Category Archives: present moment

‘Love the One You’re With’

‘Love the One You’re With’. These song lyrics from Crosby, Stills and Nash in 1970 always seemed like really bad advice, a sure way to get in trouble when traveling without your true love. But taken a different way, it’s spot on.

I am looking out at the view I have from the place I sit in meditation every morning. It is raining, the fog is cloaking the mountain and softening the trees on the ridge and even those nearby. Our neighbors’ deciduous oak is where my eyes naturally rest. Over the years I have seen this tree in all states of bud, leaf, and each winter in this bare sodden state. It has come to seem like an old friend, naked and vulnerable. Surely, it’s an acquired appreciation of a peculiar beauty. In the distant past it had an unfortunate encounter with an aggressive tree trimmer on an off day. I can see how the tree is slowly over the years recovering its natural shape. But even at its most awkward, it has been a beloved perch for a variety of birds, including owls in the middle of the night.
view out my window

Having my own morning perch to meditate and view the world, or a regular walk in nature, helps to tune me to the seasons, and remind me that only change is constant. Whatever the season, whatever the state of this tree, I can have a deep abiding appreciation for it. I can ‘love the one I’m with’. Whatever I am going through at any moment, whatever discomforts I am feeling in my body or mind, I can be present with them too in a compassionate way. I can love the moment I’m in. I can ‘love the one I’m with.’

Infinite Joy in this Finite Life

In this life each of us has only a finite number of sunrises and sunsets, even fewer full moons, even fewer splendid seasons and favorite holidays, even fewer times with a beloved child at this unique phase of their life, and even fewer moments with an elder on the verge of transition. This thought can make us depressed. We want it all to go on forever so that we can relax and be casual about it, rest in it, trust in it. But it’s so finite that we may scold ourselves for not gorging fully in every second of it. We may feel bad that we are not sufficiently appreciative of this gift of life.

These kinds of feelings can spark a renewed intention to practice meditation. We know this regular practice will help us develop the mindfulness to experience infinite joy in the finite moments of our lives.

What we find in the process is that meditation can help us develop compassion for ourselves as we live our lives in a way that works best for us. Yes, we are more present to appreciate this gift of life in all its variations, but we may see that we don’t have to rush around to seek out every amazingly beautiful moment of earthly pleasure. We discover that even the most ordinary moment when fully experienced is infinitely satisfying in beauty and depth.

Take this moment for example. You are reading, I am writing. Let’s both just take a moment here to notice all that is going on. Sense into the body. Notice the overall energy in the body, temperature, textures, the breath rising and falling, the feeling of support the earth provides, any sounds going on in this moment, and any smells available, maybe some discomfort or pain, maybe some pleasurable sensation. Now look around and notice the light, color, patterns, shadows, and the contrast of values. Open to this moment of being, releasing judgments, cultivating compassion, noting gratitude. Ah.

See what I mean? No matter where you are, if you greet this moment sincerely with all your senses, the moment reveals all its treasure.

My mother had a great lust for life, and in her later years every full moon she would organize an evening picnic on the easternmost point of our fair city overlooking the bay. Three generations gathered together to watch the moonrise. It was special, and I am so grateful she did that. In the years since she died there have been many times when I notice myself feeling guilty that I missed a moonrise, again. I have often had private moments with the setting moon out my bedroom window, so it is not the moon I am missing. And I am very involved with my own children and grandchildren, so it is not the three-generation event I am missing. Maybe I am just missing her. And I have a long habit of comparing myself to the woman she was and coming up short. But when it came to full moonrises, she knew she had only a dozen or so more to experience. And that is a great motivator.

I remember when my husband and I planned a trip to enjoy the autumn leaves in New England. After I had made all the reservations at cute little B&B’s, his work informed him that he just could not be spared at this time, that he would have to postpone his trip. Postpone? Did they think the autumn leaves would just linger on the tree limbs until he could get time off? We cancelled the trip, but it started him thinking about the finite nature of the years we had left and not long after he quit his job and started being a full time artist. The next year we did go East to see the leaves, but wouldn’t you know it, everywhere we went people would say, ‘Oh, you should have been here last year. The colors were so amazing.’

How is it for you? Do you feel the finite nature of this fleeting life? Does it make you feel you need to fill your life with amazing experiences?

