Category Archives: present moment

Whoa! 50,000 Stitches?

In the documentary States of Grace (which I saw on Kanopy, the public library’s free streaming service) I was intrigued by the mention of 50,000 stitches being required to be ordained as a Zen priest. What an amazing concentration practice! If each stitch was mindfully done, certainly after 50,000 to make a robe, you would be a very present practitioner.

Since I know nothing about what is required for Zen Buddhist ordination, I did some research and came upon a Tricycle article about Tomoe Katagiri and the history of hand-sewing in the US Zen communities. Apparently it is an ancient practice, though these days in Japan robes are purchased instead of handmade. But Tomoe Katagiri has been teaching hand-sewing in the U.S. since 1971, and so it has become a part of the American Zen experience.

But this is not a post about Zen. It is a post about one sentence in the article that captured my attention. When a woman was coming to her final stitch of the robe for her ordination as a Soto Zen priest, she asked Tomoe if there was anything to be said for the final stitch. Tomoe answered, “The last stitch is the same as the first.”

“The last stitch is the same as the first.”
We could apply that to all aspects of life, couldn’t we? If we are doing something with full attention, then each moment receives that same quality of attention, not distracted but fully sensed.

One area we might apply this is eating. For most of us that first bite is special. We savor it, we really taste it. But a few bites in, caught up in conversation, reading, listening or just thinking, the hand and mouth may go on autopilot. When I am on retreat my whole attention stays with the bites I am taking, the chewing, the swallowing because there is absolutely nothing else to do, and my mind is focused on savoring not just flavors but the whole experience of being on retreat. Every time, I promise myself that when I get home I will be done with a lifetime’s habit of inattention and will attend every bite with full mindfulness. Well, you know how that turns out. A few days later, I’m back in the habituated groove of shoveling it in and then wondering where it went. Ah me!

Reading “The last stitch is the same as the first” made me want to challenge myself in my daily life to have a meal with that level of steady attention, each bite fully appreciated. If I can do it on retreat, why can’t I do it at home? Why do I accept my excuses? It is simply a matter of setting wise intention and following through with wise effort. So yesterday and so far today I did just that for each meal, and the last bite was as delicious as the first. And I noticed that I put more attention to making a nice meal, to choosing wholesome tasty foods, to taking my time in the kitchen with each chore fully attended, the last cut of a vegetable as mindful as the first. It is all of a piece, this being present, isn’t it?

How about a walk where the last step is done with the same level of attention and appreciation as the first? I tried that this morning too. It was a lovely day for a favorite hike on the shady side of Lake Bon Tempe. Staying present I saw so many things I might not otherwise have noticed, like the two tiny butterflies flitting in close pairing among the yellow wildflowers. Attending the sensations of my body in motion, I walked further than I habitually do. I spent some time focusing on my thigh muscles, letting them do the work that my knees might otherwise take on. I don’t know if that’s physically a thing, but it felt right for me. What I didn’t do was talk politics, wonder what to make for lunch, or plot the rest of the day’s activities. I just walked and looked and listened.

How often in life do our thoughts fly off craving the next thing? Wondering ‘when will I be done with this?’ even when it’s something we very much wanted to do?

The last stitch is the same as the first. Wow. Think of other areas in your life where this advice might be useful. In class we ended up talking about chores, errands and projects that seem to consume time in a mindless way. We’ll explore more of that in a future dharma post when we look at what constitutes wise effort.

We all go mindless at times. The practice of meditation is in part about learning how to simply be present, attentive to all that is arising and falling away in the field of sensation. The other part is learning to be compassionate with ourselves but not indulgent — an important distinction that we’ll look at in a future dharma post about wise concentration.

(If you are seeing a theme developing with these future dharma posts, you may recognize two aspects of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path: Wise Effort and Wise Concentration. Those and the other six will be our fall focus. I have taught this invaluable life guidance three times over the past decade or so, and my current students have asked me to teach it again. I am happy to do so, and this time with a beautiful new illustration by my husband of the analogy I developed for understanding and remembering the various aspects!) Every time I teach it I discover so many new things I hadn’t noticed before, and I hope you will too!)

