So, if you’re like me, you spend much of your creative life imagining extraordinary futures: a life filled with perfect amounts of motivational eustress, tons of funny, compassionate, witty, caring friends, all the natural opiates in body and brain firing and filling you with endorphin ecstasy 24-7, and not a worry in the world about money, health, sex or death. In other words … The Great Life, or at least A Good Day as advocated by Brother David Stendl-Rast!
While such creative imaginings feel better than being filled with fear and dread about a hapless future, or opining about regretful events littering my past, one central challenge in either of those creative fantasies is that I’m often actually missing the life unfolding before me moment by moment, right here, right now. Is a life not lived fully in the moment actually lived in reality at all?
1-10 Equals Now
For research purposes, developmental psychiatrist Daniel Stern has identified life in the present moment as the interval comprising 1-10 seconds of the here and now. That’s actually a long time – more than enough time for Wild Mind to go wandering. What seems to be one requirement for attending powerfully to the present moment however, is a robust neural organization requiring less and less energy and effort to deploy. That organization and “strength of mind“ can come about through any variety of means. One possibility: be born optimally neurally developed out of the womb and be lucky enough to traverse childhood with parents who practice attachment parenting and end up at age 25 relatively unscathed (think Christ or Buddha); another possibility: engage in years and years of rigorous, disciplined contemplative or spiritual practice. Both seem to have neural correlates to strength of mind.
But there are many, many ways to organize, expand, integrate and strengthen the neural connections in the brain. And many more yet to be discovered and implemented. Intensive, interactive video-game play might turn out to be one of them. Perhaps Spider Solitaire another. One more example that comes to mind is an anecdote that I remember reading about the Dalai Lama once stopping his driver outside a small town in Alabama in order to pay an impromptu visit with an elderly woman sitting and rocking on her front porch knitting. After visiting with her for twenty minutes or so, he came back to the car and announced, “She has achieved a level of depth, awareness and spiritual maturity by sitting on her porch and rocking and knitting, that many of the monks in my center in India rarely achieve.” Similar maturity seems to often be the fate of quilters as well.
Writing Down the Brainz
Another method I feel particularly drawn to is the one developed by Natalie Goldberg with her zen teacher’s blessing after she confessed to him that she couldn’t sit still in formal meditation for beano. He asked her what she loved to do. She replied, “I like to write.” “Then make that your practice,” Katagiri Roshi instructed her. So that’s a very useful guideline: take something we love doing and do it for the pure joy of it, and make it our disciplined, contemplative practice.
Living fully in the present moment, however, doesn’t necessarily get a lot of support from friends and/or family (although children can often behave in ways that rivet our immediate attention!). When I’m not in their flesh and blood presence, friends and family can sometimes take it personally that I’m not thinking loving thoughts about them, say, while I’m out chain-sawing up alder rounds, or trying desperately to not drive the wrong way down any one of Seattle’s many one-way streets. Such narrowly focused, present-moment attention can frequently get translated as “not caring” (a problem that only seems to get worse with age and diminishing attentional capacities). It rarely occurs to family and friends however, that when they’re busy thinking such thoughts about me and my imagined lack of care for them, they are often missing the me that is loving and caring and standing right in front of them. That disconnect can sometimes be good for a bit of in-the-moment spirited exchange.
Fearing and Dreading Fear and Dread
Fear and dread can also operate as powerful pulls away from the present moment. Basic fear and dread as Ernest Becker and many theologians have discerned all have threads that tie them back to death anxiety at their root. It’s also part of the essential structure of brain organization – we pay much greater attention to, and tend to instantly recall things that have the potential to turn the present moment into our last moment. The irony is that for many people for whom death is an imminent or impending reality, much of those last moments of life are lived in the present like they never had been before. Thus Dumbledore’s observation – “to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure” – might serve as an early-warning, life-guiding alert: work the best we can to relax and strengthen the ability to be where we are, how we are, when we are. Death will simply be for us whatever it turns out to be.