In this consumer culture, it’s easy to develop a consumer mentality around life experiences, acquiring stamps on passports, photos on the internet and checks on bucket lists. It’s easy to get into an acquisitive relationship with life. But what do we really ‘have’ in the end?

Some people say they do extreme sports because it’s the only time they really feel alive. Every year we see people doing increasingly dangerous things with the only bodies they have in this life. I am so grateful that none of my children seem to have that need! A less extreme way of feeling that aliveness is through travel where everything is new and engages us in a way our habitual life does not because we live on auto-pilot, get lost in past and future thoughts, and everything becomes a dull redundancy.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. No two moments are ever the same. We don’t need to go away to experience this moment as new, fresh and alive. Certainly we can travel to interact with other people, to practice other languages, to learn our way is not the only way, and to deepen our understanding of what it is to be in this body on this planet at this point in time. But no matter where we are, if we are fully present and compassionate, we won’t have missed a thing.

We can bring the infinite joy of being fully present to savor each moment in this oh-so finite life.

Feeling a little tense, are you?

Sometimes I find myself all tense and worried about a current situation, and I fall into the belief that once this is over I can really relax. And then it is over and I’m glad, but my body is still tense! What’s up with that?


The body has a strong preference for the here and now, so when the mind has cast a net into the future, the body tightens up, creates discomfort and even pain as a reminder to release the net and come back to this, just this.

The body so wants me to be here now that even as I’m writing this I can feel my body purring like a cat!

Oil painting by Stephanie Noble


If you feel tense, pause to sense into your body. What do you notice? Where exactly do you feel tension? We all have places we chronically hold tension and it’s useful to know where they are so in a moment of crisis we can gently focus on that area, softening its grip.

Once you have identified the area(s) of tension, spend some time relaxing and releasing the tension in whatever way works best for you. Maybe send it the message ‘Relax’ or ‘Release’ or another word or phrase that soothes you like ‘Let go’. Maybe imagine breathing into that area, softening it with the warmth of your breath.

Now notice other sensations in the body, places where there is no tension. Find a pleasant or neutral sensation and it will remind you that there is more going on in your body and in your life than just this situation that is causing you tension.

Use all your senses. Listen to the various sounds around you without getting caught up in attaching them to preferences or references that draw you into the past or future. It’s just a symphony of sounds. Look around you and notice all the light and dark contrasts, the colors, patterns, shadows and reflections. See if you can smell anything. If not, you might go find something to smell – the cinnamon in the spice cabinet or the flowers on the table. (Smelling things was a big part of our childhoods but we often don’t use it now except to notice something unpleasant. My little granddaughters sometimes generously share their blankies, offering them up to be smelled. All the comfort they derive from these little soft squares of fuzzy fabric is in that cozy scent.)

There are so many sensations available to us in any given moment: texture, temperature, the dampness inside our mouths, the breath that rises and falls in our chest, the feel of the earth supporting us. The more we are able to access sensation, the more present we are in this moment. The more present we are in this moment, the more we are able to live fully with clarity and compassion.

So come to your senses, release whatever tension you can and see if it doesn’t make you purr!

Walking through a dark valley

When I’m going through a difficult time, I try to remember to pause and notice what’s going on in my body. What sensations are present that aren’t usually here?
For example, have you ever felt an achy heaviness in the chest area? That can be a physical manifestation of loss. Next time you feel that sensation, you might pause to consider what’s going on in your life. Where might you be feeling loss?
If we can notice a physical sensation, we can hold it with tenderness. We can be the kind friend to ourselves that we try to be for others. We can be present to experience this sensation, and to be compassionate with it. This is much more powerful than trying to talk ourselves out of it.
I grew up back when ’emotional intelligence’ was not even coined as a term. My mother was a great and loving woman. I was very lucky. But even so, if I said, ‘Mom, I’m feeling sad,’ she would get very uncomfortable and tell me that I had nothing to complain about. It’s not her fault. If she were a young mother today, chances are she would know that telling someone they shouldn’t feel what they feel is not very useful.
Has anyone ever told you to stuff down your feelings or trade them in for a shinier happy version that would make everyone feel more comfortable? And if so, have you found that their voices are still in your head, still telling you it’s not okay to feel what you feel?
Most of us have stuffed-down sadness that we didn’t let ourselves feel at the time it occurred. It is still there, compressed under layers and layers of judgment. When we notice it, we rush to put on a smiley-faced band-aid and hope nobody notices.
Noticing is what our mindfulness practice is all about. We notice physical sensation first and foremost. It anchors us in the present moment which is the only one that exists. The past and future are just thoughts. We can’t change the past, though we can change how we relate to it, and any power we have over the future is contained in this present moment.
But are we willing to be present when we’re going through something difficult?
Most of us want to rush past this experience and get to a pleasant one. Maybe we’re embarrassed to be down and that adds to our discomfort. So we’re racing toward some brighter future, but we are dragging all these weighty anchors from the past. Our anger and judgments are rooted there. We’re not operating from here and now but from where we once were because we weren’t sufficiently there to notice what was going on at the time and to give ourselves the simple gift of being there. It’s complicated!
You can see how this gets us into trouble.