But meanwhile, you might make a point of noticing as you go through your day where you go mindless, what falls apart when that happens, and how it feels when you muddle through life lost in distraction, as most of us do at least some of the time.

“The last stitch is the same as the first.” There’s so much we can learn from that one sentence! May we live our lives attentively and compassionately, savoring each moment as it arises, then letting it go, so that our last breath is the same as the first.

Photo above uncredited, but click on it to go to another article about Zen hand-sewing.

Radiate!

The summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, when the nights are shortest and the days are longest, brings to my mind two key aspects of Buddhist meditation practice.

THIS, JUST THIS…BLISS
The first aspect is mindfulness, the ability to fully inhabit the present moment. Staying in touch with the seasons helps to keep us present. The changing seasons teach us that it is natural to let go and open to whatever arises. By staying fully present we can learn to notice and appreciate whatever nature offers in the way of temperature, light and moisture in this moment, giving our preferences a rest from always dragging us out of this moment into a state of longing or complaining.

Inspired by the natural world of which we are an intrinsic part, we practice being present to what is and letting go of regrets and nostalgia for the past. There are no do overs. There is no going back. Wishing doesn’t make it so, but it does make us unhappy and blind to the joy that is possible in this moment.

At first our attempts to stay fully present may feel like standing on the head of a pin, it’s such an unstable awareness. But eventually this foundation of the present widens and supports us more fully. The regular practice of meditation with the intention to stay present, guiding ourselves gently back to this moment just as it is, again and again, develops this ability.

Nature is teeming with life and growth. We too may feel ourselves opening and expanding, entering a time of relaxation or easy bountiful productivity.

With our days so full of light, let’s remember our own lighthearted nature, our capacity to laugh at the silliest things, and hold all life in a lighter more open embrace.

If current conditions of your life are not supporting lightheartedness, if you are grieving or in great pain, feeling sad or afraid, let nature’s wisdom nurture you now. This too is life. This too shall pass.


RADIANT METTA

Another aspect of Buddhist meditation that comes to mind for me especially at this time of year is how the infinite radiance of the sun is like the infinite radiance of metta, loving kindness. Like the sun, metta shines on all without discrimination. Metta is not just for those who are ‘worthy’ or ‘lovable.’ This radiance is not something we have to earn. It is our birthright to feel the sun on our skin when it shines. It is our birthright to feel the infinite loving kindness of the universe supporting us. And it is our intention as meditators to be conduits for that radiant loving energy, offering it without the filter of judgment to all beings everywhere.

Sending metta to ourselves when we get upset helps us let go of a story that might have ruffled our feathers and kept us unsettled for hours, days or years! It is empowering and releasing at the same time.

By being present with the changes of the seasons, we can break out of the bondage of our habitual nature. We can celebrate the summer solstice by rising earlier in the cool of the day to enjoy the fresh morning, relaxing in the heat of the afternoon, and by getting out and enjoying the extended evening light. By recognizing that we are loved, have always been loved and will always be loved, held in the buoyancy of infinite metta, we can be infinitely generous with sharing loving kindness with the world, holding it in an open embrace.

THREE NEW GUIDED MEDITATIONS ON INSIGHT TIMER
For those of you who have the free Insight Timer app or would like to download it and try it out, three additional meditations have been added to my published offerings, each one geared toward a particular challenge: Anxiety, Sleeplessness and Anger/Hurt Feelings. They are receiving lots of five star reviews and grateful comments from around the world. Check them out and please share them with anyone you know who might be suffering from any of these. We’re all in this together!

Image by Valentin Sabau from Pixabay

Awakening to Choice

In the previous post we looked at finding magical moments of mindfulness in the middle of everything. I offered examples of how to come fully into whatever moment you’re in and the joys to be found there.

