Note to self: There's only this.
Can I get past perpetually looking toward to the next thing? Does it matter?
Last month, during the kids’ February break, we had the extreme good fortune to be able to spend a week in Mexico, at a gorgeous resort south of Cancun, along with my mom and in-laws.
Resorts aren’t really our thing, but it was a place that was very special to my mom, and she’d been wanting for us all to go for a while. She and my dad had been there twice, and were planning a third trip, but my dad passed away before they could do it. So, this was in a way a memorial trip.
I confess, I was nervous about the potential stress of a vacation with three parents and two teenagers—and I’m sure the parents and teenagers felt the same way!—but for the most part, it was truly relaxing and lovely.
The trip itself is not the point of this post, however. The point is this: For several months, the vacation was the thing. As in, the thing I was looking forward to, that the days and weeks felt like they were tumbling toward. At least, that’s what my subconscious (or conscious?) made it into.
When we got back home, I found myself feeling suddenly very much aware of the fact that the thing had passed—and I didn’t know what the next one was. This was unsettling to me, and I immediately started racking my mental calendar for what the next focal point in the future should be. The upcoming writing conference where I’ll be teaching? My college reunion in June? Our week on Squam lake in July?
It seems that my mind is always looking for a destination—whether it’s a trip, an event, a holiday, or just the weekend. As if that’s what life is all about: Getting to the next thing.
But you you know where we’re all actually headed? You know what the ultimate next thing is? DEATH, motherfuckers. Death.
And I am in no hurry to get to death. I’d like to stay here on this plane as long as possible, thanks. So why does my brain seem to want time to keep advancing? Especially given that there are other things in the future, besides death, that I dread? (Don’t even get me started about the kids leaving for college in 3.5 years…)
I suppose it’s normal and human to be always looking forward. In fact, last year around this time, I actually wrote about how awful it feels not to be able to look forward to anything. Anticipation feels good. Having goals—for me, anyway—feels good. I flounder without them.
And yet…I guess there’s a part of me that wishes it weren’t like that. Like: wouldn’t it be more enlightened or wise or whatever if I could anchor myself more securely to the present moment and just be? If I didn’t construct my mental map of existence as a series of journeys toward things shimmering out there on the horizon, but instead as a series of nows? Or just one big now?
I think that’s what Buddhist monks do. Or are supposed to do.
See, if I were a Buddhist monk, up in some monastery in the Himalayas, I’d be like yes, meditation and chanting and chores and conversation over mushroom broth at dinnertime are all well and good, and I’m very content. But it’s really just a lead-up to the big trip into town for groceries at the end of the month. Or the annual Buddhist monk convention in Kathmandu or Tampa or wherever it’s being held that year. Or enlightenment! I’d be counting the days until enlightenment, thinking about what I was going to wear, and Googling “How do know when elightenment?” when I should be chanting instead.
In other words, I’d make a terrible Buddhist monk. Or any sort of monk, for that matter.
On the other hand, it’s not like I NEVER feel fully present and in the here and now. I do stop and appreciate moments along the way. I look at sunsets. I watch my cat’s belly rise and fall with his breath. I hug my children (when they let me) and my husband. I also feel very much in the moment when I’m on hikes or writing retreats or vacations. (Funny that these are also often the shimmery things on the horizon that I’m looking forward to…)
I just wonder if I can or should try to dwell more in that here-and-now-and-satisfied, mindful headspace every day, right in the midst of living. In his book The Miracle of Mindfulness, the Buddhist monk (speaking of Buddhist monks) Thich Nhat Hanh offers advice like: When you’re washing the dishes, focus fully on washing the dishes.
“If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not ‘washing the dishes to wash the dishes.’ What's more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes.” (emphasis mine.)
I want to be—and feel—alive while I wash the dishes. But I can’t imagine being able to completely stop thinking about that delicious cup of tea. I don’t think I’d feel fully alive if I did.
What about you?