In Psalms 23.4 the Bible says ‘Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.’ This is identifying a human experience we all share at times. We find ourselves walking through a dark valley. We don’t have the vantage of the mountain top to see the lay of the land, so we don’t know where this valley leads. Maybe we get anxious and want very much to get past this narrowing in the inner landscape. We’re spending all our time looking for a way out.

But the valley is actually a very fertile place, and there is great value in simply being here where we are. In fact, the valley is so fertile that whatever it is we seed there will grow up before our eyes. If we are afraid of what we’ll find in the darkness, we seed fear. From the seeds of fear grow all manner of demon-like thoughts and emotions, like associated memories from youth that have lain dormant these many years that now rise up to taunt us. Loser! Loner! Unacceptable! Different! Pathetic!
But even in this dark narrow valley we are never alone. We are each of us an intrinsic part of the grand scheme of things, a natural expression of the life force. If we can sense into physical sensation we can remember this connection and the fear will soften. We can seed that same valley with love and compassion that in turn nourishes us. We are then able to follow our natural course at an easeful pace. We cease to struggle to get a mountain top vantage point but accept that we just don’t know. And that’s okay.
We expect to be in dark valleys when we have experienced a loss of any kind. We don’t expect to wake up one day and for no particular reason find we’re in a valley. But it happens, doesn’t it?
Sometimes when we do what feels like the next right thing in the natural flow of our lives, we come to a bend in the river and the shadows of the canyon walls make everything go dark. At this point we have no idea what to do. We thought we had a clear course, yet here we are in the valley of darkness! How did this happen?
As an example, I have recently embarked on a journey, having made a decision to publish some of my writing in book form, and I find myself at times in the valley. I recognize it. I have been here before. It is the place where all the taunts of my youth come up to haunt me.
I think how foolish I must have appeared when, as a new kid in school, I ran for an office because no one else was running and I thought it would be a good way to meet people. That would have probably worked out okay except that at the last minute the most popular girl in the class decided to run as well, and it was too late for me to withdraw. How awkward I felt making campaign promises standing in front of the whole student body in the expensive Pendleton plaid wool pleated skirt my mother had splurged on so I would feel confident for the occasion.
It was of course no surprise that I didn’t win, but here’s the painful part for me to remember: I stayed after school to wait for the voting results. Now why did I do that? Did I think I had a chance? That delusional hopefulness worries me.It makes me wonder if am I just as delusional now.
Of course in my mother’s view the worst thing about it was that I never wore that Pendleton skirt again. It was jinxed and had bad memories. I wanted to forget the whole experience. But clearly I haven’t, have I?
When you find yourself in a dark valley for seemingly no reason, notice what ancient taunts rise up to pull you down. What are the parallels to your current situation?
We all have these echoes within us, these events in our lives that reactivate fear when any potentially parallel situation arises. So where’s the parallel for me? In publishing these days it is supremely important to have a preexisting ‘author platform’ — an audience of people already interested in what the author has to say. Back in high school as the new kid in town I was completely lacking in any ‘platform’ at all, especially compared to that very popular girl. That’s a seemingly direct parallel. Except, as my meditation students point out, I have them, my blog readers, readers of my last book, as well as a wide circle of friends. I’m not the new kid at school. But the fear is there. 
So here I am in this dark valley at some moments when self-doubt creeps in. Just last week I was up on the proverbial mountain, leaping from peak to peak, feeling so supported by the universe. Absolutely nothing has changed from that moment to this. Students are sending me lovely expressions of praise to share with publishers. Friends say how great it is I’m doing it. Those with knowledge about publishing are particularly encouraging.
But still I find myself in the dark valley with a bunch of fourteen-year-olds from fifty years ago, who to their credit never said one mean word to me about the whole debacle. It’s all me creating this valley of darkness. And that’s important to remember.
What can I do about it? What can any of us do? We stay present with this moment and notice how it feels to be here with these physical sensations, some of them painful. We notice how it feels to stay present with these thoughts and emotions that arise in our field of awareness. Some of them are painful. We don’t try to talk ourselves out of what we are feeling. We don’t try to shame ourselves into more cheerful views. We simply stay present and acknowledge that we don’t know how long we’ll be walking in this dark valley. It may disappear in the next instant. It may last awhile. We do not know, and that’s important for us to embrace as a way of relating to our experience and life in general because it’s the truth in every moment, not just this one.
So we stay present and compassionate with ourselves, planting seeds of kindness in this fertile valley. If demons rise up from the fear-seeds we’ve planted in the past, we are compassionate with them. We don’t indulge their fears but we do acknowledge them. They are like old friends who think they are trying to protect us. We can remind ourselves that they are well-intentioned but not wise. So we appreciate their efforts but we don’t follow their advice.