But there’s even more magic in being fully present. In each moment of mindfulness we can recognize that this is a pivotal point in our lives. This puts us in a position of personal power because we can see that we have a choice. We are not stuck in a rut or being dragged along by the currents of life. We are here and now, awake, alive, aware.

Not all our choices are beneficial. In each moment we can, for example:

  • let craving drive us in a habitual direction of unskillfulness that promises happiness but causes misery
  • let aversion judge ourselves or others harshly so that we feel angry and beaten down and cause others to feel the same

OR

See that pivot point there, that >>>>>OR<<<<< ?

It’s the little word of wisdom that offers us options to our habituated and often destructive behavior. It reminds us that we can choose to be fully present in this moment just as it is and greet the arising of the next moment with wise intention.

The first time I noticed that ‘or’ I was trodding a well-worn path to my refrigerator, that altar of delights for my taste buds and solace for whatever was ailing me. I was on a mindless habituated trek when I heard the word ‘or’. My inner wisdom was offering me an option to this pattern of mindlessness and self-destructive behavior. It said, ‘Or…I could take a walk in the garden.’ ‘Or…I could call a friend.’ ‘Or…’

You get the idea. There were so many choices that I could make if I paused to notice that I wasn’t hungry, just bored or sad or who knows what in that moment. My go-to answer was to follow a craving. In that moment I was suddenly present.  Being present, a world of choices opened to me.

Where in your life do you typically go mindless and end up following the lure of a craving or being caught up in aversion, stewing over something or someone? Are there any instances when you suddenly saw that you had other options?

We are all mindless at times. As we practice being more present in the moment, we discover how easy it is to slip into mindlessness again. The opportunities are all there: the cravings, the emotions, the judgments. But as we stay present we can see there are other opportunities offering themselves to us: to notice and follow our wisest intention to be present, aware and filled with compassion for ourselves and all beings. Living fully in this moment, our wise intention will naturally carry us to the next moment.

Each moment of awareness is a pivotal moment, but that doesn’t mean that we are constantly standing at a crossroads, wondering which way our future lies. That would cause us to fall out of mindfulness. There are times when considering the future is valuable, like preparing ourselves and our families to handle potentially volatile conditions. But most of the time future leaning causes imbalance in our lives, leaves us unavailable to see or hear what is happening right now. And that mindlessness will likely lead us to a future we never wanted, because we won’t have been present and engaged with life, so we become increasingly isolated and unskillful.

The power is here in the present, fully experienced with all the senses, as we learn again and again how to grow in awareness and compassion, right where we are in this moment, just as it is.

Magical Moments of Mindfulness in the Middle of Everything


Monk walking
Photo credit: Honey Kochphon Onshawee

Throughout the day there are so many opportunities to practice coming fully into the present moment. Here are a few examples:

  1. Holding your cup of coffee or tea
  2. Watching a weather phenomenon arising and falling away
  3. Riding mass transit
  4. Waiting in line
  5. Walking anywhere

Whether you meditate or not, you can still practice being present in this moment just as it is. Meditation develops and tune these skills, but using them is something that you can do any time. Using these examples, here’s how to come fully into the joy of this moment:

That comforting cup of warm liquid is a welcoming place to rest your full attention, especially on a cold day. Hold it in your hands and focus on the feeling of the heat in your palms. Notice any sense of relaxation, restfulness, pleasure, anticipation, etc. that arises in you. Maintain that focus as you lift the cup to take a sip, noticing all the senses involved now. Close your eyes and savor the experience. Stay present in the moment just as it is, allowing other senses – hearing, seeing, etc. to be noticed as they make themselves known. Rest in a state of openness and welcoming.

If you spot a rainbow and you have a few minutes to spare, stop and watch it with your full attention. Let go of all the associative thoughts that come up for you with rainbows or the anticipation of telling someone about it, or the desire to take a photo. Just be with the experience itself. Notice how it intensifies and lessens in intensity. Stay with it until it dissolves.

