Contemplating presence in the moment, while preparing for retreat
by Susan Firer
This past week I was preparing for a week-long silent retreat sending out emails, cooking, cleaning and the like. I had one of those moments where a feeling arises spontaneously and it has weight to it, so you sort of stop and notice it briefly. The feeling came about while I was vacuuming and dusting the meditation room. I had a sensory memory of when I was younger and getting the house ready for the holidays, anticipating my siblings, who were already on their own, coming home. It was a very ordinary yet extra-ordinary experience all at once. I realized that I was doing the work without complaint, and without wishing I were doing something else; I was doing it joyfully. I was just perfectly there in the moment!
I think the very ordinary experiences in our lives can be the most profound, or to say it another way, the everyday experiences with our daily activities have such power to wake us up or keep us in a kind of autopilot mode. That’s what I mean when I say “profound.” Think about all the stuff you need to do to keep yourself, your family, housemates, or friends going. Let’s just use the concept of basic needs: food, clothing and shelter. So we need to eat, have clothes to wear, and a place to stay.
Think of all the time you spend just meeting these needs. Now, think about when you are cooking, eating or shopping for your food – what is your mindset while you are doing these things? If you are at all like me you probably have different feelings about it on different days. There are times when I am cooking, and I rush through it to get to what I “really need to be doing.” Then there are times when I am fully involved in preparing the food, and not thinking about what I would rather be doing or what I should “really” be doing. I am just being present with the situation with little or no discursiveness.
These are the times when I actually can appreciate the activity. When I am wishing I were doing something else, or feeling like it is a chore, and wondering why someone else can’t do this, that’s when I get stressed, irritated, and mentally sloppy. We have so many opportunities to look at our minds (and feel our bodies/hearts) when we do our everyday stuff. Our lives are full of moments to be fully engaged with what we are doing, or not. We can actually be Mind Full all the time, but it takes practice.
We also spend a lot of our time with others, even if we live alone. We may have co-workers, neighbors, on-line friends or whatever — we do share our time with others. Communication and relating with others is a huge gift, curse, cause of pain, cause of joy. It’s our choice what we make of it. I’ve found that the most difficult relationships I have are often the ones that have the most potential to help me become a better person — relationships with others who are present and mindful more often than not. I think it can be so difficult for us to just be in the space and the present moment, without judgement or thinking ahead to what we are going to say once so and so is finally finished talking!
This is another very ordinary and possibly daily situation in which we all find ourselves. We have the ability and wisdom as human beings to allow each moment of interaction with others to be fresh and open, rather than stick with an old habitual pattern. To have a very ordinary yet extra-ordinary experience all at once.
Susan Firer is a co-founder of Windhorse Retreat Center, and currently serves as its manager. This article was previously published as a blog entry on the Center’s webpage.