Yesterday, I mentioned that I’ve been thinking about the point of life and what it means to “let the soft animal of your body love what it loves,” as poet Mary Oliver said. While I was writing, my daughter climbed onto the bed (yes – my bed is my writing desk). I paused to give her a snuggle. Normally, I’d go right back to work but, inspired by Oliver’s poem, I took extra time to really savor the moment; the soft flutter of her hair, the creamy smoothness of her sweet skin, the feeling of her small hand holding mine.
It was wonderful.
We’re almost always together these days, so the moment wasn’t particularly unique, but my experience of it definitely was.
That’s not to say I don’t usually enjoy my children. Quite the contrary; I enjoy my family very much. But I rarely take the time to really, truly savor being in their presence; to love the experience of being with them. In pop culture, this “savoring” is referred to as “living in the moment.” In Buddhism, it’s called “mindfulness” and the Zen tradition, in particular, is really dedicated to “reclaiming and expanding the present moment,” according to Guardian writer Tim Lott.” By any name, it’s that deep and robust feeling of enjoyment that you focus on and actually allow to last, instead of just checking the happiness box and moving on.
It’s not easy to do.
I don’t know about you, but my mind is always wandering off – jumping back to ruminate or re-live some bygone experience; or running on to future anticipation or worry, or fear; or getting lost in whatever fantasy happens to catch my mind’s eye. The Buddhists aptly call this “monkey mind;” the brain that can’t sit still.
There’s no outward reward for taming monkey mind; no payment or trophy – just the joy of peace and the simple experience of being alive, which is heavenly – and maybe the whole point of life. This should be a given but everything moves so fast in our culture, it’s often not – at least in my life. But I want it to be.
As famed Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hahn once said, “The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.”
I decided to do a little experiment with this – letting the soft animal of my body love what it loves and truly savoring the experience.
What did the soft animal of my body want to do this morning? After running through a few options, one stood out clearly: swimming and gelato. So, I loaded up the kids and drove to the beach where I intentionally left everything in the car – including my phone. I usually take it because I like to take pictures and I’m always thinking of things I want to look up; but I can’t savor the experience that way, especially hearing the buzz of notifications or worrying that someone will grab it if I go in the water. So, it stayed in the car – and we took off with nothing but towels and sunscreen.
It was freeing.
In the past, we’ve headed to the public beach, because I’m cheap and all the other beaches make you pay for an umbrella. But today I stopped and asked the front desk how much renting an umbrella would cost. It was 15 Euros for two chairs and one umbrella for the day – much cheaper than I thought. I handed over the 20 I had in my pocket and we claimed our very own personal umbrella. It all felt very glamourous, sitting in the sea of blue and white striped umbrellas along the shore – like something out of a 1950’s movie.
After eating lunch in the shade of our umbrella, the kids and I rotated between the sea and the shade for hours. We floated in the water and talked. We dug in the sand. We relaxed. We snacked on chocolate-dipped blueberries, rapidly melting in the heat.
Every time my mind started wandering away, I did my best to intentionally redirect it to the moment. Sometimes it had only started to wander and other times it was in a whole other world by the time I caught it. Each time, I brought it back to savor the moment – and each time, it was like rediscovering the moment anew.
I quickly learned that savoring the moment for any prolonged period of time is really hard, no matter how wonderful the moment is. I also learned that it’s the most delicious, delightful experience. The colors were brighter, the food tasted better, and the conversations we had were so much richer.
It seems so silly, really, having to try to live in the present moment. I mean, where else can you live?
Well, thanks to our evolved brains, we can live everywhere – often everywhere but the present moment all at once. We can suffer future hurts that haven’t happened yet (and may never occur). We can dwell in past occurrences that are long gone. We can live for days, weeks, months or years and never truly experience what is happening in each moment. But the real joy and our only true power is right here, right now, in this moment.
So I’m working on it, trying to build my living-in-the-moment muscles. It’s going to take a while. For example, I was waiting for my husband on a shady curb, the sun shining, the wind blowing in my hair, and I was SO BORED. I tried and tried to keep my attention on the present moment – and failed.
Forget about monkey mind. It was like wrestling a 2,000-pound gorilla into submission.
Eventually, I found some industrious ants to focus on. And some really lovely mosses. But I can definitely say I’m not achieving enlightenment today.
It’s a work in progress 😉