Be Here Now
I narrowly escaped a nasty car accident this morning while taking my son to school. I drive a gigantic Toyota 4Runner, and it’s not easy to overlook. But the woman who came within inches of smashing into the passenger side of my vehicle, where my son was sitting and happily telling me about his new gig as a member of the fifth-grade safety patrol, wasn’t looking at me, my car, or even the road. Instead, she was staring deeply into a compact mirror and gazing, with some displeasure, at her own reflection.
I could easily turn this into a finger-wagging essay about the dangers of multitasking while driving—and I’d have plenty of horror stories to recount. Over the years, I’ve seen people reading books and newspapers, shaving, applying makeup, texting, hunting for something in the backseat, or even, as it appeared in one case, attempting to kill a bug with a paperback book, all while sailing down the highway at excesses of 70 mph.
But there was something about this particular instance—the woman so absorbed with her own face that she was missing all around her—that took me down an entirely different mental road. Maybe because staying present in the moment—even when it’s boring, even when it’s painful, even when I fool myself into thinking I have something better or more urgent to do—is one of the goals I’ve been working on myself lately.
It’s easy to understand the struggle to stay present when the present isn’t comfortable or fun. Most of us would rather take a mental vacation than stay fully engaged during a root canal, the third staff meeting of the week, or a rerun of NBC’s misguided “Joey.”
But we also find our attention wandering during the good stuff—like our children telling us about their day at school—or the important stuff—like navigating a two-ton truck down a four-lane interstate. Our busy, busy brains chatter away at us, keeping up a constant, often critical narrative: telling us about all the stuff we’ve forgotten to do or “should” be doing (oh-crap-I-forgot-to-pay-that-bill-I-wonder-what-to-do-about-dinner-that-report-isn’t-going-to-write-itself), editorializing over what we actually are doing (I-can’t-believe-I-just-made-that-stupid-joke-do-I-have-something-in-my-teeth-God-I’m-fat), or worrying about something that hasn’t and may never actually happen (what-if-I-get-laid-off-maybe-he’s-having-an-affair-does-Josh-have-ADHD?).
It’s not all criticism and craziness. Sometimes we avoid staying present by fantasizing or setting ourselves up with high-flown hopes and expectations reality may never be able to match (maybe this year, even though your husband has forgotten your last 17 wedding anniversaries, he’ll buy flowers, make reservations at that romantic bistro, and whisper that you are the most amazing woman he’s ever known).
But whether we’re beating ourselves up, distracting ourselves with daydreams, or worrying about Armageddon, one thing remains constant: we are not present for what is actually happening right now. We’re trading reality for illusion. We’re choosing fantasy or fear over what is.
The past is gone and irretrievable. The future is unpredictable. All we really have, all we are guaranteed, all we are actually given, is this moment. And when we don’t stay present for it, we miss the soft sibilant “s” that whispers charmingly through our child’s still-gapped front teeth. We miss the flock of birds that just took flight in exquisite and flawless formation from the trees. We miss the feel of the ground under our feet, the sun against our face, the scent of woodsmoke on the breeze.
What’s going on in the moment? In all the boring, painful, weird, awkward, funny, splendid, ordinary moments? That would be our actual life, and if we’re not staying present, we may as well be sleepwalking right through it. When we wake—if we wake—disoriented, startled—we may never know all that we missed.
So, as Ram Dass so simply and eloquently put it: be here now. Be. Here. Now. Because now, truly, is all there is.