With compassion and awareness, we may find that this valley is verdant. Someday we may look back and see it as the source of wonderful things that followed, how we grew in ways we could never have imagined. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s be here in the valley now, noticing physical sensation and giving ourselves time to experience it with compassion.

When this moment pales by comparison

Recently we went on an outing to a narrow peninsula that juts out into the Pacific, cupping Drakes Bay, called Chimney Rock. A beautiful place any time by any standards, but there is a certain time in the Spring when this narrow stretch of land with its steep cliffs on either side is thick with fields of wildflowers, seals birth their young on the beach below, and migrating whales pass by on their way north.

How could we not go every year to such a spectacular place? Well it is a long drive, but the real reason we don’t is that one visit many years ago was so special, so magical that for at least a few years after that I didn’t want to go again, lest I dilute that perfect memory of that previous experience.

Have you ever had the fear of losing an experience by trying to repeat it? My students did. One said she feels like she can never go back to Venice, because it was so exquisite. I totally understand this. We don’t want to mess with that perfect memory, diminish it by imposing new memories on the same place.

But are we then just collectors of memories? What does this say about who we believe ourselves to be?

Remember when we explored the Five Aggregates. One of the Aggregates was cognition, how our thinking brain perceives the world and the knowledge base we accumulate. We enjoy adding a new lovely memory, like a jewel to add to the crown of remembered experience we hold to be an important part of who we are. What a Deluxe Dukkha* Delivery System that is!

Even if we are able to retain memories our whole life, if we enshrine them, they lure us into the past, away from this moment. We pull them out and admire them when we don’t want to face what is. But life is not enriched by living elsewhere in our minds, in other times or places. We cause suffering for ourselves and for those around us, who may feel they are not enough to hold our attention, or whose concerns cannot be met because we are in a state of avoidance. (This is not to diminish the richness of sharing stories with loved ones who ask to hear them. But if the need is strong to live in the past, then it becomes clear this is an escape from something in the present.)

Beyond the fear of polluting a perfect memory, there are other reasons a repeated experience pales by comparison with the first time. Any brand new experience tends to get our full attention, doesn’t it? We are more likely to be present with whatever is going on, to notice the light, the texture and other sensory details of that moment.

The next time we go to the same place or eat the same meal, it’s just harder to pay the same level of attention. What was new before is no longer new, just a part of our ongoing experience of being in the world. Not memorable. Give us a daily dose, like a commute, and most of us will stop noticing large portions of our experience altogether. We might remember something noticeably different from usual, but the rest is just wallpaper to our day. To create that sense of aliveness, we feel we must keep traveling to different places we’ve never been, try new restaurants, new dishes, new forms of entertainment, new adventures, new outfits, or new decor.

