As we move through the change of seasons this time of year, we can’t help but become attuned to the swiftly-moving, ephemeral nature of life. It’s the natural progression of things, after all. We observe the turning of the world on its axis, and the arising and ceasing of everything around us. Events in our families, towns, nations and world continue to unfold, filled typically with equal parts joy and sorrow. All messengers of impermanence.
There’s a wonderful short teaching called The Hole Sutta that punctuates the wild improbability that we’ve been born into this life as human beings in the first place, that we can discern the wholesome from the unwholesome, encounter the teachings, apply them, and awaken. It involves a vast tumultuous ocean, a blind turtle that surfaces once every hundred years to breathe, and the hole of a yoke. It’s best read in the original (see the link above) so I won’t paraphrase, but the gist is that the chances are slim, friend!
We know that the way home to the present moment, which is the only space in which we are truly embodied and alive, is by connecting with what’s real – the joys, the sorrows, and the mundane. Yet it’s become the societal norm to distract ourselves from the real beauty and messiness of life, turning instead to things like food, work, and our phones (cat videos! Wordle!), which are poor substitutes for embodied presence. We give our sick and elderly over to strangers to care for, and our dead to the embalmer in an attempt to physically erase the signs of death. We say our lives lack meaning, yet we continually turn away from opportunities to connect with what’s real.
So how does the practice of mindfulness, and all the teachings that spring forth from this basic quality of awareness, help us to both savor this precious life and fuel the desire to practice? How do we use these contemplations to reflect on what’s most important, what Suzuki Roshi called the heart’s most inmost request?
Of course, there are many specific teachings that help us connect with what’s real in this moment – mindfulness of the body and breath, lovingkindness, and mindful eating to name a few. But a practice I find particularly helpful in stoking the desire to stay on the path, even when the going gets rough, is to reflect on what has changed in my life as a result of this practice. You might try this right now. Close your eyes and sense into the body. Imagine the time before you “woke up” to the fact that your thoughts are not all there is. Not to assume that you’re present all the time now, but can you remember? What were your habit patterns around stress and difficulty? You might ask: Have I become more easeful, less anxious, and more accepting of myself and others? Allow this realization to sink in, and the fruits of your practice to become the fuel for its continued unfolding.
Each moment we spend fully present, we spend being fully alive. According to the Buddha, that you’re here, in this body, in this moment, and have found these teachings is quite a miracle! May your practice continue to bear fruit, both for your own awakening and for the awakening of all beings.