The AtHome Pilgrim

Musings at a Slower Pace


Philly area, Pennsylvania, USA
"Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita," I find myself still asking some of the same questions I did when I was just a punk kid. The Big Things confuse me. Fortunately, though, many little things delight and amuse me, and some Big Things--my wife, our kids, our bird and bunny visitors, food, baseball--make me very, very happy. In my pilgrimage, I try to be guided by the wisdom of dear old Auntie Mame: "Life is a banquet!"


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JULY 16, 2011 8:27AM

Being Mindful of the Gift of the Present

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What’s past, of course, is prologue. What is to be is a vast, uncertain shore (hopefully not Lincoln’s dark and indefinite one, though, in truth, that is the only certainty of our future). All we have is the present. All we can do anything about is right now. While our past experiences shape us, while our dreams of the future may propel us, today, this hour, this moment is our only possible field of action. (Unless you can recruit Mr. Peabody and Sherman.) 

Many writers on matters of the spirit say that we are spirit that has chosen to take form in order to experience the world of Form. As freight unclaimed by any particular faith, I find that idea congenial: it acknowledges a plane of existence beyond the physical, which I can accept; explains a connection between that world and this one, which is satisfying; and gives something of a purpose to life, which is a relief.  

Then, paradoxically, these writers recommend meditating to connect with the spirit within. ¿En qué quedamos? as Cubans say. What exactly is our position here? If we’re spirit wanting to experience Form, why are we trying to escape physical form to sense our spirit? Is it that spirit is better? Well, fine, but if we leave the plane of existence that is form, aren’t we frustrating spirit’s desire to experience that world? You wouldn’t want to make your spirit mad now, would you? (Perhaps when people struggle to concentrate when meditating, it isn’t their Form-grounded mind that’s preventing it, but actually their spirit trying to nudge them back into the physical world.) And anyway, even if spirit is a superior kind of existence, won’t we die and get back to that plane soon enough—in the blink of spirit’s timeless eye, in fact? What’s the hurry, then? If we’re here to experience this world, why aren’t we busy experiencing it instead of trying to get away from it? 

There is a strain in spiritual writing, whether that of nondenominational spiritual teachers or of major faith traditions, that denigrates the physical world, or at least physical experience. While Christian preachers trumpet the glory of God’s creation, there’s also an undercurrent in Christianity of strict and judgmental morality about too much indulgence in matters of the flesh. Sure, some of that is efforts to maintain social order: the directive to eschew adultery, if followed, eliminates one cause of social friction and retributive mayhem. (Thus avoiding adultery is the interpersonal equivalent of Mutually Assured Destruction. To risk it would be mad.) But there’s also a grim kind of “pleasure is sin” undertone to many teachings. And Buddhists will tell you to avoid attachment to the world and everything on it.  

I find these teachings unsatisfying. Yes, too much commitment to the physical, the material can debase the soul and spirit. I am not one to advocate having things, or even trying everything once, just for the sake of the having and the trying. (More importantly, immersion in things sensual would probably achieve little more than to ensure that Mrs. P dispatches my spirit before I’m ready for my time to be up.) 

But the world also gives us the opportunity to feel awe as we stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon; behold a butterfly; feel the calm of a summer morning before the lawnmowers start or the quiet of a soft night snow; hear the voice of the song sparrow or the regular splash of waves against rocks; taste the sweet juice of fresh, ripe strawberries; feel oneself wrapped around one’s love. 

I argue not for attachment to these experiences. Buddhists are right in saying they are all evanescent, and attachment to them dooms us to disappointment and suffering. But I see no reason why spirit should be starved in its essay into Form.

The key, then, is to both engage in the experience while accepting its fleeting nature. What we must do, then, is to be mindful in the course of our lives, to attend to the present, and by virtue of being in attendance, to be in the present. 

We all experience those moments at some time or another, moments when we know we are vitally alive because our minds, our spirits, are attuned to what we are doing or feeling. We feel it when making love is more than gyrations and satisfaction but transmutes into a loving union of bodies and souls. We feel this intense aliveness at the moment a baby is born or, as greenheron notes, that a loved one passes. Some feel it in their vocation, as when a musician joins with the music she is playing or a horse rancher feels a filly respond to his gentling. Many of us feel that heightened awareness anytime we put chocolate in our mouths.  

As that delicious example points out, it is not necessary to be working, making, or doing with the hands—though to be in the moment in this sense, it is not enough to be. You must do, though doing may be no more than sensing. The point is to have one’s whole attention focused on that sensing.  Active listening and active reading are both examples of mindfulness. So can be taking a nice warm bath—as long as you put your mind to it. 

On these occasions, time often slows down—or, rather, stretches out. Like Blake, we experience eternity in an hour, and the experience becomes more intensified by its being stretched. 

Being mindful is minding your manner. It’s giving attention to how you’re doing what you’re doing. The sin, if there is such a thing, the nonvirtuous approach, is multitasking, for in doing so, we by definition divide our attention and thus prevent focus, block mindfulness.  

