as soon as we stop meditating, those paths become overgrown with weeds and we lose our way.

If you want to start meditating, I’d urge you not to go directly to the Buddhist teachers. I’d encourage you to read Dr. Jon Kabbot-Zinn. He’s the go-to guy for making the most of your mind-body connection through mindfulness. He established a stress reduction clinic at U Mass hospital that has helped thousands of people with chronic pain, anxiety disorders, heart disease and other diseases. His book, Wherever You go There You Are, Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Live could be a useful textbook. He takes this Buddhist practice out of the monastery and into your life in a way that makes it accessible to you.   He gave me permission to meditate while swimming laps.

It helps greatly to have a teacher. I had one. And Alice Walker tells how she used a set of guided meditation tapes.   There are a number of these available on Amazon.

I sometimes wonder what Thoreau would think of the digital age we live in. He called on us to SIMPLIFY. I think this means that he was most likely NOT a multi-tasker. How many ways can we find to simplify our lives? Obviously it’s not practical for any of us to go off to a cabin by a lake for a couple of years to live deliberately, as Thoreau did. But are there other ways we can live more simply and deliberately here and now in 2013? Are there other things we can do to deliberately slow down and be present? Can we sit beside a fire and watch the logs turn to coal?

What might happen if we reduce the number of times each day we check our email, visit Facebook? Can we apply Alice Walker’s approach to eating a peach to every meal we eat? Can we can apply Thich Nhat Hanh’s approach to washing dishes to all of the day-to-day activities we habitually do? Can we take a walk without our ear pods and our cell phones and simply listen to the world around us right now?

If you’ve been attending summer services, then you know that this could be said to be the USNF summer of dire circumstances, of shadow-boxing the apocalypse. Several of us have looked at how we can live our Unitarian Universalist values in the face of the cataclysms happening around us. And here’s where I’ll resist the impulse to turn this reflection into a rant. We all know what the cataclysms are. Our spiritual practices help sustain and refresh us so that we can find our own ways to engage as we are able in right action and social justice, even as we acknowledge the cataclysms.

Many of us find ourselves most attuned to the present tense within a natural setting--walking in the woods, sitting on an ocean beach, hiking in the mountains. Last Sunday, Laurel Foster-Moor was telling me about the hiking she’s doing to get prepared for a family hiking trip. Hiking in the mountains, she told me, required her to focus all of her attention on where she’s going to put her foot down next. When she’s hiking, she says, she is completely present. I know my friend Katie Olmstead gets that same feeling from contra dancing. However we find it, we all need a time when we are in this precious moment, this now in which we fully live.

Alice Walker writes, “This is not a time to be without a practice. It is a time when all of us will need the most faithful, self-generated enthusiasm in order to survive in human fashion. We will be doubly bereft without some form of practice that connects us, in a caring way, to what begins to feel like a dissolving world.” So let us then support each other in finding space in our days when we can be present and live mindfully.   Carpe Diem.



The blessing of truth be upon us,

The power of love direct us and sustain us,

and may the peace of this community

preserve our going out and our coming in,

from this time forth,

until we meet again.