If you are on a bus, subway, plane or other form of mass transit, take the opportunity to really feel the movement, hear the sounds, feel bodily sensations of sitting or standing, swaying, pressure against the seat or other surfaces. If you feel so inclined, send metta — infinite lovingkindness — to everyone on the transport with you.

If you are waiting in line, say at a grocery store, recognize that impatience will not get you out the door any faster. Then sense into the sensations that are present in the moment. All the ones already mentioned, but also taking in the visual feast of color and pattern in all the packaging without getting caught up in labeling what they are or what you think of them. See it all as an artist might see it. If someone in front of you seems to be taking longer than you deem necessary to conduct their transaction, notice how that judgment feels in your body, how it reintroduces impatience, anger, judgment and other kinds of discomfort. Why are you letting their actions negatively affect your current state of being? To shift your state, you might expand from simple awareness to sending metta to that person who most likely has life challenges beyond what you can imagine. While you’re at it send metta to the checker who must deal with challenging people all day while you will very soon be on your way out the door. And while you’re at it, send metta to the people in line in front and behind you. And why stop there? Send it out to the whole store full of people going about their day, doing the best they can. And once you’ve done that, and especially if there’s good music playing, you might recognize that this moment is really more of a party going on. Why any second everyone might break into dancing. or conversation. Or at the very least smiles. You could be the one to break the ice with just a little smile at one other person. Try it!

If you are walking, see if you can be fully present, letting go of any sense of your destination or sense of accomplishment. Just walking. Just sensing into the movement of your muscles, your feet touching the ground, the way your body balances, the feel of air on your skin, the temperature, the sights and sounds going on all around you as you move through space. How freeing it is to be present!

In all these situations, and in any others you can think of, the common thread is to come fully into the senses, letting go of all the thoughts that take you away from this moment and entangle your attention in other places, times, challenges, etc. That is mindfulness. Also notice the opportunities for extending kindness to all around you. How different this is from the mind state of seeing people as obstacles to your goals!

Every moment of every day offers you the opportunity to be present, to live more fully, to feel more alive and in love with life. I have mentioned just a few examples. There are as many more as there are moments in the day. See what you find when you open to the senses and fully live this magical moment, just as it is. And please, report back your findings!

Finally Spring! Wait what?

In the Bay Area we have had an exceptionally rainy winter, especially compared to recent years of drought. We are grateful to have our reservoirs full, but we may have forgotten how a typical wet winter feels, let alone this seemingly daily deluge. So when spring burst forth in all its sun-drenched flower-studded green finery and the air became soft and welcoming for days on end, we breathed sighs of relief, and we celebrated.

Now the rain is back and predicted to be gray and wet for days. I don’t trust predictions, but let’s assume that’s the case. If I had not made the most of that beautiful weather and those lovely sights, sounds and smells, I would be feeling pretty grumpy about now. But I did appreciate it and made a point of making lots of room for noticing it, so even as the rain returns I have no regrets.

There is no cure for how things change except to live fully in the moment, not putting off deep appreciation of beauty for another day just because we have a long to do list. That to do list will be there, like a trusty dog who has the bad habit of nipping at our heels. Sure, there are some things that can’t be put off and we do them with our full attention, then discern what can wait and get out into nature and let the sun shine on our faces and breathe in the sweet scents abounding.

If we don’t do that, then when the rains come, we realize our opportunity was fleeting, that the rain and wind will force the blossoms off the trees and beat the flowers down, and nothing will be as it was. We will have missed it and now mourn it.

Where else in life do we experience the same feeling of having missed what mattered? Perhaps we had our eyes on the wrong prize, caught up in attending to ‘important matters’, believing that the beauty and wonder of life — of our loved ones, of our bodies health and abilities, of our own good fortune — will sit around waiting for us to take notice, to engage, to appreciate this moment and all that arises in it. Maybe we are so busy mourning the way things used to be that we aren’t able to see what’s right in front of us and find gratitude for that.