And what’s the point? (You need a point?) The point is that by being mindful of what we’re doing, we are truly living in the only moment in which we can truly be alive, this one. And we can thereby experience that moment with the same transportive, joyful concentration that a child feels when building a tower of blocks or standing up for the first time. Because, you know, our spirit never experienced form in that precise way before, and it never will again.  


Words © 2011 AtHome Pilgrim.

All Rights Reserved.  

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I tend to live in the here and now...although if the "here and now" is a flight of fancy...I go with that.

Life truly is a banquet...and I delight in the fact that I am one of the lucky ones feasting.

I hope some of the people looking at the banquet table and wondering, "What is that for...what is the "point" of it", finally get conscious and do some eating...or at very least, some smelling of the foods.

Your comments may help them to go in that direction.

Good post.
It is easy to be mindful when the moment is a pleasant one–bird song, strawberries in mouth, etc. That's the kind of savoring mindfulness everybody wants. Being mindful when suffering a bout of stomach flu or waiting for a pathology report is the test, to lean in and be present for every nuance of the retch, every pulse of terror. The last words of Joko Beck, a Zen teacher who passed away a few weeks ago were "this too is wonder".
A beautiful train of thought. It recalls the connection between mindfulness and this from the book of Matthew-"You're blessed when you care. At the moment of being 'care-full,' you find yourselves cared for." And I also see the connection to the Tao here. i wish I knew more about Islam---I'll bet there is a connection there too, , , ,
whenever I read you or greenheron discussing this I learn more than when I sit fidgeting on the church's pew, wondering if it will be over soon
(but, I'm still searching, one day I'll find one that fits)
Thank you for the beautiful reminder. I constantly am reminding myself to enjoy "this" moment in time since it will be the last one....especially since time flies too quickly. I think this is one reason I've always and still do, take an over abundant of pictures. I'm trying to preserve as much as I reasonably can. The pictures are also to help me remember "that" particular moment in time. I'm way too sentimental and the older I get, the more so I get.
My horses and dogs have taught me to live in the moment, they do it naturally and I do so envy their ability to accomplish that.
So true. Living in the now --or trying to - has made a huge difference in my life. Thanks for this post.
Great essay, I enjoy these kinds of ruminations. I once read that spirit infuses matter in an effort to bring life into the more inert materials of the universe. A universal alchemy, bringing consciousness and light to that which is unconscious and dark. Human beings are one of the most concentrated expressions of this metamorphosis. It is our creativity and imagination which determines how fully the dense matter of our bodies manage to express the divine.
Thanks for this reminder to not let the now pass by, thus robbing one of memories.
like vanessa and others, i just love listening to the calm, contemplative, intelligent discussion of this topic (and its related time-travelers) between you and heron. and i just love reading what you write, this time, anytime, all the time.
loved this. Been having some sort of growth? of faith lately and much of it stems from just living. Not really thinking about living, but just being there.
I have a longish commute 4-5 days a week, and although the time seems to be shorter and shorter with each pass, I try to be mindful of each trip while I am in it. I only like NPR on the radio, though some mornings or some evenings, I find I prefer the sound of nothing on. It may not be meditation, but it is a chance for mindfulness.
Living mindfully with gratitude for all is the way to truly live...difficult but so important to remember and to emulate this creed. A perfect post...Thanks so much! r
Frank: Indeed, what's the point? Mangia! Mangia tutto! (That's what Grandma always said.)

greenheron: You are, of course, correct, and the wisest of birds, as always. But it takes a spirit strong in its convictions to be mindful at times such as those, one truly intent on experiencing all that is the world of Form. As for me, I might be more likely to choose such times to meditate, or, more likely, be mindless . . .

ChiGuy: The Tao speaks to me more than other sacred texts, in part because I can ignore any institutional structure that arose around it. (I'm reading a book by the Dalai Lama these days and am quite put out by the numerology: the Three Thises and the Four Thats.) As for Islam, I think you'll find the similarities in the Sufi tradition. Mrs. P listens from time to time to a Sufi named Llewelyn Vaughan-Lee (classic Sufi name, no?). If you're interested, there are a collection of videos here:

vanessa: I'm still on the pilgrimage too, hermana. Don't know the destination I'm walking to.

patricia: Just remember to be in the moment and not be distracted by the taking of pictures. I fall into that sometimes. (I take a lot of pictures because half are lousy.)

Tor: Animals have that all over us. But I'll take consciousness, thank you.

toritto: Great quote. I've often thought of reading Aurelius. That makes me more likely to finally do so. Thank you, doubly.

Ingrid: Thank you for coming by. Now is good.

M Chariot: For some of use, the density is all at the top of the body . . . I like that: animating the inanimate; let us hope we do better than Victor Frankenstein. Thank you for bringing your gentility here.

