Monday, October 31, 2011

The M Word

As we bring this month of focusing on Step 10 – Be here now, to a close, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one more method of being in the present moment (hence the second post today). That’s right. The M word. Meditation. I hesitate because for the most part I like to talk about things we can incorporate into our everyday lives without having to find more time in our schedule or add one more thing to our already too long to do lists.

If you already have a meditation practice, then great. If not, don’t be scared off too quickly. If you have been trying any of the techniques we’ve already discussed this month, like belly breathing or doing a sensory survey, you are already doing a form of meditation. If you do yoga or tai chi or any other movement that requires your attention in the present, you are doing a form of meditation.

Personally, I do have a formal sitting-on-a-cushion meditation practice, but I also consider my taekwondo practice to be a form of meditation. I have recently started learning tai chi. And for several years I was part of a contemplative prayer group.

If you are interested in exploring meditation, there are many books and websites and classes available. Meditation can be part of your faith life, or it can be completely secular. Or it can be something to file away for the future. Or not. Rest assured you can still be in the present moment if you do not meditate. However, if this catches your attention, then I hope you will check into it.

As we wrap up our focus on this topic, I would like to say thanks for all your great contributions to the discussion this month and invite you to share any other ideas or methods you use to help you stay present.


You Are Here

I love maps. I especially love maps that have a little red arrow pointing to a spot that says “You are here.” You can see maps like that in the mall, on a hiking trail, on a college campus, or even on the back of your hotel room door.

If you look at a map of your life, you will see a little red arrow pointing to the present moment. You are here. Right now. There is no place else you can possibly be. And yet how much effort and energy do we spend trying to be somewhere else? (If you are like me, a lot.) We spend time in the past, longing for better times or imagining endless do-overs of our regrets. However, as A Course in Miracles reminds us, the “only wholly true thought one can hold about the past is that it is not here.”

I took my mother out to dinner when she visited me years ago when I was living in Paris. I invited some friends whose company I thought she would enjoy, and we went to a very chichi restaurant with a huge window framing the nearby Eiffel Tower. Through the entire meal, as we dined on pigeon (which sounds much fancier in french – I couldn’t help wondering if the chef had snatched a few off the windowsill), my mother regaled everyone with tales of my childhood. And while it was an entertaining story (my friends would say hilarious), I kept staring out the window at the dazzlingly illuminated landmark and all I could think was, “Whose childhood was that?!” Certainly not the childhood I remembered, but I could see that she believed every word she was saying. I realized that there was not an objective past, but rather two pasts, hers and mine, each vividly real to the one remembering. Let it go. It is not here.

If we are not drifting in the past, we are often anxiously rehearsing the future. Have you ever gotten mad at someone in anticipation of something that you think that person might do or say? I have written in earlier posts about my habit of casting into the future with my “what if” lure. I can spin out scenarios faster than the speed of light. My brain races from one to the next, churning up emotions in reaction to events that have not happened and may never happen. It’s exhausting!

I am reading a book right now timely titled You Are Here by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk from Vietnam. In it, he describes a practice called “stopping and deep looking.” He suggests that we can use a stop sign as a reminder – very practical! We can stop anytime and anywhere, and bring our attention back to the present moment, the only time that is real, the only time we can be truly alive. We can take a deep belly breath and simply be aware of where we are. At least for a nanosecond. I am lucky that I live in a neighborhood with so many stop signs.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Sit! Stay! Heal!

Southwest Airlines ran a series of TV commercials featuring some unfortunate person getting himself or herself into a mortifyingly embarrassing situation and then freezing as the background voice said, “Want to get away?”

Many of us can relate to that desperate desire to be most anywhere but where you are. Perhaps, like the character in the commercial, you feel foolish or you dread the anticipated consequences of a mistake or a bad choice. Maybe you have suffered a devastating loss. Maybe you feel defensive or vulnerable. One time I actually accepted a job halfway around the world to get away from an emotionally painful situation. I guess I thought my emotions didn’t have a passport.

