~ awake in this moment, at home in the world ~

Living in the Present Moment

March 1, 2010
I’m swimming in a sea of sun salutes, with a room full of avid yogis pouring through 108 rounds of this classic yoga flow. We’re warming up the world together on this cold, wet February morning. All shapes and ages float, stumble and drag their way through round after round, and I’m up near the stage, counting. Each teacher leads six rounds, and then I ring a bell to let them know they’re done. I update the tally board as the next teacher climbs onto the stage.

I glance up and see my friend Raquel enter the room - she’s so shiny since she’s returned from her pilgrimage to India. I notice three-year-old Sam choreographing his own yoga sequence near the piano. And then I peek at the clock and silently wish we’d pick up the pace so I can be home by mid-afternoon. I look back at the warming room and then at the teacher on stage. She’s staring at me with pleading panic in her eyes. How many sun salutes left?

For two seconds, the world goes white. How long have I been daydreaming, and just how long can a sun salute last anyway? I muster a crooked smile and whisper with false confidence, "One more round." And then I pray I’m right. Or at least that no one else is counting.

Am I so inattentive that I can’t even count to six without spinning into other worlds? Honestly, I’m afraid the answer may be yes. Most of the time, I’m gone. I'm busy dreaming up fantastic possibilities of future joy or terror, or else I'm replaying past moments in search of some hidden meaning or mystery or message.

Somehow, I doubt that I’m alone. I think most of us aren’t really here much of the time. We’re given the bare ingredients of life, which when we look closely at them are breathtakingly phenomenal all by themselves. And then for some reason - yearning, fear, delusion or possibility - we start dressing them up and layering them with all kinds of crazy thoughts and projections. Before long, we don’t even taste the naked truth of life anymore.

Could this be why so many of us are finding ourselves drawn to the practices of yoga and meditation? These disciplines bring us right back to the present, the only place to find real life. For at least a few frighteningly slender moments, we’re really here. We see, feel, hear, taste and know the raw ingredients of life, and then we grow a little bigger. We rediscover the clean, blue sky in our brains and the sweet, bubbly nectar in our bodies.

The Buddhists call this practice bare attention and say that over time it is transformed into a wise and honest mindfulness that helps us see life truly. And in yoga, we learn this by taking ourselves on journeys where we can’t afford not to pay attention. (Try daydreaming while you’re wrapping your foot behind your neck!) And then gradually this concentration broadens into a deep and steady awareness, not just in triangle pose but in every breath we take.

I love how paying attention so deeply absorbs us in the sensations of the moment so deeply that we come out the other side rinsed clean, with clearer vision and deeper sensitivity. Suddenly we start to feel like we're here again for life’s big show.

Not long ago I dreamed that while teaching a yoga class in the church down the street, I stood up lazily from a pose and rambled out of the room. When I eventually returned to a room full of puzzled students, I heard the voice of god boom out, "Never leave the room you’re in!"

I’m trying to heed that dream’s mantra to stay where I am - in this room, in this moment, in this day. Sometimes I just follow my breath. Sometimes I lie on my back with closed eyes and listen to the sounds of life. Sometimes I follow the advice of Gestalt psychologists and finish the phrase: "Here and now I am aware…"

Occasionally I have to say it aloud to make sure I’m here. "Here and now I am aware that I’m driving my little blue Toyota down Marion Avenue. Here and now I am aware that my left shoulder feels a little achy. The sun is shining, it’s Tuesday, and now I’m exhaling."

I’m learning that by continually bringing myself back to the raw ingredients of life - the sights and sounds and feelings of now - I feel more like a living, breathing, feeling human being. I feel like I’ve drawn all my little lost sheep back home to some vast and rich amazement, to a kind of earth-solid happiness and gratitude just to be here for the game. I’m beginning to soak up every word of life’s big book and liking it a lot, instead of halfheartedly skipping through the pages just to get to the end.

I have a feeling that when my attentional muscles grow a little stronger, I’ll be a wiser person. That’s because as we cultivate attentiveness, we see more honestly what truly brings us ease and what perpetuates our suffering. We start to see how much we cling to what we like and how fiercely we defend ourselves against our fears.

We grow a little more sensitive to the feelings inside ourselves and the people around us. And we start to see that as painful as it sometimes is, right here and now is still a miraculous place to be. As Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck wrote, "You can’t avoid paradise, you can only avoid seeing it."

I played around with all this on a recent vacation. Before I left I decided to have no other agenda but to pay attention - no planning about the future, no worrying about the past. Instead I’d just invite myself to see and smell and feel and absorb as much of the experience as possible.

In the quiet of the morning, I’d sit down and close my eyes. I’d grow as receptive as possible in my body and mind, and then I’d invite myself to absorb the sounds of the moment: the bright yellow chirping of the birds, the low roar of the surf, a splash and a giggle in the pool below. Then I’d open my eyes and drink some more. I’d soak up the turquoise, the emerald, the sapphire of the Caribbean Sea stretching to the far horizon. And sailboats as small as snowflakes on the water, the white railing of the balcony, my right knee shining in the sun.

All this raw beauty pierced so hard, so full, so deep into my tender spots inside that a few times I had to slam my eyelids shut again. The real world seemed almost too dazzling for my soft and settled body, and I really thought I might implode or dissolve or catch fire or melt away. French mystic Simone Weil once wrote that "absolute attention is prayer," and finally I knew what she meant.

Of course, learning to pay attention on a Caribbean vacation is remedial education in here-and-now department. Real wisdom comes from paying attention not just to the easy sweetness we find but to ugliness and pain as well. That comes a little more slowly.

When I do muster up the guts to be here for the pain, I’m amazed at how fast and far I ache to run. I notice, too, how much more suffering and angst I create for myself in the running and armoring and swirling than I do when I have the courage to just settle down and let the sharp sensations touch my softer spots inside.

Somehow life has a way of taking care of itself when we don’t get in the way too much, when we just let ourselves be here for it - to receive it, accept it, welcome it, whatever it brings. And then we grow into bright and beautiful vessels that are perfectly designed to watch, to witness, to swaddle the ever-changing play of life. Nothing too solid or lasting, nothing too serious or stuck. Just a walk out of the shadows and into the shining sun.

This article was originally published in Yoga International (June 2001)