Things change. We change. No amount of wishing will change that! The only way to have no regrets is to be fully present to notice the beauty in every moment.

As I sit here writing, I look out across the wet deck at the soft gray clouds drift by. I see how the pale green leaves are filling in the empty spaces on the oak tree, and I hear loved ones — my husband of many years and an old friend visiting from a great distance — in other rooms of the house doing their healthy morning routines. I am chock full gratitude for this moment, too.

But, you may say, so much is wrong with the world and perhaps with our lives. How can we indulge ourselves in enjoying spring or anything else? After all, the same rains that filled the reservoirs and ended years of drought in California also flooded homes and businesses in some areas and caused debris flows in areas trying to recovery from devastating fires. Life is full of all manner of challenges. We do what we can to help, even at times that all we have is our good wishes for all who suffer everywhere.

I leave you with this Buddhist parable:
A traveling monk encounters a tiger. He runs across a field and the tiger chases him. Coming to a precipice, he catches hold of the root of a vine and lowers himself over the edge. As the frustrated tiger sniffs and snarls above him, the monk hangs there, trembling. In the valley below, he sees another tiger pacing, waiting for him to fall. And a few inches away from him, a mouse comes out of a crevice in the rock face and starts gnawing at his vine.
Just then the monk notices a ripe strawberry. He clings to the vine with one hand, and plucks the strawberry with the other.
Delicious!

𝅘𝅥𝅯A tick a tick a tick a good timing𝅘𝅥𝅯 and why being in the moment makes us happy

sunrays1000
Because last week we did an exercise, using the little emojis to represent the Five Hindrances, this week in class I checked in with my students to see how the experience of exploring in that way and working with what they found. If you tried out working with them, I’d love to hear from you!

One student said that in the middle of a difficult conversation she tried to categorize what was coming up for her as one of the Hindrances. It didn’t help.

No, it wouldn’t. This is an exercise to do when we are alone, just noticing thoughts and emotions arising in our experience. It’s good to do after meditation and especially good to do on retreat where periods in between sitting meditation, walking meditation, eating meditation, yogi work meditation and sleeping — when the mind is free to wander, but it is also much more present in the moment. Useful insights can come during these periods of simple noticing because we’ve quieted down enough to allow our own inner wisdom to be heard.

When we are interacting with others, it is important to listen to them. It is challenging enough to not get caught up in planning what we will say next, let alone analyze and categorize thoughts that arise.

Our practice of being in the present moment supports us in conversations with others. If it is a difficult conversation, we might notice the urge to say something unskillful. In that instant, it is skillful to pause and ask ourselves ‘What is my intention here?’  If the intention comes from fear in one of its many forms, rather than loving-kindness, then we know that our words will not be skillful.

But we don’t stop and categorize our thoughts and emotions at that moment. We save that for another time. Instead we silently send metta to ourselves and to other person – May I be well. May you be well. – and go from there.

Talk of being in the present moment prompted another student to ask, “How does being in the moment make us happy?’ Over the past year of meditation practice and attending classes, she has found increasing clarity, peace of mind and, yes, happiness. But she wondered what is it about being in the moment that makes us feel happier? How does it work?

I suggested that it is primarily because the moment is the only place we really live, the only moment that exists with all the senses to experience. All other perceived moments are memory and imaginings, lacking in the fullness of sensory awareness.

Also being in the present moment we are able to see more clearly how threads of thought and emotion that make us unhappy are rooted in the past. Seeing their source, we can more easily question their veracity and gently let them go. The more we let go, the more we are able to stay present and the more joyful the present becomes.

Of course at times there is pain in the moment. But the pain is compounded by dredging up memories of this same or a similar pain, and then pain becomes misery. Pain is exacerbated by getting stuck in the future, thinking the pain will go on forever, or wondering when it will stop. Staying in the present moment with pain shows us the multi-faceted nature of the pain itself, and also all the other things that are going on in this moment that are not painful. Learning how to be present with pain — not making it worse — makes us happier.