If we can’t physically distance ourselves from whatever is causing us distress, we might try to escape by denying or repressing our feelings, or by distracting ourselves with, well, most anything. I’ve done all that, too. I just had a vision of Sarah Palin leaning into the microphone and smirking, “So how is that escape-y thing workin’ for ya?”

Hmm, not so great.

As the saying goes, “Wherever you go, there you are.” Bummer, you might think. But personally, I have found truth in the title of Pema Chodron’s book The Wisdom of No Escape. After trying every other possible means of avoiding my problems except being in the present moment, I finally sat down, literally and figuratively, in defeat. To my surprise, staying put was the key to freedom from the demons that so relentlessly pursued me through repeating patterns of self-destructive choices and behaviors.

So I stayed some more. Scary? Yes. But thank goodness I was just too exhausted to go anywhere. Now the present moment is more like home. A place of safety and beauty, comfort and joy. A place of healing.

[As much as I would like to take credit for the post title, I read about a Buddhist teacher receiving a card with this printed message.]

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Love Your Death

“Hokahey! Today is a good day to die!” Crazy Horse exhorted his warriors with this cry as they went into battle. (Hokahey means something like “Let’s do it!” or “Let’s roll!”) Were they suicidal? I don’t think so.

The Tao Te Ching says, “He who knows how to live can walk abroad without fear ... because he has no place for death to enter.” I don’t think the Sioux warriors were seeking death. But they were not afraid of it, either. By living without fear of death, they lived fully. Sure, they died. We all do. But they didn’t die in advance, if you know what I mean. Death had no place to enter into their time of living.

Several years ago my word for the year was Prepare. The word came to me as I was going through my usual New Year’s Eve ritual at my cabin. It was getting close to midnight and I still didn’t have a word. As I was listening to the sound of the creek outside, I heard the word Death. Hmm, that was not a very happy word, and besides, my word is always a verb. Moments later I heard Prepare. Well, okay, that was a verb, but not exactly what I was hoping for. How about Enjoy, Relax, or Nap? But I knew with an inner recognition that Prepare was my word. As ominous as is sounds, I didn’t get the sense that this was any sort of premonition or threat. It seemed more like loving advice. Not a death knell, but rather a wake up call.

In her last months, as my mom was dying of cancer, we had some wonderful conversations. I asked her questions about her life, like what were her happiest memories, what was she most proud of, what did she regret. Her answers were not the answers I would have predicted, so I discovered things about her that I treasure still. I asked her how she felt about dying and she responded that she was curious. Curious. Like the French philosopher Rabelais, who reportedly said on his deathbed, “Je vais chercher un grand peut-etre.” I go to seek a great perhaps.

Mom was not afraid to die. She was like the monk who stood calmly before the sword brandishing samurai warrior. The warrior bellowed, “I can run you through without blinking an eye.” When the monk replied quietly, “And I can be run through without blinking an eye,” the samurai dropped his sword and fell at the feet of the monk, acknowledging his superior power. Mom’s ease put me at ease, with death and with her death.

I was sitting by the creek during the summer of the year when my word was Prepare. Everything was lush and green. The birds were chirping. Everywhere was life abundant. As the sun’s warm rays sparkled on the dancing water, I heard the message “Love your death.” And I understood. Preparing for and loving my death release me from fear. I am free to love my life, to rejoice in the precious gift of each moment.

Every day is a good day to die. Hokahey.

[Today's post is revised from the archives because I've been in the present moment with my newest grandchild, a baby girl born on Saturday. Two grandchildren in five weeks!]

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Common Senses

We’ve had a few days now to watch our minds and see where they go when they don’t know we’re looking. Have you tried it? Were you surprised by anything?

Now let’s think about how we can train our minds to come back to the present moment. To continue the analogy to puppy training, this is like the command “Come.”

What we need are techniques we can incorporate into our daily lives. Belly breathing is one we’ve already discussed. Here is another simple one.