The body of precious memory we carry — That magical carpet of wildflowers! That gondola ride! — acts as a powerful obscuring filter through which we see (or don’t see!) the current moment. We cannot recreate the first time we encountered something new. It is gone. But we hold it tight and get caught up in comparing mind.

Between not paying attention to what is and looking through the filter of what was, how is it possible to engage in this second experience with the same rapt attention?

The other day when we got out to Chimney Rock, there was a perfectly horizontal stripe of light mist in Drake’s Bay that made it appear to be a modernist landscape. As we headed down the path toward the point we encountered a female tule elk that kept running around and squatting. Given her bulky middle section she might have been giving birth.

We saw a little mole peeking out of his hole — exciting in the wild, less so in the garden. And then the wildflowers started revealing themselves, plenty of variety, lots of beauty. Okay, maybe it’s not a solid carpet of flowers like that one magical time, but this would not be a bust.

Then we saw our first whale. Phew! Comparing mind was beginning to relax. But then it became a comparing numbers game. How many whales would we see? That one magical time we saw a pod of whales, mothers and babies, and we followed them all around the point. It had been such a still day we could even hear their calls.

This time while out at the point having a picnic, we met two retired women from the East Bay who said they come every year to Chimney Rock. We enjoyed watching the whales with them, five all together, and there was a peregrine falcon sitting nearby on the cliff’s edge for an exhilarating few seconds before he flew off. Okay! This was it’s very own quite spectacular day.

But what if this trip was a bust? If nothing had met our expectations? One time
we went on a hike up in the mountains around Carson Pass in the Sierra. The trail from Woods Lake up to Lake Winnemucca in an El Nino year had a wildflower display that was unbelievably gorgeous. Two years later we returned in hopes of replicating our first experience, but all we got was a muddy trail and an occasional flower here and there. We turned back and found another trail we hadn’t tried before.

How much of this disappointment is the environment and how much is our minds? Being relieved that the environment supplied sufficient beauty and diversity is not the same as coming to ‘beginner’s mind’ where whatever the experience, we are at home in our breath, present in the moment, alive.

When we meditate we might compare this meditation to one we did before. Perhaps we had experienced a state of bliss. Had we only known we would turn around and use this exquisite experience as an instrument of torture in every subsequent meditation, it would not have been so blissful!

So what can we do?

First we can notice our comparing mind and smile at its capacity to get itself caught up in a tangle, like a little kitten in a ball of yarn. “Oh sweetheart, look at you, caught up in the tangle again,” and then we can bring our attention back to the present.

When we are present there isn’t much room for comparing mind. And when it crops up we recognize it for what it is — the desire to replicate joy. That’s not such a bad motivation, but as we see it in action we see that it causes us, and sometimes those around us, to suffer. Oh it’s not a terrible suffering, but it tends to suck the joy right out of our experience, and often out of the experience of those around us. It becomes a habit of mind, a chronic state that does a disservice to the moment we are in, the only moment that exists, the only moment we have to savor.

What makes a magical moment anyway?  if we are truly present, fully anchored in awareness of physical sensation, of the sights, sounds, aromas, tastes and texture of this moment, we discover our full capacity to be alive, and that is joyful, whatever is going on.

Exercise

Spend a few minutes right now, wherever you are, just noticing what’s going on in this moment. 
For example, as I write this: The last light is on the trees waving in the breeze (pleasant), which is also rustling some paper by the open window (mildly unpleasant). There are bird sounds (pleasant twittering and mildly unpleasant squawks) and a distant hum of commute traffic. The air, so hot all day, is cooling. My stomach is feeling the urge to get some dinner cooking. I notice both the desire to finish this writing and the urge to get up. (At odds, but not totally unpleasant while just observing it.) 
I could go on, but tell me, what is this precious moment like for you?

*Dukkha is the Sanskrit word for suffering.

Wise Mindfulness — the joy of being fully present

As you read these words, sense in to what is going on in this moment. Your eyes are activated. What else do you notice? Can you feel the pull of gravity as pressure on your seat or feet? What else? Pay attention to all your senses that anchor you in this moment.

