“As long as you live, keep learning how to live.” — Seneca
Tara Brach, on a recent episode of her amazing podcast, recounted an exercise done at a meditation retreat headed by Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. Members at the retreat were asked to pair up and hug each other for the duration of three breaths.
On the first breath, to reflect: “I’m going to die.”
On the second breath: “You’re going to die.”
And on the third breath: “And we have these precious moments.”
Since I’ve been in Bombay, I’ve been bouncing in happiness. I love this city for being so extraordinarily clever by containing so many dear friends. I’m aware even during mundane activities, such as washing dishes or walking to gym, of my good fortunes. There are so many precious moments.
And yet, I was spending an incredible amount of energy on the Next Trip, scheduled to start in a few weeks’ time. I researched for months, read dozens of books, began physical training for it, and discussed it endlessly. So when someone I respect enormously recommended I cancel the Next Trip, I was aghast.
The reasons were twofold. One was to continue a health journey I (inadvertently) started. It’s going so well that to do my usual stop/start in this instance would be a real shame, as I have the opportunity to heal lifelong health issues.
The other reason was harder to digest: my difficulty focusing on the present. I’m in my beloved Bombay, yet I’m not here. What will it take?
Back to the future
Most of us live either in the past or the future. Our wardrobes often reveal which one. Holding onto old favourites because of memories is about clinging to the past. Holding on to them in the hope of fitting into them again one day is about fixating on the future.
I rarely look back. I’m not a sentimental person. But my centre of gravity is always a little ahead of me. I focus on later. I plan. Largely: I fret.
I’m not talking about really later. Like: one day I’m going to be old and die alone. I’m not fussed about that. I view the far future as I do the past: it all somehow works out.
Neither do I mean a few years ahead. In my corporate job, I had to make Five Year Plans for the film division. It was baffling in its futility. Personally, I don’t even know where I’m going to be a year from now.
No, my focus is from the coming day to a few months ahead. Nearly two decades of working in film production cemented this future-focused perspective, where the goal was to be ready for the next stage. The present was only viewed in terms of what lay ahead. All that I’m doing now is really for later.
I base many decisions in anticipation of the future. I’ve bought gadgets with the highest specs because I might need the extra storage One Day. I’ve stockpiled lip balm in case I run out One Day. I’m not alone. Thinking about later is why so many people remove themselves from the present and photograph every activity via endless selfies.
I like the idea of being a bold person but, actually, I’m prone to anxiety. I fear something terrible will happen. And that I can prevent it by anticipating it. So I obsess about planning everything, convinced it will protect me from untold horrors.
I am primed for battle. I am poised for fire. Even in my sleep I can’t relax, and grind my teeth so much that my dentist makes me wear a mouthguard.
This will sound familiar to anyone who has faced profound trauma in childhood as I have. The shock of tragedy is so overwhelming, that we will do whatever we can to brace ourselves against it.
The idea that by anticipating something, I can sidestep the calamity itself is entirely false, of course. Yet it’s easier to convince myself I’m in charge of something imaginary (the future), rather than confronting the reality that I in fact control nothing.
This control also seeps into other areas. I expect people to meet my needs instead of letting them be who they are. I become fixated on My Way and find it difficult to accommodate other options. I become dogmatic about schedules. A friend had recently signed up for swim classes, when her boyfriend sent her a ticket to meet him in Europe for a week. Guess what my first response was? “But you’ll miss your swim classes!” (This is probably why nobody invites me for last-minute romantic adventures to Europe.)
I can become so rigid about following a plan that I sometimes forget to live. In the present. The only place we really can.
I know we’re meant to be living moment to moment because that’s how children live. The way I operate now is conditioned behaviour – learnt, practised and honed over the years, overriding nature.
I heard recently that the reason meditation focuses on the breath is because that’s what is present. I had joined many meditation classes in London, but never quite got into it. I’m learning similar techniques from The Health Awareness Centre workshop I’m attending in Bombay, and finally understanding what the fuss is all about. Practising it now, I can tell the difference. I see how tightly I hold myself in.
I built my shield to protect myself from lurking disasters, but I also effectively padded myself against being truly present and, therefore, truly happy.
I’ve been there: living from a place of love, instead of fear. Where instead of control, I have faith. Trusting that whatever I need, I already have in me. Releasing my armour.
I know the grandest moments of my life have been unscripted. When I really and truly let go, that’s when magic happens. I don’t even mean events, but the way my heart opens and I feel secure in myself.
As odd as it sounds, I had even planned that this is what I would experience on the Next Trip. I thought I would go there and then start living this way again. But this is merely a variation of “when I fall in love/lose weight/have a baby/get that million dollars, I will be happy”. It’s always: go there and then. Only if, then. After this, then. It’s always then.
So, despite months of planning and preparation, I decided to cancel the Next Trip.
I want to continue on my health journey. I’ve been sickly my whole life. I am changing this now, and it feels exciting and rewarding.
And I want to bring my focus to Here. Now, not later. I’m good with completing tasks but (alas) this is not a box I get to tick to show I’ve done it.
It’s an ongoing process. Of continually letting go and trusting that I can handle whatever happens. Of moving the centre of gravity back to the present, shifting my focus back to my breath, and loving each and every one of these precious moments.
“I do wish I could tell you my age, but it’s impossible. It keeps changing all the time.” — Greer Garson
There is no writer I associate more with an almost feverish immediacy than JD Salinger. His words are visceral and transporting in their detail and dialogue. We are there with Franny on her spiritual quest (Franny and Zooey). We are with see-more-glass on the beach (A Perfect Day For Bananafish, Nine Stories). We are watching Esmé’s nostrils flare as she tries to hide her yawn while singing in the choir (For Esmé, With Love and Squalor, Nine Stories). And we are certainly every step of the way with Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye. Only four short (immaculate) books were published in Salinger’s lifetime, though there is no end to the continued fascination with the man and his writing.
The BBC World Service’s World Book Club, hosted by Harriet Gilbert, invites authors to talk about their best known work, while readers from around the world to ask them questions. Given how fiercely private Salinger was, he would never have attended such a public forum himself, but this month, the Book Club met without the (in any case deceased) author to discuss Catcher in the Rye. A wonderful treat for us fans. Click to listen here.
One of the guest speakers for the above was Joanna Rakoff, author of My Salinger Year, a memoir I read in one sitting. She joined a literary agency in New York in her early 20s, assisting the agent who represented Salinger. It could have been opportunistic and cheaply vindictive like The Devil Wears Prada, but this is much classier stuff. Rakoff writes about her work, her boss, the endless fan mail received on behalf of Salinger (a half century after his books were first published), the thrilling operations of publishing what would have been his fifth book, as well as meeting the man himself.
Unlike everyone I know, I’m not wowed by director Wes Anderson. I was especially peeved that Salinger’s Glass family characters are so clearly the inspiration behind The Royal Tenenbaums, when Salinger had always been adamantly against having any of his fiction adapted. (The married name of Boo Boo Glass is also Tannenbaum.) Still, I grudgingly admit that Tenenbaums hits some interesting notes. The Ben Stiller character – he of the repeated fire drills following the death of his wife – will be familiar to anyone determined to never repeat a tragedy.