In mindfulness practice, I’m invited to fully embody the moment, to move from a thought-based to a sense-based experience. Present moment, wonderful moment. It’s where ultimate peace, freedom, and contentment reside. It’s easy, right?
Wrong! Over the years, I’m humbled by the pitfalls of practice, the holes I still fall into despite a clear cognitive understanding. Maybe the problem is thinking too much.
When things are pleasant, I want to grasp. “It’s mine! Get your own moment.” I try to memorize exactly what was said and done to create the perfect experience. If I can write a wise blog post or meaningful poem, if I can remember that enlightening conversation, I won’t fall into the same hole again. I won’t suffer. I forget how holding on to anyone or anything is like trying to hold water with a sieve or capture a moment in the wild on camera when nature’s flora and fauna refuse to keep still.
When things are unpleasant, I want to escape. “It’s not mine. Get away!” I’ll start to fix the situation with judgments, as if I can correct what’s wrong by erasing a little bit of this person’s character, embellishing the scene to my liking, or adding to my own character that’s flawed. After a few years of practice, I might sugarcoat uncomfortable thoughts and feelings with metta or blanket them in wisdom disguised as delusion, aka spiritually bypassing what truly needs to be felt.
When things are neutral, I want to check out. “It’s too boring. Where’s the remote to change channels?” Fantasy becomes an alternate dimension where I feel more alive. The only problem is nothing is tangible enough to last, and I always have to wake up. If I’ve missed large chunks of reality, it takes more time and energy to catch up, fill in, and make sense of the missing parts.
So how can I train the senses and mind to stay with pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral experiences skillfully without repeating the same, habitual patterns of pulling, pushing away, or projecting?
With grasping, I feel the tension of a tight fist mudra, how the contraction transmits through the forearms, arms, up the neck and forms a viselike band around the cranium, spotlighting the desired object, shrouding signs of impermanence all around me. It’s painful to hold on so tightly. Opening the hand allows fingers to trace the contours of change – rough, smooth, and in between textures without sustaining rope burn. Joyful moments take on a more vivid quality because they are not pressed flowers trapped between the pages of one story, but blooming, dying, and seeding the soil for new stories to emerge.
With aversion, the belly churns acid as volcanic eruptions of undigested contents voice the discontent of anger and fear. The chin and the heart feel heavy with embarrassed hurt. Demons from the past haunt the present and direct an uncertain future. It’s helpful to welcome all thoughts and feelings as honored guests, bow to them, and recognize that what I am filtering through the sense doors is all conditioned. This is most evident when I am with someone who does not perceive an occurrence the same way. Like a Rorschach ink blot, we see two different things. Acknowledging my ego and views, a window can open between this heart-mind and the outside world to let other realities in.
This process takes time and can’t be rushed. Honesty means naming what I’m feeling without denial, without spiritually bypassing the alchemical process for fool’s gold. Like a savory dish I’m hungry to eat, it also needs to be seasoned with self-compassion and common humanity, the remembrance that others experience challenges, too. It’s soothing any physical manifestation of discontent in the body with a kind breath, bathing it in loving awareness. It’s understanding that life is not just targeting and making an example out of me.
Another helpful ingredient is patience, not forcing its presence, but reflecting on those who have been patient or things that took a long time to create. Speeding up the lifecycles of certain processes could damage the beauty waiting to be born. Patience walks hand in hand with energy and wisdom, knowing where I can positively shape and influence an outcome, and where I’m building sandcastles, crossing my fingers and holding my breath that the next wave won’t demolish futile efforts. These aren’t innate virtues, but ingredients I’m experimenting with to find what’s flavorful enough to satiate, and what’s bitter to perpetuate craving.
Poet, philosopher, and cancer survivor Mark Nepo says, “To be broken is no reason to see all things as broken.” Joy is a beautiful heart quality when I’m perceiving the glass as half empty. When I sense joy is missing, I picture children on a treasure hunt or playing hide and seek. Their sheer curiosity and effervescent enthusiasm inspire me to intentionally look for connection, what is strong enough to penetrate parts of me that still feel broken, as if to say, “Here’s a sprinkle of stars connecting the dots to a constellation of healing you cannot see, but feel. Don’t give up just yet.”
With neutral moments, it’s helpful to notice when I’m checking out. What am I wanting from an alternate reality that isn’t here? Why? How is this reality providing the sustenance I seek? If not, am I seeing clearly?
Perhaps the greatest ally on this path is faith asking me to ground in the groundless, knowing that the tectonic plates beneath my feet are always shifting. Sometimes it feels like I’m walking on solid ground or sinking in quicksand. Both are illusions created by the magic show of wanting this and not liking that. When I am less hypnotized by what’s pleasant, recognizing the unwrapped potential gift in what’s unpleasant, and doing my best to stay awake in what’s neutral, the present moment is not only acceptable, but preferred.
It’s where I will meditate and make love, practice medicine and maternal presence for all, embody and exchange elemental energy in hiking, yoga, and Qigong, sensing stagnation and free flow. It’s where I’ll write with invisible ink because I don’t own the words I’ll soon forget, where I’ll sing for all those who can’t hear the music. I’ll embrace this design, knowing that a kaleidoscope turn will reconfigure the pattern into something I no longer recognize, starting again with the question, “Is this pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral?”.
Present moment, wonderful moment. It’s where ultimate peace, freedom, and contentment reside. May this practice, understanding, and reflection be of service to all those who have influenced this journey and beyond…