“The saints, too, had wandering minds. The saints, too, had constantly to recall their constantly wandering mind-child home. They became saints because they continued to go after the little wanderer, like the Good Shepherd.
—Prayer For Beginners
Life is available only in the present moment.
–Thich Nhat Hanh
[October 20, 2022]
Matthew is teething. It’s got to be one of the toughest of growing pains a young body and mind can endure. Tiny bones are beginning to protrude, announcing their presence with tears and frustration. I cannot take away the pain, I cannot reason with him that this will all be OK. I can only calm him and offer solace in embraces, soothing voicings, and distractions.
The poor kiddo was chewing on a balled up fist in my arms the other day, cheeks wet with tears, as I held him in my left arm and fumbled with my right to open the refrigerator door and retrieve a small plate that held his chilled Nuby rings.
Door opened, plate retrieved, and baby balanced, I was winning Working Dad Honors in my ego for my efforts when –
Matthew had zigged, my arm had zagged, and the plate plummeted to the floor with an alarming velocity and terrific clamor. Shards of polar white ceramic bloomed outward across the linoleum.
No one was hurt at all, but the noise seemed to echo on, and on, and on.
There’s an old story about a student who goes to his teacher asking about enlightenment and the practice of the Great Way. It’s a short story:
Student: “How do I practice and attain enlightenment?”
Teacher: “Have you eaten your breakfast yet?”
Teacher: “Then wash your bowl.”
As the story goes, the student solved life’s big riddle on the spot, and attained the enlightenment of the Buddhas.
I did not solve any riddles right there by the fridge. But I did console Matthew for at least 10 minutes until he regulated his breathing and his color returned to normal.
Then I carefully swept up the broken pieces and threw them in the garbage.
For some strange reason, there was a tiny air of completeness to simply meeting his needs first, dealing with the broken stuff second. For the first time all day, I wasn’t thinking about what I needed to do, where else I could be, what happened one, two, a hundred days prior, or what next week might look like. I stopped ruminating over that little irksome behavior from someone, I put aside my glee about possibly buying a new pair of shoes, I dropped my worries, plans, ambitions, hopes, and projects.
For the first time all day, I was here.
It’s hard to just be here now. It’s hard to sometimes do the one thing that the universe puts in front of you at a time and says, “Hey! YOU. Do this! All that other stuff can wait because this is the priority! Singular!”
It’s sometimes easier when it’s a dramatic situation. A smashed plate and a screaming baby, for example, will steamroll over whatever other frothing mental chatter is simmering in your brain.
And I’m thankful for it. Sometimes we need dramatic examples to snap us back into the present – the only “now” that exists, our true home, as the monk Thich Nhat Hanh repeatedly counseled.
Most people think modern life moves pretty fast. I can’t help but agree. There’s an acceleration to almost everything, and lures and hooks to snare us in our efforts to try to be everything, to everyone, everywhere, all at once, past, present, and future — even if we’re only doing it inside our own little heads.
The ability to conceive of and plan for our future days is a real gift we have as a species. And a studied and sincere ability to reflect on the past is healthy.
But too much, and a person can dilute their concentration, energy, and ability to respond in the present, tending instead to a seemingly endless barrage of stimuli, real and imagined.
As the writer Joshua Fields Millburn has said – when everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.
That’s helpful when you can’t get your thoughts to calm down, to walk in a line, to take a number, to wait to see the one available clerk in an orderly and democratic manner.
And at that particular right now, the baby needed his daddy. That’s priority, singular.
As Ram Dass elegantly put it: “Be, here, now.”
Simple, but surely not easy. At least sometimes, you get to stop your chatter, or a fog lifts, or a plate drops and a baby cries and — oddly — you just take one step, then another, then another.
Of course, I hope I don’t drop anymore kitchenware soon. But I do hope to be able to carry that momentary and fleeting focus into the future with more regularity – with body, speech, and mind in something closer to oneness, with less flailing and distraction. Even if it only lasts long enough to sweep up the trash and fetch the Nuby rings.
As Thich Nhat Hanh reminds his students:
I have arrived
I am home
In the here
And in the now
I am solid
I am free
In the ultimate I dwell.
After all, where else could we possibly be, if not here, now?
What perfect timing!
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