Friday, May 15, 2009

The Present Moment

Present-moment living, getting in touch with your now, is at the heart of effective living. When you think about it, there really is no other moment you can live. Now is all there is, and the future is just another present moment to live when it arrives. One thing is certain, you cannot live it until it does appear. ~ Wayne Dwyer

One of the areas in Yoga that has long been my struggle is the essence of remaining in the Present Moment. A lifelong daydreamer, I've always managed to drift off, thinking of the next place I'd like to be, something I'd rather be doing or even just imagining other possibilities that could be happening, when the next step of journey arrives. This is not the say I'm dissatisfied with my life. Quite the contrary...I count my blessings daily. And yet, I grapple with keeping my heart, my mind and my spirit grounded in the here and now...and to be fully present in this very moment, in this very time. The irony is that I've always imagined the next step: when I was little, I wanted to be big, before I was married, I couldn't wait to set up my home. Before I had children, I couldn't wait to have a baby. When my babies were little, I imagined their being bigger and more independent. Always, I had in my mind what was coming 'next'....rarely, what was here in this very time. I would tackle a stack of dishes in the sink, and think about how incredible life would be when "X, Y, Z" were to happen. As my hands would root around in the warm, sudsy water, I wouldn't think about what I needed to be happy. I truly have felt joy and contentment. And yet, there was the part of me always waiting to turn the page, and begin the next chapter.

Needless to say, patience has long been my biggest stumbling block in my spiritual quest. St. Paul wrote that the fruits of the Spirit are, "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control." (Galatians 5:22). The Talmud extols "patience as the essence of a faithful man". Buddhism believes that patience is one of the "perfections" that one must achieve to attain enlightenment. I believe in all of these principles. I am devout in my love, my joy and utter gratitude for the life I have been blessed with. For every day that I have been graced with living, I feel a sense of profound awe and thankfulness. So, why do I struggle so with the concept of remaining grounded in the present moment? Why do I want to rush down the stairs, rip the paper open the metaphorical red and green packages, and tear into the Christmas gifts of life, like a wild 5 year old? Why can't I seem to sit at the top of the stairs....gazing with peace upon the scene below, and take the moment fully in, before rushing headlong into the future?

Living in the present moment, grounded fully in who we are, and in where we are, has been a challenge for many people for all of recorded time. Even Mother Theresa, whose life of utter selflessness, I admire deeply, reported periods of impatience, exhaustion and feeling spiritually tapped out. She looked for a time in which there would be no more poor to have such need, and for herself to have infinite strength to deal with all those who need her. Towards the end of her life she wrote, "All things pass... Patience attains all it strives for." The meaning? Keep on doing what you're doing: do good work, love those around you, remain focused on the tasks at hand. Patience isn't a place we arrive at, as a destination. Patience, itself, is a journey...and achieving it is a byproduct of living moment by moment.

Living in the present moment is not something new to our current age of fast-paced technology and instant gratification. What I will admit is that it's tougher than ever to remain grounded in living our lives as they come. When we're bombarded with advertisements, television shows and magazines, we wonder if we're missing something by not looking ahead more than we do. We wonder if our futures really be brighter if we only plan to move to a different place....a different home. We wonder if life will pass us by in not planning better.....or rather, by not planning to live a certain way, in a certain place. Plans aren't a bad thing: they help us pay our bills on time, arrive to attend meetings, do our jobs, parent our children well and remain involved in our communitities. Plans keep us focused on where we need to be right now. The problem with plans is that we can look too far ahead with them....and in doing so, lose sight of the moment we're living in. We can miss the joy of a summer night by thinking about plans to get the house ready for winter. We can let our children's babyhoods slip through fingers as we worry about where they will go to college. We can miss the touch of our spouse holding our hand on a Sunday evening, because we're mentally calculating all the crises that await us in the week ahead.

The wonderful Buddhist monk, Thich Naht Hahn, wrote a beautiful book on remaining in the present moment: "Peace is Every Step", about living in mindfulness everyday. One of the meditations he describes is very simple. As one sits in a peaceful position, or goes for a gentle walk, one repeats to herself:

  • As I breathe in, I calm my body and mind.
  • As I breathe out, I smile.
  • Sitting (or walking), I am grounded in the Present moment.
  • I know it is a wonderful moment.

As simple as this meditation sounds, it's surpringly effective. When I find myself thinking about "What? Where? When? HOW?!" for the next phase of my life, I realize that the next phase will come soon enough. I will have ample time, ample opportunity and ample ability to deal with all the blessings and challenges that lie ahead. What I will not have is the blessing of a moment I let slip away, by worrying, or even daydreaming, about what's still to come. The phrase "Carpe Diem" (or Seize the day!) made so popular in the wonderful Robin Williams film, "The Dead Poet's Society", is quite true. Today is a day that will never come again. What will you make of it? Will you enjoy it? Will you conquer the day's tasks, or will you ignore them, too focused on next year's burdens? Remember to always be the author of your day. For good or bad, for better or wose, and even for richer or for poorer, today is the moment to live make certain that you appreciate it for all its worth, and live fully in the experiences as they arise.