Most of our sensory input comes through our eyes. We rely on vision without really thinking about it, while our minds are off doing what they do when left to their own devices. We can disengage our automatic pilot and bring our awareness back to the present by focusing on other senses.

Try this. Close your eyes and do a quick survey of what your other senses are telling you about the present moment. What do you hear? Listen for a moment. I hear the football game on TV. I hear one of the birds chirping in the kitchen. I hear a humming; maybe that’s the refrigerator. I hear the tapping of the computer keys.

What do you smell? I smell my dog lying next to me, in need of a bath. I smell the usual smell of my house, which is hardly noticeable because I am accustomed to it. I don’t smell dinner cooking yet.

Taste? My mouth tastes a bit funky since I didn’t brush after lunch. There is also a lingering sweetness from the donut my daughter brought home for me.

Touch? I feel the weight of my body on the couch. My heel is uncomfortably propped up on the coffee table. My fuzzy socks are soft. My upper body is warm because I’m wearing my favorite sweatshirt. I can feel the weight of the laptop on my legs and the smooth plastic of the computer keys with the little ridges on F and J. The air is a pleasant temperature on my skin.

Having checked in with my other senses, I can now open my eyes and be aware of what they are seeing. (Okay, I peeked earlier when I was recording my other sensory data.) My eyes see the computer screen, the dog, the game on TV, the trees outside, the family photos on the mantel, the dog food kibbles on the carpet where Sadie dropped them.

A sensory survey can take less than a minute. It’s easy to do while you are at a red light or standing in the check out line. Don’t worry about how many times you do it. Every time you do, whether it’s one time or a gazillion times, you are connecting to the present moment and that’s a good thing. Every time you do it, you are reinforcing the command “Come,” and you should give your mind a treat!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Be the Change

Be the change you want to see in the world. –Gandhi

I saw the most amazing thing yesterday. I was trying to cross a very busy four lane street. Traffic was zipping by very fast. Although I was standing at a pedestrian crosswalk, there were no lights and the signs were partly obscured by trees. Cars and trucks flashed by without even slowing down.

For those of you who do not live in pedestrian friendly places, the law here says that traffic must stop for a pedestrian in a crosswalk. And for the most part, drivers here are very courteous and careful about yielding to pedestrians. However, the street I was trying to cross has few pedestrians, and it is in a business/light industrial area with long stretches of no traffic lights and lots of big trucks in a hurry. It looked like I was in for a long wait.

Then, lo and behold, a small blue car in the lane closest to me, slowed down and stopped. A few cars in the next lane sped by, but then a driver saw the blue car and stopped, too. I waved a thank you and stepped into the street, but cars and trucks going the opposite direction were still streaming by. I paused and started to step back on the sidewalk. Then a driver of a huge semi barreling along in the other direction hit the brakes. I watched in awe as the monstrous truck shuddered to a loud stop inches into the crosswalk. I waved nervously and felt very tiny as I stepped in front of its menacing grill. I peered around the far side of the truck to be sure that the cars in the furthest lane had stopped, too. They had. I scampered to the sidewalk and breathed a sigh of relief as I heard the traffic resume behind me.

All this because the driver of a small blue car saw what was happening and did the right thing. One driver on a street with hundreds of drivers zooming by in disregard of a pedestrian at a crosswalk, stopped. And waited quietly...until other drivers saw and followed his good example. Even the driver of the enormous semi, a truck on the move with a mission and momentum, a truck very difficult to stop, stopped. And waited for a single pedestrian to cross the street.

I thought about this all afternoon. Isn’t that exactly what Gandhi was talking about? One person, any one of us, by doing the right thing, even when no one else is, can make a difference.

Bishop Desmond Tutu told the story of a woman who wrote him a letter during the dark days before apartheid ended in South Africa. She said she wished she could do more to help, but all she could do was pray. She knew her little prayer didn’t mean much, but she just wanted him to know of her support. He wrote her back, saying who knows, maybe her prayer would be the very one that ended apartheid.

