If you were in Manhattan in 2012 you may have had the chance to see a musical written by Hunter Bell and Susan Blackwell, with music and lyrics by Jeff Bowen, and produced by the Vineyard Theatre. The show had an interesting collage of themes: friendship, hoarding, hiding, laughing, living, dying and middle school. Plus birds, bees, reptiles, but also early man on the Earth, ancient civilizations and outer space. And loneliness and dinosaurs. What can possibly weave together such a diverse scope of themes? Well, may be the title gives you a hint: Now. Here. This.
I must confess I didn't see the musical, but heard of its title from Father Greg Doyle, the priest who works with gang members in LA, and who created HomeBoy Industries, the enterprises that provide jobs and the promise of a new life to youth prone to violence. Now, here, this, he said, is a mantra that he repeats to himself, trying to stay anchored in the moment. This New Agey perspective resonated with me. It is new and it is old, as living in the present is something Buddhism followers take repeatedly into account. It becomes a focus of exercise, a practice, a mastery.
As good as it sounds - to pay attention to the moment without getting distracted, to be 100% present, it is nevertheless a bizarre challenge. When we take a look back at how we went through our last 24 hours, we will find many things, but not much of Buddhist philosophy or of Eckhart Tolle in his 'Power of Now'. We wake up trying to catch up with what we missed while we slept. Sometimes even before the shower we are trying to recall the list of 'things pending' and almost forgotten promises and commitments. Sipping our breakfast coffee, we start planning how to mix and match the many overlapping demands waiting for us. We imagine, envision, anticipate and try to get a hold of our day in the most 'effective' way. Then we leap into action.
We talk, read, write, reply, analyze, try, explore, search, answer, offer, react, decide, and project. In between all that doing and left-brain activity, we also wonder, fear, enjoy, get upset, miss, regret, love, hate and delight in things, all while trying to pay the minimum attention to those feelings, in order to rapidly continue talking, reading, writing, anticipating and deciding. We have automated responses for common questions such as "How are you doing?". Fine - or perhaps we convert the 'how' into 'what", and reply: I'm just finishing this email....
We float between analyzing and trying to explain or make meaning out of what happened (Why?) to forecasting and imagining what could happen (So what? What if?). We are riding the pendulum of our life that takes us nonstop between the past and the future. We may not have time to remember that the past is unchangeable, and the future is only in our imagination. No wonder we are living in stress. An old image from my childhood comes to my mind, when I used to watch the moving pendulum of the old family clock on the wall, always hoping it would stop in the middle.
Certainly, there is value in reflecting on the past: it's the fountain of lessons and wisdom. And projecting ourselves into the future is a good way to state intentions, set goals, and feel we're in control of life.
In control of life.... In my classes we have conversations about the value we as a society give to being in control, what that means, if it is actually possible, what the consequences of that value are for how we live our life. Think of this - is there a single day where we know what the day will bring? After a while of back and forth, we realize that being in control is often a wish, more than a reality, an attempt, like planning, which leads us into action.
So how do birds, reptiles, ancient man, and laughing connect with the idea of 'now, here, this'? We have all become busy-ness people. Whether dealing with grandiose plans or small daily chores, we seem to experience a collective inability to pause, stay in the silence between two thoughts. A few days ago I went to a performance of a small vocal group, and they sang a 1927 song called Manicero (Peanut Man). I was taken aback by the lyrics. "Peanuts, peanuts... If you want to have fun, get a bag of peanuts. It cannot get better than that. Don't miss me when I come by, because you will regret it and it will be too late." It is interesting to think back to those simpler times, when people would sing a song honoring peanuts. Perhaps we should be mindful of the order used in United States Navy vessels as an instruction to cease activity and listen to the announcement that will follow: Now hear this.
And try the advice of Anne Lamott "Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you."
Keywords: Musical, HomeBoy Industries, New Age, Buddhism, control, time, pause, peanuts.