Mindfulness is noticing what’s happening in this moment rather than getting lost in thought. The habituated mind is zoned out and often does things that are unskillful, acting on impulses and other murky motivations. The mind that is attuned to the moment uses all senses to register the various components that make up any given experience.
People think meditation is about getting rid of thoughts and they don’t feel this is possible for them, so they don’t think they could meditate. This is an unfortunate misunderstanding that keeps so many people from a natural healthy activity that makes such a difference in how we experience life.

In meditation, we don’t need to bother racing around trying to herd our thoughts. It would be like wrangling cats. An impossible task! Instead we create a quality of spaciousness in which the cats can play, but lo and behold they eventually settle down. If you pay attention you can see that there’s much more – and less – in this experience of spaciousness than just busy thoughts.

In the experience of being fully present in this moment, we may notice many sources of information coming through our various sensors. We can register ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ or ‘warm’ or ‘chilly’. We might notice a response to the temperature: pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. We might notice physical responses: sweat, chills, goose bumps; and the urge to put a sweater on or take one off. These are all going on all the time, but we have been on autopilot.  Now we take the time to really notice all these ‘automatic’ activities.

There is also pressure, the interaction of the force of gravity on our body, pressing it into the ground or the chair. When’s the last time you really noticed that sensation?
What are the other senses, and how do you experience them in this moment? Sounds? Textures? Odors? Light and dark? Color? A twinge, an itch, an ache? The breath drawing air, pulling it down, and then releasing it?

All of this is going on, and yet most of us are oblivious to it. We don’t pay attention these ongoing experiences because our minds are caught up in storytelling, problem solving, judging, planning, rewriting history, placing blame and wishing.  All of this is going on in our thoughts, yet we are rarely aware of it – rarely aware that we are having those same thoughts over and over and over again.

Have you ever spent a lot of time with someone, and find that they just keep repeating themselves? Yes? Well, they’re not the only ones. We each have interior monologues – maybe we don’t all voice them and bore other people with them – but if we pay attention to the ongoing brain chatter, we quickly find we’ve got a rather limited set of reruns on a continuous loop! What’s more, if we were to trade thoughts for a day with another person, we’d find that these thoughts would have very similar patterns. We explored this in the Five Aggregates and found that our thoughts and emotions are not who we are, they don’t make us unique. In fact, human thoughts and emotions are universal in their limited range of possible reactions to situations.

Given all this, why would we want to be mindful? No wonder we go on autopilot! Strangely though, paying attention, being in the moment, isn’t at all boring! Yes, there’s the noticing of patterns of thought, but then we see the judging of the patterns, and then we see the struggles. If we can bring metta, loving kindness, into the mix, then our active attention becomes Wise Mindfulness.

Without loving kindness, there will always be a struggle, maybe even a civil war inside. No wonder we suffer when we are constantly enduring and reenacting a battle of rude comments, harsh judgments, and hurt feelings.

Universal loving kindness is a tapped-in understanding that doesn’t make excuses, doesn’t provide justifications. It simply provides spaciousness and tenderness with which to hold all of what is going on.
How does a wise parent or grandparent or teacher handle a child having a temper tantrum? With attention and kindness; not indulgence, but a deep understanding of the nature of being human. Wise Mindfulness is this level of attention infused with universal loving-kindness.

With our cooking pot analogy, Wise Mindfulness is the contents of the pot, the soup or stew we are cooking up. Next week we’ll talk about the spoon that stirs the contents: Wise Concentration.

But until then give yourself every possible opportunity to experience Wise Mindfulness. Commit yourself to a regular sitting practice. Infuse mindfulness into regular activities, like walking the dog, exercising and doing household chores. Mindfully listen as a relative, friend or co-worker talks. Let go of any sense of a goal when you are running errands. The errands will still get done, but you will have been fully in the moment, experiencing this body moving through space with ease. 

Holding Your Life in an Open Embrace

This was a speech with visual aids. I will try to get permission to use the photos I shared in person, but until I do, imagine:

(A black & white photo of a little girl holding on tight to her three dolls, with a distrustful scowl on her face.)

Here’s a photo of a little girl with her dolls. What a lucky little girl to have three dolls! She should be happy. But when I look at her, I don’t see happiness, I see fear. Maybe she’s afraid someone will take her dolls away. Look how tight she’s holding them. She is planning on defending them.