Maybe it was.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Hidden Life of Minds

I read a book awhile back called The Hidden Life of Dogs. The author followed her dog around the neighborhood for some months as he went about his doggie business, sniffing, marking, and impregnating. Nowadays you can buy a little digital camera that you can put on your dog’s or cat’s collar and sit in the comfort of your living room watching Fido and Fluffy do what they do. The idea is that by watching them, we can gain some insight into their lives. We can understand them better.

We can do the same with our minds. My mind seems to be busy all the time, but I spend little time really paying attention to what it’s up to. So I followed it around for awhile – my version of reality TV. This is what I observed.

Mostly, I couldn’t keep up. In a very short period of time, I caught my mind rehearsing, reliving, planning, judging, complaining, criticizing, worrying, regretting, thinking, anticipating, wishing, hoping, missing, enjoying, caring. And feeling anxious, content, happy, tired, angry, sad, excited, lonely, resentful, loving.

After this brief exercise, I came to some conclusions. My mind wastes a lot of time and energy. It does not know how to rest. Harnessing it to focus is understandably challenging. It is like a wild horse. In fact, it is very much like a young horse I once trained. Instead of training the filly to accept a halter and lead when she was very small, we waited until she was an adolescent and very strong, and not at all keen to being directed by anyone else.

I have made reference before to training our minds like we train a puppy – with gentle repetition and time for play and rest. I wonder what the Dalai Lama’s mind is like. His mind has been trained since he was a toddler. He meditates for hours at a time. What must it be like to have a mind as powerfully focus-able as that? See, there I go again, wandering off.

My mind is long past the puppy stage, and long past the adolescent horse stage, but I am nevertheless motivated to make some effort to train it. In fact, I have been working on this for awhile now, and I’m convinced that old dogs can learn new tricks!

If you are so inclined, attach a little video camera to your mind, sit back, and see where it goes when it doesn’t know you’re watching. Remember not to judge – be a neutral observer. You might be surprised. We did this exercise in my monthly discussion group last week, and we were all surprised by how different our minds were. It was very clear, for example, that an artist’s mind goes to different places than a lawyer’s mind. We had lots of fun, so if you have a chance, try this with some other people.

In the next posts, we’ll talk more about the training part. For now, just get to know your mind a little better. Relax and make friends.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Breathing Like a Baby

One of my favorite things to do these days is hold my almost one month old grandson. I like to look at him, cuddle him, smell him, and just watch him. Being with him is an easy way for me to stay in the present moment. Who knew that just watching someone breathe could be so fascinating?!

He is already very wise. He knows how to belly breathe. Babies breathe into their bellies. They all do (which of course makes them all wise). Belly breathing. That means breathing into the lower part of your lungs. This will push your belly out. We’re all born breathing that way. Animals breathe that way.

Somewhere along the way many of us become chest breathers, breathing only into the top part of our lungs. Why do we do that? Maybe because we want to keep our tummies flat. Maybe because of stress. Stress causes us to hold our breath. Holding our breath tells our brains that we are in danger and that triggers the release of fight or flight chemicals, very handy if we are actually being attacked, but very damaging over time. Chronic shallow breathing feeds a loop of stress response, actually creating more stress.

Just as shallow breathing contributes to stress, belly breathing promotes relaxation. It tells our brains that we are safe and releases seritonin and endorphins. Deep breathing pumps more oxygen into our blood, which in turn nourishes our muscles and our brains. I’ve read that deep breathing can alleviate pain, anxiety, sleep problems, and depression. It helps us remove toxins and improves the immune system. Belly breathing is linked to higher brain function. Higher brain function relates to our attention span, judgment, empathy, learning, forethought, optimism, and self-awareness.

In other words, belly breathing will help us quickly get back to the present moment and will help us stay in our happy place. I didn’t read this anywhere, but I’m hoping it will also help me remember where I left the car keys or why I walked into the kitchen.

