“When we return to our breathing, we return to the present moment, our true home. There’s no need for us to struggle to arrive somewhere else. We know our final destination is the cemetery. Why are we in a hurry to get there? Why not step in the direction of life, which is in the present moment?”
“When you walk, arrive with every step.”
–Thích Nhất Hạnh, How To Walk
Sometimes we find important thoughts in silly packages. For instance, remember that saying about how every moment is a gift, and that’s why it’s called the present? Silliness, kitsch, yes, yes. But also: I was sitting the other night, paying attention to my breathing, and for a moment each breath was something like a beautiful surprise.
When I started sitting for a little while every day, I was measuring my time. Seven minutes: I set an alarm on my phone. Then I started sitting until I wasn’t worried about how long I would sit for. Then, one night, I remembered Thích Nhất Hạnh’s comment that meditation isn’t something that takes a long time. It isn’t something that requires fanfare and distinction. It’s something he does standing in line at the supermarket, or while walking, or in between one breath and the next. I’d thought about that before, but thinking and doing are different.
For me, doing that—or what might have been that—felt like a kind of waiting. A slight, expectant pause between one now and another, between inhaling and exhaling. It was a pause in which I realized something was happening. It felt like—well, I could come up with an elaborate story: I could say it felt like putting my face into an ocean, holding my breath, for a moment, and seeing the sparkling fish and growing kelp; like realizing I could breath there; like breathing out, and falling forward to someplace that was both new and home. But that’s too much of a story. I once told a meditation teacher I was visualizing my breath as a glowing ball of energy that moved up and down in my chest. I thought I was doing a great job. They smiled: “There’s a difference between the idea of the breath and the breath,” they said. “Go back to the breath.”
Back to the breath. Back to the present moment. Stories are wonderful, but they aren’t now. In the few weeks since I started writing this post, I’ve been worried about trying to repeat the experience. It felt so sweet, so easy; what if I couldn’t go back? And of course, I can’t go back. And of course, the sweet moment didn’t happen without the plodding hopeful preparation of practice. (I wonder how many hours Thích Nhất Hạnh spent meditating before he did it in a moment). But it did happen that one night, and in the last few days, something similar has happened in new, different ways. Sitting in the dark or the light, outside or in my room—sitting here, wanting to laugh and listen, and to see what happens next—what is now—all this feels, sometimes, like arriving with every step.