Of course, holding them this tight she can’t really enjoy her dolls, can she? Enjoying her dolls would be holding them in front of her, looking in their faces, talking to them, singing to them, feeding them, dressing them…maybe having a tea party and inviting other children over with their dolls to play.

But she can’t do any of that because she has to hold on tight to these dolls for fear of losing them.

We can all recognize ourselves in this little girl. We all cling to something, afraid of losing it. Whether it’s our possessions, our money, our relationships, our career, our beliefs, the way we see ourselves, the way we see the world – we hold on tight because we don’t know who we would be without them, and we are afraid to find out.

But just as this girl can’t play with her dolls when she holds them so tightly, we can’t really enjoy our lives and all the wonderful things in it when we hold them in such a tight grip.

What happens when we hold on so tight in a relationship for example? When we clamp down on the one we love, begging them to spend more time with us, pay more attention to us, tell us they love us. What happens? Usually we suffocate the love we hold so dear, we strangle it, we squish it. It turns to nothing in our hands.

So this tendency to grasp and cling to what we care about isn’t really a very effective strategy. At best we can’t enjoy it, and at worst we might actually cause it to disappear.

(A black and white photo of another little girl.)

Now here’s another little girl. She’s not happy either. She’s got her pouty face on and her arms folded. But instead of holding on to something she loves, she’s focused on something that hasn’t measured up to her standards, her expectations, her desires. Maybe her mother said she couldn’t have ice cream before dinner, and she’s determined to be miserable about it for a good long while. Or maybe she’s just arrived at a party. Maybe she’s been fantasizing about this party ever since she got the invitation three weeks ago. She imagined the entertainment, the cake, the friends who would be there, how much fun she would have. And here she is and something is not right. It may be the most fun party in the world, but she is stuck on the one thing that’s lacking, the one way in which it doesn’t measure up. So she can’t enjoy herself.

I’m sure we can all recognize ourselves in this little girl too. We’ve all had experiences that didn’t measure up to our expectations. We’ve all at times let that disappointment ruin the whole experience. We’ve all had trouble enjoying this moment because we’re still caught up in what happened last week, last month, last year, and we’re letting it color our whole experience.

The Buddha defined these two ways of being – this grasping and clinging and this aversion as the primary causes of suffering. He acknowledged that there is unavoidable pain in this life, but that most of the suffering we experience is optional, actually caused by these two tendencies.

But it’s not our fault that we’re like this. Like all animals we are programmed to go after what is pleasurable and avoid what is unpleasant. This is the basis of our survival instinct. We are attracted to bright colors and nature made the brightest color vegetables the most nutritious. We are attracted to the mates that will best help us procreate for the survival of the species. We are programmed to avoid the big sharp-toothed roaring bear who might maul us to death.

Our human brain is a little different however. With our highly developed cortex, we can dwell in the past, remembering in incredible detail all that has happened to us. And we can imagine infinite futures, so we can spend a good portion of our time in a state of planning and daydreaming. Now this is an amazing skill to have! Without it we would not have literature, history, inventions, technology, ever evolving architecture, design and the arts.

But we’ve been given this gift without a user manual, without a warning notice that spending too much time in the past or the future instead of staying in the present moment is hazardous to our health and our happiness.

But the brain is still evolving, still developing, and part of this development is tuning in to awareness, consciousness, rediscovering our ability to be in the present moment.

The primary purpose of meditation is to create this ability to be present, to come into balance, to open ourselves to what is arising in this moment and be able to savor it without grasping and clinging.

(A full color photo of a little girl holding a frog in her cup hands in such a way that she can see the frog in front of her. She has a look of curiosity and a smile on her face.)

In this final picture is a little girl who is living in the moment. You’ll notice that this photo, unlike the other two, is in full color. That’s because she is in the present, the only place that is real. The past and future are just thoughts.

She is holding a frog in her hand and she is holding it in open cupped palms, what I call and open embrace. She is able to fully enjoy the frog. She knows that the frog could jump out of her palm at any moment, but she knows that she will still be okay. The frog is not the source of her happiness. Her ability to be with whatever arises is the source of her happiness.

So this is what I hope for all of us: That we take responsibility for our own happiness, by learning how to be present with our experience, how to hold life in an open compassionate embrace.