Presence

by Tom Swift

A few words on mindfulness quick, before I gotta run.

Ha!

Seriously, mindfulness is all the rage these days.

I mean, at least until you get pinged that another cat video has been uploaded and is now appearing in your Facebook feed. No way he jumped right into the cookie jar!

As I was saying — oh wait: look who is having an alcoholic beverage next to water and oh how she must be loving life — gotta “Like” that — (that bitch)! — my life sucks — I am not with someone that beautiful — it’s as if we woke up one day and Ram Dass took over every workshop, seminar, business meeting, and therapy session.

Be. Here. Now. Everyone! Did I say later? No. I said now!

I kid because I care. Some of my best teachers (including at least one I traveled several states away once to hear instruct on the topic) espouse mindfulness and way too many well-adjusted humans have made use of such tools as meditation to discount the real benefits of taking time to get out of the monkey mind and sink into the only moment any of us is guaranteed: this one. In fact, I mean to bring up the ever-widening presence of the need for presence less to be a smartass and more to admit there is little I can add to the topic that you can’t get from a calmer person, from a more practiced meditator, or from a smarter human being (like those wacky neuroscientists with their brain scans).

Yet, finding myself recently in a conversation among thoughtful, sensitive souls on the connection between attention and happiness (there is more than a little data that tells us present people are happier people), I did conjure one bit I want to throw into the moment you are currently experiencing to see if it adds something to the moments you soon will be experiencing.

My thought comes in response to this question: what is the goal? On the face of it, it seems a question that is anathema to the reason for mindfulness in the first place. We are always trying to achieve; what if we take a break and just be? Why, of course, this a decidedly constructive endeavor. We can intuit that and even one minute of concentrated meditation affirms this. Yet I took the question, which came from a person I respect, someone who gets that there is more to life than constant doing and striving, as a good one.

It’s a good one because not only can we not be present every moment, we don’t want to be present every moment. We did not evolve to this place as a species because we were mindful — because we were in the moment every moment. Had we been immersed in the moment and only immersed in the moment those saber-toothed tigers we hear about every time someone talks about the fight-or-flight response would have eaten us. We are out gathering berries … at one with the sound of plucking … absorbed in the feel of the fruit on our fingers … and we ourselves become breakfast.

I do not doubt the data that mindful people are happier people but I don’t think that is why you should meditate.

Everyone wants to be happy but really the pursuit of happiness is a trap. First, by definition, to grasp at happiness is to reach for another moment beyond this one. And, more to the point, there is more to life than being happy. Whether you like it or not. And it’s going to be easier to endure the not-happy parts if you seek meaning and have purpose. (Which might be found in cat videos — who am I to judge?)

To that end, we have our own teacher: the voice inside that tells us what we must do. The unconscious, if you will, though I am not a psychologist (and do not play one on the Internet). We are almost constantly receiving the wellspring that comes from within. My bias is that the unconscious is wonderful, bountiful, and limitless. Anyone who has ever followed his or her intuition and found as a result beauty or bliss knows this.

Yet a lot of gunk comes up, too. The intuition isn’t always right and, even if it were, you have a constant minefield of other shit to contend with — fears, irrational and not, bad memories, and received wisdom that may or not be useful to you. And that’s for starters. You’ve also got desires for sex and revenge and chocolate and for anything else that makes the pain of life lessen.

We have only so much control over what comes up. But we do hold sway, in my view, and more than a little. And the best way to feed the beast, one way to keep him reasonably content, is to send him unadorned moments. The reason we have so many happy memories from childhood, it has been said, is that we were there for nearly every moment. Yes.

The goal, then, is to nourish our thoughts just as we would our bodies. Just as our bodies do not need broccoli all day every day neither is it possible or desired that we aim to feed our minds perfectly. There is no perfectly. Yet just as the body will react to a steady diet of Doritos so, too, will the mind respond to, and languish, if fed with too much trash.

It’s understandable, then, that we are learning about and so craving the power of mindfulness right now (hey, a pun), precisely during a time when we’ve never before as a species been repositories for so much refuse. It really is more than we can manage. And that’s just Instagram.

Yet we can stop the deluge at any time. The moment offers us that. Always.

Mindfulness not only gives us this break it, and in my view this is more important, when we focus right now we will get the best of our unfocused thoughts later.

The day after the discussion just described, one which so immersed me, I observed my little buddy embody the presence. On a cool late-summer day he sauntered to the far end of the yard and found a small slice of ground on which the sun was shining. He plopped down and sat there. He sat in a warm spot. He watched a fly. He sniffed the wind.

I watched him then and what is coming up for me about that moment prompts me right right now to feel my stomach rise and fall, to hear the sound of my breath, to know I am alive and that I love him and that there is something I must do — yep, I do need to go now — go take him for the morning walk. We are late. Somebody’s been writing too long.

As we go, I will try to be present for a good many of the steps we take together. Even if not all of them. That’s OK. Enough is enough.