There are moments in our lives when we are completely immersed in what we are doing. So much so that the past and future do not exist. Everything is fresh, new, and fascinating. We are seeing with what Buddhists call “beginner’s mind,” as if for the first time. Babies and small children see this way. People at the end of their lives often see this way too, as if for the last time. At either end of the first-last spectrum, it’s the immediacy of the experience that is so powerful. We are not lost in thought or distracted by irrelevant details. Life presents itself front and center, and it has our full attention. The question then becomes “how do we live like that all the time?” Is it even possible? I believe it is, but it is definitely a practice, not a casual, passing wish. You have to align yourself with it, make a promise within your own heart not to get lost in forgetfulness.
When I visited South Africa last fall, I lived each moment intensely throughout the trip. No past, no future, just one continuous stream of present-moment awareness. Traveling is often like that. Because everything is unknown, never-before-seen, your mind focuses intently on what is happening now; nothing else exists. In the African bush, I was alert and super-aware all the time. As I learned to carefully look around for the eyes of predators when leaving my hut or tent at night, I found that my senses were sharply focused on every detail of my environment.
Riding in a safari jeep, in close proximity to elephants, giraffes, and zebras, was an experience I had only imagined having, yet there I was living a reality vastly more vivid that my imagination. From a riverboat at sunset, I saw buffalo, waterbuck, crocodile, and saddle-billed storks along the river’s edge, and then as the sky darkened, thousands of fireflies lighting up the African night. During those two weeks, there was no need to think about living in the moment—there just was nothing else.
Upon returning to the U.S., I used my meditation practice to bridge the immediacy and novelty of adventurous travel with the habits of daily life. I focused on my breath and opened up to that timeless space within that is pure awareness. Every day when I went for a walk, I reminded myself to look for something different and to choose new routes. In my garden each morning, I noticed every newly opened flower—orange lilies, purple spiderwort, yellow coreopsis. The key was to keep “seeing with fresh eyes” in order to step out of routine. To reinvent the ordinary in whatever way I could so that I was constantly stepping into the unknown, the unexpected, in every moment.
It’s not really difficult to live focused in the present. Your physical senses automatically show you how to do it when extraordinary beauty or sudden danger crosses your path. You are immediately aware and intensely alive in those moments. At other times, you can expand your awareness by giving yourself memory mantras, as Thich Nhat Hanh does when he repeats “present moment, wonderful moment” in his mindfulness practice. The breath too is a built-in tool for re-centering in the now. The more I embrace the idea that there really is nothing but the present moment, the more aware I become of how precious it is. So then, whether I’m in the African bush or in my own backyard, everything around me is new and exciting—a first-last, once-in-a-lifetime experience.