So how do we change a habit as basic as how we breathe? Here are some techniques I’ve started using. I’ve added 10 belly breaths to my wake up routine to get my brain turbo charged with oxygen. I begin my morning meditation with a few deep breaths. I also take 10 belly breaths when I go to bed to help me relax and get ready for sleep. I already have my phone set to vibrate at 10am, 2pm, and 6pm as a reminder to say a quick prayer, so it’s easy to take a few deep breaths then as well. And of course any other time when I become aware of shallow breathing, I can shift to belly breathing.

The key is to avoid making this an added stressor! Don’t worry about the times you forget. Give yourself credit for the times you remember. Your body and mind will thank you for every belly breath!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

You Have to be Present to Win

Be where you are or you will miss your life. –Buddha

Several people I know died last year. People my age. People who were busy making other plans that did not include dying. So besides missing them, I’ve had my own mortality in my face, up close and personal. And if I didn’t realize it before, I certainly realize now that life is short. While I’m worrying about all the things that might happen in some future I might not even live to see, I’m missing my life right now.

Woody Allen said that 80% of success is just showing up. It’s like that contest rule, “You have to be present to win.” There is nothing like spending time with a dying friend to remind you about priorities, about living each day like the precious gift that it is, about not wasting time, about showing up, about being present to win.

I remember an afternoon I spent with my friend Greg the week before he died. He was not up and about too much, so we just lay on the bed and chatted. Thanks to the miracle of morphine, he was not in a lot of pain. He thanked me for stopping by, but it was I who was grateful for the time with him, to laugh, to remember life, to ponder death, to appreciate our friendship, to rest in the present moment together.

My friends gave me many gifts during their lifetimes, but with their deaths they gave me the gift of an intense appreciation for the preciousness of every day.

In his book You Are Here, Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Our appointment with life takes place in the present moment.” We miss so much of our lives because we just don’t show up. My conversation with Greg reminded me to show up for my appointment with life. On time. Every day. With joy.

Life is short, and we have but little time to gladden the hearts of those who travel this way with us. Oh, be swift to love. Make haste to be kind. –Henri Frederic Amiel

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


As I was sitting here working on a new blog post, I popped over to Sandra Pawula's blog Always Well Within. Her most recent post is the most perfect blend of Step 10, Be here now, and Step 9, Develop an attitude of gratitude. Please click here to go to her blog and watch this beautiful video. It's almost 10 minutes long, so fix a cup of tea, get comfortable, and be amazed!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Be Amazed!

When I was in graduate school, one of my professors was visiting from Eastern Europe. He had an often unexpected way of using English. Once in class he instructed us to turn to a certain page “and be amazed!” I don’t remember what was on that page or if I was amazed, but I loved the instruction and it stayed with me. There is always something new to learn or simply to notice, and it is amazing.

Sometimes I use the instruction on myself. It’s a good reminder to look for and see the miracles that are happening all around me all the time. The sun came up this morning. Be amazed. Water came out of the shower head when I turned the handle. Be amazed. It was hot. Be amazed.

It’s okay to be amazed with ourselves. I made my bed this morning. Be amazed. I’m testing for my black belt in taekwondo this month. Be very amazed.

Even God amazed himself on occasion. Behold, I am doing a new thing. Now it springs forth. Do you not see it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. –Isaiah 43:19. I love this verse. Like a child delighting in a new accomplishment, God was saying, “Look at what I can do. This is cool!” (I’m no Bible scholar, but I like to think that’s what he was saying.)

So let’s go forth today and be amazed, with ourselves and with the world around us. Have an amazing day!

(I am leading a women’s retreat this weekend, so I will be away from my computer until tomorrow night. Your comments are important and I will publish them as soon as I get back. I can’t wait to read them and be amazed!)

Thursday, October 6, 2011


Here is my favorite story about Buddha.

One day, soon after Buddha’s enlightenment, a man saw Buddha walking toward him. The man had not heard of Buddha, but he could see that there was something different about the man who was approaching, so he was moved to ask, “Are you a god?”

