A few years ago, my children gave me this plaque which I see every day – and aspire to achieve. But what does it really mean to live in the present?
Last Tuesday night, I went to my usual zendo sitting. I still find it hard to keep a still mind for even a 25 minute sitting; my brain goes whirr whirr whirr, or I close my eyes and nod off and come to with a start as my head drops. This week, the zendo had a guest, Wu De from the Tea Sage Hut in Taiwan. After zazen, Sensei introduced him and he and his students started a tea ceremony – boiling water and preparing tea. Every aspect of the preparation was carefully done – cleaning the tea bowls, brewing the tea, filling the pot, pouring the tea. By this time, my achy old knees were complaining and I was shuffling around like a leaf in the wind.
“At this rate, we’ll be getting our tea around Christmas,” I thought.
But as he poured the tea, I became fascinated, like a kitten watching a fly. Wu De describes himself on his business card as a liquid enchanter, and as I watched him skilfully fill each bowl, I became enchanted. When someone has done something many times, it moves from the mundane to the magical.
And the tea itself was, without doubt, the best tea I have ever tasted.
After the tea mediation finished, Wu De spoke about Zen and tea, and how the two go hand in hand. One thing, in particular, he said connected with me. Our perceptions of happiness are so often based on fleeting experiences – peak moments. And in this world of social media – twitter, Facebook, Instagram – often all we see of others, and post ourselves, are those peak moments which are often subjected to filters, tidied and enhanced. We see others at an event or a place we aren’t at having a wonderful time, with all the beautiful people – or we are the one having the wonderful time – aren’t we all so happy? Right now, however, as I write this, my hair needs a wash, my nose is a bit red from sunburn and I’m wearing a scruffy t-shirt and shorts that don’t fit. I’m sure not going to post that on Instagram
Yet, as Wu De said, most of our life is spent in scruffy clothes, tying shoes, making beds, or cooking meals so it makes more sense to be happy while we do those things than to be constantly striving to find fulfilment from fleeting moments.
I have also been following Dr Rick Hanson and one of the teachings he quotes from Buddha is that any passing experience isn’t a reliable basis for happiness. And all experience is fleeting.
All this finally connected in my brain into a understanding of what it is to live in the present. So often, I’ll be doing something – anything – yet my brain is whizzing around, thinking of the stuff that has happened in the past, thinking of what I’m going to do and say tomorrow, thrashing over past woes and imagining future ones. And there it is – just turn off the chatter and really be in the moment – even if it is just tying shoes or making beds.
However, it comes with a caveat, I think the better our own world is, the easier it is to be in the moment. I think about when I’m out at Piha in the water. Just by being there, I am happy but as I’m learning to surf there are days when the waves smash me and I get churned around; on other days, they are clean and kind, and I get up on my board and feel amazing. However, I have to make myself face each new wave as it comes, deal with it and get ready for what the next one brings without getting overwhelmed or scared. Only by staying in the moment can I deal with the power of the ocean. And by leading a life and living in a place that aligns with my ideals, it is easier to find that joy. I am also fully cognisant that I am extremely lucky to live in a country and a time when I am not simply struggling to survive on a daily basis.
The more I learn to turn off the monkey chatter in my brain, the more I’m learning to appreciate what each moment brings – something different and exciting, something comfortable and familiar, and mostly finding joy in the simple and the ordinary.