“What is the meaning of Zen”, asked the monk. “What is the meaning of now” replied Ma-Tsu.
Part One – “Plans”
John Lennon once wrote that “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” When he left the Beatles, arguably the greatest rock band of all time, he pursued a solo career. At one point he completely withdrew from performing and recording music altogether. For about five years he just looked after his son Sean and stayed mostly out of the public eye.
It seemed that he was tired of life as a rock star and simply wanted to get back to living at its most basic level. In the tradition of Thoreau, Lennon tried to push life into a corner and only pay attention to essential facets of personal and family needs – things that many people believe really counts. There was no time allocated for elaborate plans…just an opportunity to live in the present, contemplating the meaning of life, and, most probably, daydream.
In today’s frantic world everything seems to be about endless communications, and working for, and chasing, the almighty dollar. Plans are made, meeting dates set, working hours stretched and wealth accumulated. Busy, busy. Life has sped up so much that it’s increasingly difficult to meet up with a friend to have a drink or go for a leisurely walk in the park. Deadlines are always looming… idle time is frowned upon.
I remember reading an introduction to one of Henry Miller’s books where he discusses his puritanical upbringing. One of his strongest recollections was about the constant preparations that his family were continually making.
Everything involved getting ready for tomorrow. Linens were cleaned and neatly folded… ready for guests. After a while he felt suffocated by this attitude and wanted an escape. It was time to “blow up” the bridge to the future and start living now. And he did, if his novels are any indication!
Albert Einstein once wrote a provocative sentence that in my view may help us stay more focused on the present versus being preoccupied with the future. This prescription points to us analyzing and always assessing whether things are truly important. Normally we do this by quantifying everything. Wealth is measured in dollars.
Learning is judged by marks. Success is defined by accolades. Travelers count the places they visit. Measure, measure, measure. We’re always setting concrete goals and tackling them. But can truly important things be tallied?
Einstein wrote, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” For example, we cannot measure the depth of one’s love, and a thing like happiness is far too ephemeral to even try to count. Yet these are two of the most sought after things in life – love and happiness. And I think all the planning in the world “ain’t” going to help in these, and other, profound areas of our lives. They require immediate, or more accurately, intimate attention.
Part Two – “Now”
I love this cute saying, and play on words, by Eleanor Roosevelt: “Yesterday is history; Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift – that is why we call it the present.” It suggests that living in the present is something special. And many Eastern religious traditions concur. The question is how we can truly appreciate this “gift”. Or, more accurately, get it.
A few years ago a book by Eckhart Tolle called “The Power of Now” became an international best seller. I found the book a typical “new age” sort of thing with ideas taken from Buddhism, mystical traditions and references especially to Zen teachings. The main message of the book was that we should learn to live in the moment and avoid stressing over the past and the future. Tolle believes that many of our anxieties in life is a result of not really experiencing what’s going on at any given moment. Our mind keeps jumping around in a distracting fashion…recalling yesterday’s events or thinking about next week’s meeting. Tolle’s book, unfortunately, does not give the best advice to best experience the present. However, I do agree that the ability to be fully aware and immersed in what is happening now is one of the keys to a fulfilling life.
The question is how can we fully appreciate and experience the power of now? An old Japanese description of a monk staying in an old temple may represent a path to serenity through what I’d call “now-ness”.
“In the depths of Takano, in the province of Ki,
I spend the night listening to raindrops through the cedars”
Peacefully lying in bed focused on just one thing is a sure way into the true present, perhaps. Or, as the famous Western writer Robert Louis Stevenson says: “The best things in life are nearest. Breath in your nostrils, light in our eyes, flowers at your feet, duties in your hand, the path is right just before you.” The sentence gives another way of for approaching this quest of living in the moment. The answer is close by… not out there! And your future is right in front of you…a continuum of where you are/were.
As I grow older I value the words of Angelo Pellegrini more and more…as a simple tonic for the angst and restlessness of our times. He sets out a beautiful prescription:
“In the leavened loaf there is strength; in the bottle of wine there is gaiety. Let us look to our kitchens and stock our cellars. Call friends and family to the dinner table. Salute each other with beaded bubbles winking at the brim and purple stained mouth. Act now. Pull the cork. Don’t hesitate. We’ve nothing to lose but boredom and despair.”
Live for today. Tomorrow will come regardless. You can count on it.Bob Desautels is a successful restaurateur, author of two books and former professor at the University of Guelph's Bachelor of Commerce program.