To Actually Be Present


A friend and I were talking over lunch last week about life and health, work and family.

“Best to make the most of it,” I said.

“You could get hit by a bus tomorrow,” she added with a smirk.

We do smirk when we say that, don’t we? As it leaves our lips, it seems clever, but at the same time, we understand its tragic humor: our time here is finite.

As much as we think we can plan ahead, as much as we worry about tomorrow, as often as it feels like we must hold all of that in place for ourselves, the truth of the matter is, all you really have is right now.

I have a daily reminder of that here on my desk — a photo of my dad, my sister and me at a cousin’s wedding. It was taken two weeks before he died — August 31, 1995 — when he was, almost literally, hit by a bus.

In the blink of an eye — in a mere 16 seconds, according to the accident report — all of his planning and worrying and place-holding became irrelevant.

My dad did a lot of that — being on guard for the future. It is why he worked so hard and so much. It is why he was rarely home when I was growing up. It is why, in one of the last conversations we had, he admitted “I think often about quitting my job and just working at McDonald’s so I can punch in and punch out and be done.”

At the age of 52, he was ready to live in the moment. To actually be present in his life.

There is a confluence of that message for me lately — about being in the moment, about being present, about appreciating this right here.

It is a hard lesson to learn. And to remember. It was crystal clear to me, eighteen years ago. But it fades in and out, tangible, then shadowed.

Clear again right now, on the anniversary of his death, as I find myself reading Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Wherever You Go, There You Are.

“If we are to grasp the reality of our life while we have it, we will need to wake up to our moments. Otherwise, whole days, even a whole life, could slip past unnoticed,” he writes, as if to remind me of the thing I already know so well.

In this gentle, heartfelt book about meditation and mindfulness, Kabat-Zinn writes:

“It is about stopping and being present, that is all. Mostly we run around doing. Are you able to come to a stop in your life, even for one moment?…The funny thing about stopping is that as soon as you do it, here you are. Things get simpler. In some ways, it’s as if you died and the world continued on. If you did die, all your responsibilities and obligations would immediately evaporate. Their residue would somehow get worked out without you. No one else can take over your unique agenda. It would die or peter out with you just as it has for everyone else who has ever died. So you don’t need to worry about it in any absolute way.

If this is true, maybe you don’t need to make one more phone call right now, even if you think you do. Maybe you don’t need to read something just now, or run one more errand. By taking a few moments to “die on purpose” to the rush of time while you are still living, you free yourself to have time for the present. By “dying” now in this way, you actually become more alive now….The stopping actually makes the going more vivid, richer, more textured. It helps keep all the things we worry about and feel inadequate about in perspective. It gives us guidance”

Throughout the book, Kabat-Zinn speaks often of Henry David Thoreau, with whom both my dad and I shared an affinity. Perhaps it is no accident I have found my way to this book in this moment, and found a way to share it with you, today?

“Only that day dawns to which we are awake.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

• • •

©2013, Jen Payne

Excerpts: Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. New York: Hypeiron, 1994.

17 thoughts on “To Actually Be Present

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  1. Sorry for your loss. Though it was so long ago, the term “loss” doesn’t change.
    We need these reminders, Jen. Everything fades. Memories, inspirations, positive vibes. It’s necessary, I think, to keep these things alive by daily reminders. A book, a quote, a meditation, a prayer. We forget. It’s only human, to coin a phrase so eloquently (ha!) This book was your reminder, this time. Maybe tomorrow, a quote, or a thought that travels on a breeze and whispers in your ear. Or an encouraging word from a friend.
    Thanks for the recommendation. G

    1. Those we have lost are always a part of us, sometimes more than others. I’ve grown to love these days – these marker points when I allow myself to stop and remember. I think it’s really important for all of us to do.

      Thanks for your kind word Gemma – and for sharing this journey!

  2. Great Thoreau quote and so fitting for your thoughts. :-) Each day I see the sun rise, thanks to an early start to the work day and I am always amazed at how much hope it holds for the day.

  3. “If you go by direct evidence only, then there is no time, and NOW is all there ever is.” (I have no idea where I got that quote but it’s one of my favorites about living in the PRESENT moment.)

  4. Jen,
    I’m late to the dance, as usual. I am sorry for your loss. It must have been such a hard way (not that there is an easy way) to lose your father. It sounds like you had a special bond. I’m glad you reaching out and finding things that help you center yourself. This was a wonderful post.

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