Buddha answered, “No.”

“You’re a magician, then? A sorcerer? A wizard?”


“Are you some kind of celestial being? An angel, perhaps?”


“Well, then what are you?”

The Buddha replied, “I am awake.”

Every year I pick a word for the year. It’s not a resolution; it’s more of a guide word, a reminder word. Last year my word was “Awake!” Not the adjective, the verb, as in “Wake up!” I put the word on little post it notes everywhere – by my computer, on the bathroom mirror, on the dashboard of my car, on the refrigerator.

Everywhere I looked, my word reminded me to come back from wherever I was and see the world as it really is, as it is right now. I spent decades of my life not seeing the world as it is. Instead, I saw what I wanted to see. I was the diva of denial, the mistress of magical thinking. My life was not real. It was made up, because I was afraid to look at truth. I was living in a dream.

I am here to tell you that living in a dream is exhausting. It takes a lot of effort to maintain illusion. You have to be constantly vigilant, on eternal alert to spot and crush any green seedling of truth pushing through the cracks in the concrete. It is not for the faint-hearted.

Some of you might know exactly what I’m saying. The good news, and it is good news, is that eventually we wear out. The strength it takes to hold on to the dream will give out, and we will let go. We will all see the world as it really is, right now. We will, as the Bible promises, know the truth, and the truth will set us free. Even though it might first, as Gloria Steinem promises, piss us off.

May we all be awake!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Falling into Now

Welcome to October and to Step 10–Be Here Now. Even though I’ve told this story before, some of you might not have read it, and it seems like a good way to start our discussion about being in the present moment.

Some years ago, I went to my cabin in the mountains for some quality alone time – no phone, no TV, no kids. Just me and the dog. While I was there I decided that I needed to clean all the pine needles and debris off the roof. I dismissed any hesitance I felt about doing this task when I was alone. I used an extension ladder and a long rake. I was cleaning the very last section of the roof when I felt the ladder slip. I frantically clutched at the roof but there was nothing to hold onto. I knew I was going to fall.

So far it sounds like any bad accident someone who has no business being on a ladder when no one is around might have. But here is where it got interesting. The instant I knew I was going to fall, I let go. I released the fear. Or rather it released me, since I clearly was not doing it deliberately. (At this point, I was not doing anything deliberately.) I was immediately filled with a sense of blissful well-being. Blissful doesn’t even begin to describe it. I don’t know words in any language to describe it. It was like being cradled in the arms of angels. Rapture. Perfection.

I was conscious as I tumbled. I felt my body bounce off the ladder on the way down. I felt my back hit the edge of the deck, and then I flipped off the deck to the ground below and tumbled down the hill to a stop. But all the way down, I was absolutely certain that everything was exactly the way it should be. I knew that my body might be hurt. I expected that at the least something would be broken. Maybe I would be paralyzed or even die. No problem. I was in heaven.

When I came to a stop, I lay there without moving for awhile. The thought crossed my mind that if I tried to move, I might find out that I couldn’t. I felt no pain – maybe a bad sign. I wasn’t in heaven anymore. I was lying on the side of a hill with my dog. I love my dog but she is no hero, and I knew I was on my own if I needed help. Finally, I started trying to see what would move. Fingers, toes, arms, legs. I slowly got to my feet, marveling that everything seemed to be intact and functioning (although I was scratched up and bruised and sore for days after).

I gingerly climbed back up the hill and sat on the deck. My mind started to go to all the scary what if places. But I stopped. I had been given an exquisite gift. Two gifts, really. First, the experience itself. Second, the memory of it.

I haven’t had an experience quite like that since, and I have wisely stayed off ladders. But the memory reminds me that now is always here. And that now is perfect. Now is the holy instant, the doorway to our ultimate happy place. And while I don’t suggest that anyone go flying off a roof to find it, we can pause at any time and take a deep breath to enter the gate.