Mary: Thank you for visiting and paying attention.

Candace: You'll get more sense from our wise avian friend, but I get much pleasure from your comment.

Julie: Amazing how "just living" helps. I had a little growth too; think I'll have it removed . . . ;)

Oryoki: I found it very easy to be mindful of surroundings out there, where you are, where the views provide such stark beauty.

P Muse: Pleased to see you again, and full of gratitude for your comment.
This is such a very fine piece. I strive for this (and falter) on a daily basis.
To just be present in the moment would be so welcome. Unless, as greenheron points out, the moment is unpleasant. That is another story. ~r
You shoulda been a preacher, Pilgrim. I've read many efforts by writers and thinkers trying to explain this idea, with which I agree wholeheartedly. This is the best of them. Thank you.
This is a really wonderful exploration of one of the most important skills in life. When I was working in arts education, we often referred to a concept in psychology called "Flow," and how doing music and drama and dance and visual art help kids learn to get into "Flow," which would help them stay motivated and follow through. There was some evidence that this skill could be learned and transferred to other areas. In any case, I try to measure myself by how much I feel in "Flow."

Here's the intro from Wikipedia about it (a little long, but what the is cheap here on OS...)

"Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. Proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the positive psychology concept has been widely referenced across a variety of fields.

According to Csíkszentmihályi, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task[2] although flow is also described (below) as a deep focus on nothing but the activity – not even oneself or one's emotions.

Colloquial terms for this or similar mental states include: to be on the ball, in the moment, present, in the zone, wired in, in the groove, or keeping your head in the game."
A beautiful essay. I live in the moment, the present is my cup of tea, I do not think about how the leaves grew in senseless preoccupation, nor how the water comes to boil. I drink the tea, I savor it. The future is my next moment, which I contemplate if I chose, while I drink my tea. Mostly I drink the tea, and become one with it, then what the future is, whatever it is, I am ready. My mind wrenches itself from the present only when it must. I live now. I know if I live now, I do build the future. If I am present in this moment, I sense the future I make, I see what others make and I know what path I must take.
I was just recently working on a post about the now and not the past or the future and what you have said makes me feel better about thinking this way. I have tried and cannot meditate my mind can not just s t o p unless I have very calming music on and then I fall asleep. I'm glad you wrote this!
Beautiful last paragraph
I try to write poetry
with my spirit
hoping only that people like the words
I love your point? and it truly is
rated with love
Oh, Pilgrim, how I have missed your philosophizing. Your musings about the inconsistencies of the spiritual-minded regarding the spirit and form are priceless.

I tend to live in the present more than most people, although there is always room for more mindfulness.> Still, this is not as hard for me as for some. What's interesting is that there are drawbacks, at least insofar as worldly success are concerned. I tend not to plan, look at the big picture, itch for the next new thing. I am inclined toward contentedness, and if that sounds good to you, it mostly is, but keep in mind that I would have been one of those people perfectly content with my horse and buggy. I find myself left in the dust a lot, behind the eight ball. I live a good life largely because I married a man different from myself, a man who plans, looks at the big picture, and itches for the next new thing. I've noticed these two distinct styles in my children (two are he, one is me) and I've advised them, not in so many words, to do a little self-reflection, figure out who they are, and understand how to push back a little against their default in the right circumstances. To make this baldly simple, I occasionally tell Son 2 to race through his European survey of painters project, to force himself to "just write anything," to quickly find info and watch the clock. This is because we have had issues with his natural tendency to stop and smell the flowers, as it were, regarding the Greeks and the Renaissance artists, and the Enlightened. He gets caught up, he becomes immersed, he absorbs it all and thirsts for more, following his desire to live in this or that moment. And then it's 2 am and his work is not done. I tell Son 3, on the other hand, to slow down, to smell the flowers, to take his time, to look around. That's because he seems sometimes to take the most pleasure in the planning for what's coming next, barely noticing or enjoying the now.

You know who might have something to say about this? Monsieur Chariot. (I have not yet read comments; perhaps he's here.) I love his views on the importance of form and worldly pleasures; he is persuasive that way. He makes me think differently than I do on my own.
Joan: Yes, another story. Keep striving: you end up with more and more hits.

Matt: Bowing in humility.

Helvetica: That sounds like it, alright: "the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity." A consummation devoutly to be wished. Thank you for introducing me to the concept.

Sheila: If you can see the path, you are wiser than me. I get muddied (sigh, mixed metaphor . . ).

LL: I can't meditate either, though I can find myself immersed in moments. Perhaps that why I value that more than the other.

Rom P: I try to write what I think and feel and am pleased when it touches another mind or heart, though I know that such is not the measure of its merit as writing.

Lainey: You are a wise parent (if unwise in your choice of philosophizing voices to listen to!): to try to guide with gentle suggestions of a tack to starboard here or port there is serving as a valuable pilot. And even if it may not appear that they're listening now, odds are that advice will have an effect.