Is life a Journey? Or is it about being here?

We are all familiar with the phrase used so often now of “our journey”. We talk of life as if what is happening now is but a step in our endeavour to get to a final destination – our ideal fitness, a relationship, Enlightenment. This video popped up on You Tube earlier in the week and it really made me consider this use of terminology. In it Alan Watts poses the question if life is a journey where is it we are heading too? He speculates that this terminology comes from the way we are educated – where our attention is always on the future, always focused on the next goal, on arriving at some point in the future but never feeling we are enough as we are right now: we have exams, go on into employment or further studies, seek a degree, promotion, a relationship…….and so it goes on. We feel we will only truly arrive at some point in the future and are told who we are now is not enough. But we never arrive at that future point, so life is a constant struggle to get to the next stage.

Instead, Watts suggests life is a place to play and enjoy the fullness of the present moment. I once heard someone say “we are a human being, not a human doing”, and this is a great use of language to remind us that what we seek is presence and being fully alive in the moment.

Last week I was writing about suicidal thoughts and depression. For me this tendency of the mind to go to these challenging places is due to the weight of the feeling “I’m not enough”, that I have so much more work to do to arrive and it can feel overwhelming to have to face this ongoing journey – as if I’m only half way up the mountain and the path has been so hard to this point how can it be possible to continue? Suicide is the thought “I may as well jump off now rather than carry on”. If instead I shift my attention to this present moment and enjoying the aliveness of this breath, this fleeting feeling of a breeze on my face, the laughter in this moment of conversation with a friend, the sense of wonder at life and the feeling “I’m ok as I am” then the struggle falls away. Yes, each foot step may be hard, but if I am no longer fixed on some idea of the future and imaging all the difficult steps to get there, then instead I just have the experience of this footstep, noticing if it feels hard, easy or neutral.

With this attitude there is no struggle, only noticing. No longer trying to reach perfection and feeling overwhelmed by distance I have yet to travel, but instead at home in my imperfection. As one friend and mentor once said of himself he was now at peace with being “a mess in progress”.

The great hoax of life is that we are broken and need fixing and that there is a future point where we will be perfect. Yes, we have wounds and these may need to be brought into awareness so we can learn how to hold ourselves with compassion. But in the end it is just this story of being broken and in need of fixing that needs to be seen through. Right now, with no story, there is just a stream of bare experience. Sensations pulsing in the body, thoughts passing by, emotions rising and falling like waves on the sea. It is only when I label this as me, and then say one wave is right, another is wrong, one moment is good, another moment is bad…..that there is struggle.

As a Zen practitioner said:

How wondrous this, how mysterious!
I carry fuel, I draw water.

Hokoji (D’ang Chu-shih), an 8th century lay practitioner explained his insight thus. Not saying there was a transcendent place to get to or a goal beyond the world to aspire to, but instead a full turning of the heart to this present moment. Ajahan Chah, the teacher of the Thai forest tradition I tried in, used to have his monks sweep leaves in the monastery. Every day we had chores and duties and monks would grumble “but I’m here to meditate”  and as long as they thought that meditation was separate to sweeping leaves Ajahan Chah would have them sweeping leaves all day!

What’s your version of sweeping leaves? Where can you turn to an ordinary activity in your life and instead of seeing it as a thing to be got through to get to the next more important thing in the hope of finally arriving at the desired destination…….finding joy in where you are. It’s like rushing to get home, then on arriving rushing though getting changed so we can get to our evening, rushing through cooking so we can get to eat, rushing through eating so we can get to relaxing, not stopping as we watch a film or read but always having our eye on the next thing. Instead how would it be to just be present as you travel home, present as you undress, present as you cook, present as you eat, present as you sit watching a film?

 

As a teen I saw a Zen poem in the newspaper:

“If all oceans are really brothers, why then the wind and the waves are raging?”

I cut it out and had it by my bed, and still have it now. It really spoke to me of this sense of struggle between elements that really are part of one whole. The way we fight against ourselves and are never at peace.

Next time you find yourself feeling there is a future destination where you will be whole and complete and fulfilled, notice that it is just this thought “I am not enough” that is making this present moment seem incomplete. Then see what it is like instead to turn to this moment with a full sense of curiosity and wonder.

Become like a child again, where every minute could be new. I remember how I used to watch rain drops as they ran down the window during a storm. No matter how many times I watched this it always fascinated me as if it were the first time…..seeing how one drop would start high up on the window, gather speed, meet another drop, merge, suddenly speed up and then disappear, only for another drop to start its own adventure running down the glass. Now I just look at the window and think “it’s raining” and rush on with whatever I am doing to try and get to some unknown future where I can feel at rest and fulfilled…..forgetting that that rest and fulfilment I seek can be found right here, right now if I turn to life with a sense curiosity, wonder and freshness.

In the end that is all mindfulness is, reminding us to reconnect with this childlike sense of openness, non judgemental curiosity and delight in the present moment.

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