When Now Becomes Then

The apple cart can be overturned almost anytime in this fabulous experience called life, and no matter how deeply spiritual or grounded we are, the events of a new day can undo us.

During times of overwhelming grief or emotion, I seek help wherever I can find it. Sometimes I find peace in the wise words of a dear friend, sometimes in physical activity—other times, I find serenity by reading spiritual books.

I picked up a great one a few weeks ago—Letting Go of the Person You Used to Be: Lessons on Change, Loss, and Spiritual Transformation. This text, by Lama Surya Das, has helped me as I wrestle with grief from two recent losses. My mother passed away from cancer two years ago. A year later, my father had a serious fall and his resulting head injury made him wheelchair-bound and he is now residing in an assisted living facility. Losing one parent is tough enough—but having two dramatic changes within a year’s time was almost too much to bear.

Chapter Eight in Lama Surya Das’s book begins with a great quote by Buddha: “Do not pursue the past. Do not lose yourself in the future. The past no longer is. The future has not yet come. Looking deeply at life as it is in the very here and now, the practitioner dwells in stability and freedom. We must be diligent today. To wait until tomorrow is too late.”

I love this thought of looking at life in the here and now, and finding stability and freedom there. The present moment does contain true freedom; that present truly is a gift. However, it’s easy to slip into focusing our minds on the past or the future. We can spend hours thinking about once was or how things used to be, or we can while away time fortunetelling, imagining what might be. The problem with looking forward or back is that we miss out on the present, which is the only now that we have. I heard one person speaking about the Law of Attraction recently say that even the “now” we experience shifts every second…you are reading this now, which becomes then, and this new now becomes the next then, so it goes, now, then, now, then, now, then….

Ugh! Why can’t we just hold one moment (especially one we particularly like) so we can drink it in and revel in it? I want to cling to that moment when the sun hits the trees in a particularly stunning way, or the instant when a spectacular wave meets the beach. Or what about that moment when your child grabs your hand and squeezes, or the instant when your love looks you in the eyes and you can see their whole face smiling?

The great Buddhist practice of mindfulness can help us focus more on these moments of grace. A Zen story from this book illustrates this perfectly: A monk, proud of recently becoming a teacher, goes to see a Zen master. The monk removes his clogs at the door and leaves them with his umbrella. But the master then asks him, “When you removed your shoes, did you place them to the left or the right of your umbrella?” The monk of course can’t remember, and feels foolish because it’s evident how much he still has learn about mindfulness.

Do you know which side you put your umbrella down this morning? Can you even remember where you put your keys, or when you last played Monopoly with your kid? Do you know what color the dish soap was when you last washed the dishes, or the fragrance it carried? When did you last stop what you were doing and look a family member in the eye as they spoke to you?

All of these moments may seem inconsequential. But each day is made up of one thousand of these minor moments. Strung together like a great long pearl necklace, they are all we have in a lifetime.

Today, most of us struggle with simple distractions—such as turning off the television, trying to not do too many things at once, putting away our Blackberries during vacation. It’s hard some days to even stop typing when a colleague walks in the office. We are always thinking about what we meant to do yesterday or whether we will have time tomorrow to do what needs to get done. It seems we are moving further away from mindfulness than toward it.

But even noticing the mind’s seductive habit of shifting to the past or the future is the first step. Mindfulness meditation is one practice that can get us there. But even if we don’t want to explore a meditation practice, we can always gently practice shifting our minds to the now moment.

Right now, my son sits across from me working on summer math problems. He’s listening to his ipod and his foot is gently bumping the table leg. My fingers are gently tapping the laptop keys, and words are showing up on the page. The dishwasher is humming, spraying clean, sudsy water over our dinner dishes. Our stomachs are full with homemade ice cream from a local parlor. A gentle rain is falling outside our window. For now, I am content.