Monday, May 11, 2009


Not long ago, I was fortunate to happen upon a television program about one of my real life idols, Jane Goodall. I happen to adore Dr. Goodall's work, her books, and her passionate mission to educate the world about African primates. Dr. Goodall was far more of an anthropologist than she was a zoologist. She didn't study the chimpanzees and great apes. She lived with them. She built relationships with them by sitting quietly, observing them, interacting with them in their own language. She learned to communicate 'primate', not by forcing her will upon these wild creatures, but by introducing herself into *their* world. Dr. Goodall, not only became a member of various tribes of large primates, but she also got to know each family member throughout the generations. She didn't study them or their responses in control situations in a lab. She learned what their strengths and skills were by studying them in the wild. For hundreds of years, scientists removed chimpanzees and apes from Africa, to study them in climates and conditions far removed from their lives in their homeland. While some progress was made, sadly, far too often, these animals died in captivity...not only from accurate food deprivation, but from being separated from their families. What Jane Goodall was able to show the world, by her lifetime spent learning the intricate family, and group, connections, is that the bonds these animals forge is much like a human family: there are good relationships and bad ones. There are wonderful mothers, and negligent ones. There are involved fathers, and those who would hurt their young. There are meaningful, loving interactions and there are relationships based on fear. Just like human beings, primates, in their own environment need love, attention, human touch and kindness to survive.

Unfortunately, many primates have healthier relationships than some humans do with their children and with one another. My heart broke when I learned of another story...this one the antithesis of what Jane Goodall was studying: it was about a little girl who was quite literally, left to her own survival in the basement of her mother's home. Without going into too much detail, this poor child was deprived of every kind of human kindness, affection, and even basic interaction. As a result, she had the brain development of a 6 month old age 8 years old. This devastatingly heart breaking story had me sobbing for the pain of this poor child, but I was uplifting to learn that she had been adopted by a wonderful family, and was very slowly making progress in her physical and intellectual development. Interestingly, she was having to work through all the stages that babies do: she needed to learn to crawl, the be held upright, to sit in a chair unassisted, to feed herself. She needed to work through each milestone that a baby and a toddler would, and she has been able to make progress because of the deep connection she has grown with her incredible adoptive parents.

These two stories illustrate how crucial the connections we make are: to really understand who we are as human beings, and what we are capable of achieving, we have to value the connections we have with people in our lives. From our earliest relationships, these connections form the most fundamental resource in brain connections. Multiple research has shown a strong fact: infants who have strong, loving, interactive connections with their primary caregivers are more likely to have strong, loving, interactive relationships with others in their lives. Additionally, facts have been proving that loving relationships in infants and young children have actually been proven to *stimulate and create* connective brain tissue. Therefore, children who are spoken to, made eye contact with, held, loved, involved and cherished are children who are going to have a higher activity of brain stimulation, creating new pathways that are essential in all areas of growth and development.

But, does connectedness, and our need for it, diminish over time? Absolutely not. As human beings, unless we are highly introverted, we desperately need the interaction of other people. We need conversation, stimulation and cooperation. If we are missing these components of our lives, far too often, this can result in brain chemistry altering. Particularly in the elderly, we see that people who are loved, cherished and 'needed' are far more likely to continue to live active, interesting lives, than the elderly who are 'shut ins'. Our brains crave interaction with others...and meaningful conversation. Additionally, many mothers of young children, who are home raising them, and have left their work outside the home, find they can easily slip into lethargy. By participating in mother's groups, and maintaining their own interests with other new mothers (who understand their struggles), they're able to feel vital and less depressed. Every person, in every group, in society benefits from being a valued member, who has a something to contribute to the world around her.

In my Yoga classes, I'll often ask students to pair up to work on partner Yoga. Making basic asanas, such as Tree Pose, as seen in the photo to the left, into tandem poses, students gain in learning connections. It's not easy to hold a balance pose. It's even tougher when you're relying on someone else's balance. Yet, these can be some of the most popular exercises in my classes. With a partner, the yogini can stretch further than she would on her own. She is able to work into tough asanas, knowing that her partner can 'spot' her. The yogini also can feel a deep connection to helping her partner achieve her own goals. I'll always remember when two of my students, one an elderly woman in her late 70's, and her partner, a college student in her late teens, made a coffee date after class. They had just successfully assisted one another in achieving "Wheel Pose", similar to a back bend from the ground up. They were so proud, and thrilled, to have worked through their individual difficulties and to have triumphed together. And, so a purple haired college junior with a nose ring, invited her friend, a very proper British woman who always wore her pearls in class, for celebration over scones and cappuccino. In my eyes, that connection they made was far more impressive than the back bend.

Connections are crucial to us, in every stage of life. Make sure that you nourish those. Just as a baby needs to be held, rocked, crooned to and spoken with, our adult friends need interaction and attention, as well. We need to firm up those bonds and create strong ties with one another. This helps us feel more grounded in who we are, as people, and it also provides us with a wonderful network, with whom to share our joys, our sorrows and our every day events. So, find a pal...or better still...invite someone who may seem a bit lonely, out for cappuccino and scones. You may just end up finding a wonderful friend to help partner on life's journey. Just make sure you are learning to speak in their "language": you will find your connection to be much more real than imposing your own.

The greatest danger to our future is apathy in our connectedness. ~ Jane Goodall