Full awareness of this moment fills us with gratitude for being alive, frees us from all the nagging thoughts that find fault in the way things are or want to keep it just so forever. It releases tension and fear-based emotions. It ‘gets us out of our heads’ and into the felt experience of life.

There is an integrity in being fully in the moment, a wholeness to our body-mind experience, that feels like a homecoming. And that makes us happy!

Are there other reasons being in the present moments causes happiness? Please comment!

Trying to capture an experience is not the experience itself

1200px-Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh

I recently had the good fortune to stand in front of Vincent Van Gogh’s painting ‘The Starry Night’ while visiting the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It was an ordinary fall weekday but there were at least a dozen people standing in front of this one painting. I could deal with that. But almost everyone but my husband and me had their phones held above their heads to take pictures of the painting. This is quite different from standing with a group simply admiring the work in quiet shared appreciation. We couldn’t even see the artwork through the sea of cellphones.

Why were they taking photos anyway? There are thousands of photos of this famous painting readily available on the internet, including this one, so I’m not sure what they gained.

But I do know what they missed. They missed the opportunity to be fully present with the painting itself, up close and personal, not through a lens trying to frame it. They missed the chance to simply gaze and allow their eyes to travel around it, to appreciate each element, to notice details of color, texture, imagery, contrast and other choices the artist made. They missed the chance to really open to the gift of seeing close up those swirly brushstrokes (something no camera can replicate), to allow themselves to be immersed in the experience of its creation, to let go and enter a world not of their own making. A painting has the capacity to move us, but only if we are present to experience it.

This is not a complaint or a request for museum etiquette, as much as it may sound like one. It was for me, and perhaps for you, a dharma lesson. Because it’s an example of how we miss living fully in the moment when we try to ‘capture’ it for later enjoyment. We can’t capture a moment. A moment is fleeting. And we can’t relive an experience, especially one we weren’t present enough to fully live in the first place

What is it to be fully in the moment? I encourage you right now to pause and look around you. Let all your senses fully explore this moment. Notice patterns, the interplay of light and shadow, color. Go beyond making a mental note of objects you can name. Notice their shapes and the arrangement of them in space.

Now use your hands to rub and touch the texture of things within your reach. Feel the inside of your mouth, the slippery sliding, the wet warmth.

Then listen, hear whatever there is to hear in this moment. And whatever else you notice in this moment, without getting caught up in a lot of thoughts about it.

For me, right now as I’m writing this, there is the sound of footsteps on the stairs, the clearing of a throat, the sound of the dishwasher — ordinary. Yet held in an open embrace, life being lived and loved, just as it is.

Can you be that present all the time? Probably not, and that’s okay, but what a wondrous thing to aspire to. Can you see how when we try to re-live memories of ‘special’ moments it dishonors this very moment. Everything in the whole universe fell into place in a particular way to bring this moment into being. Let’s have some appreciation for this, just this, just as it is.

Another lesson from this same experience of standing in the crowd in front of that painting: A few of the phone-photographers actually turned their back on the painting to take a selfie — ‘me and Vinnie, we be buds’ —  for sharing on social media. This is a perfect example of how we try to shore up our identity, fearfully putting together and promoting the self as an object to be admired, respected, loved and seen. Great compassion to that suffering being who fails to feel how supported and appreciated they are by the whole universe. How the whole universe came together to create them, just as they are.

Buddha discovered for himself and shared how there is no separate self. Sure, we function in this life as if we are separate — just as a drop of water flying over a wave seems separate, but it’s not. And we’re not. We are literally all stardust. Each body-mind is a unique but inseparable manifestation of life loving itself. Life is a complex system of ever-changing patterns of being, arising and falling away, forming and dissolving. There is nothing to prove on social media. There is no reason to feel isolated. We are all of us in this together.

So can we put down that phone and simply enjoy what is present in this moment? Ah. Welcome home.