A Balancing Act: Living in the Present, Planning for the Future - Contemplative Journal

A Balancing Act: Living in the Present, Planning for the Future

A Balancing Act: Living in the Present, Planning for the Future

Nowadays most of us feel as though we are being dragged along at breakneck speed in directions we would rather not go. Somehow we need to find a way of slowing down, stepping off this path, and reestablishing a balance in our lives.

Balance has to do with remaining in the moment, neither looking back wistfully nor looking too far forward. I try not to think about what may happen at some event that I hope to go to. Maybe I’ll get there, but maybe I won’t. There are an infinite number of possibilities in any given moment, but we endeavor to control our destiny most of the time. The older I get, the less set in stone things seem to be. If I don’t have expectations that are too high, I won’t be disappointed.

Living in the present doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t plan ahead. You need to have an intention in mind when you embark on something, but the thing to do is make plans, and then wait to see what happens. For instance, one fall I gathered seeds from the hollyhocks in our community garden, and sowed them along the edge of the path. I had this vision of an army of old-fashioned blossoms guarding the path like sentinels. And then I watched to see if any or all of them came up. (None of them did!) Life is just like this. You can sow all kinds of seeds, but you never know which ones will germinate or what will happen to any of them once they sprout.

Don’t Hold Fixed Ideas In the Mind

Another way of allowing more freedom into the mind is not holding fixed ideas about people and things. Over the years we observe how other people behave in certain situations, and we come to the conclusion that they will always react that way. But we know this is not so. For instance, I have built up a picture of one of the doormen in my building as being an old curmudgeon.  It is true that ever since he had a heart attack his behavior has been erratic, but he means well most of the time, and the fact that I carry around this negative idea most probably produces the result I expect.

I once published a book called The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff, which described how children almost without exception do whatever you expect them to do. If you are afraid that they will fall into the fishpond, they will. Just keep the idea in your mind. You don’t have to say anything out loud. Children have an uncanny ability to connect with what you are thinking and feeling, rather than what you may be saying. Your mind is the environment in which they dwell. When my son Adam was small, I expected him to go to bed when I asked him to, and he always did. It did not occur to me that he would not go willingly to bed, and then to sleep, and so it did not occur to him either. I have a theory that the reason so many American children seem to have problems at bedtime is that the parents are not sure whether the children will go to bed, and so the children are not sure either.

What I am suggesting is that we hold neither positive nor negative ideas, that we try to stay as present as possible, and just see what happens. I know this is hard, particularly if you have a history with a friend who seems to cancel or postpone every date you make. But if you can bring yourself to do this, both you and the friend will taste a wonderful freedom in your relationship with each other.

Stress in Our Speech

Lately I have become very aware of the way we introduce stress into our speech, particularly in New York City. It is almost as though we are beating time as we speak. We come down stronger on some parts of a sentence than others. We probably think of it as “emphasis,” but it is a very different way of speaking than is customary, say, in England. If you listen to an English person say “the White House” or “the weekend,” you will notice that all the syllables have the same weight. Yet in this country we put the stress on the first syllable, and the second one is almost insignificant. I suspect that we have built the stress we are all experiencing into the way we speak.

You can hold people’s attention more easily, if you neither drop nor raise your voice at the end of each sentence. Your voice floats on the air, and people’s minds have less of a tendency to get carried off into their own trains of thought. When I was on a retreat with Toni Packer of the Springwater Center years ago, she gave a short talk each day. Her words and phrases came and went, the sound of her voice never falling at the end of each sentence, so that we all felt gentled, then released, and borne aloft like milkweed parachutes drifting up and away.

Balancing Money

The way to walk the middle path in relation to money is not so different. You need to find a way to stay balanced. I have never made a concerted effort to make money, but I was brought up during World War II, and it comes naturally to me to be frugal. So anything I don’t really need, I don’t acquire. (Well, of course, sometimes I slip from this, but I have to make a real effort!) When any money accumulates in my checking account, I either give it to a good cause or salt it away. I treat each investment like one of the plants on my windowsill. I watch it carefully, waiting for it to grow. If nothing happens after a reasonable amount of time, I repot it. It is really a question of how you view money. I don’t make a budget. If I need something, I always look for the best quality as well as the best value. If I don’t really need something, I simply don’t buy it.
This is all about not being pulled too far in any direction. We are all subject to impulses, but if we are aware that we are being carried away, we can redress the balance and return to the fulcrum. One of the characteristics of the mind is that it is always expecting something, chasing after something it wants, or retreating from or resisting something it doesn’t want. It has an extraordinary tendency to escape from the present moment. And yet it is only in the present that anything happens. Perhaps the present could be likened to being in neutral, ready to move into another gear, but not yet having done so. No one can stay in neutral, but it is good to acknowledge that it is from this place that the next move comes, and to this place that it will eventually return. If we succeed in remaining still with a situation, a decision, or a problem, both the mind and heart will open, and unlooked-for opportunities will emerge.

Accept the Condition of Not Knowing

Why is it that it is so difficult to accept the condition of not knowing? The times when all there is to do is wait are hard. There were many Sunday evenings when I stood silently at the window, waiting for my ex-husband and our toddler son to return from the beach. As each light changed and their taxi didn’t appear, I would try to calm myself and wait for the next light, the next cab to slow down in front of our building. Sometimes I would wait there for an hour and they wouldn’t arrive, and I would try not to think of what disasters might have overtaken them. The truth is that I have stood there over and over again in different situations, but always the people I was expecting have eventually arrived and no harm has befallen them. Still, this time it might be different . . . Fear is always lurking around the corner.

There is something in the third chapter of Genesis that addresses the question of fear and presence. Remember when God calls to Adam (Eve’s Adam, not mine) and says, “Where art thou?” and he responds, “I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself” This is the first time that God asks man where he is. Until then this had not been necessary because Adam and Eve were simply present. But once they had eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they wandered, and their minds wandered, and both God and they no longer knew where they were. Fear is fear of the unknown. In the present, fear doesn’t exist.
There is a reference in the next chapter that I have always found both fascinating and relevant: “And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and dwelt in the land of Nod.” When I was studying Hebrew I discovered that the word nod means “restless” or “wandering.” I don’t know why the word was not translated in the King James Version. Giving it a capital letter like that makes us think that it is a country in its own right. Perhaps what is meant here is that after killing his brother, Cain no longer knew how to be still, and that he became a nomad.

Attachment Prevents True Work

I always have the sense that traveling in a plane is like being out of gear. The moment a plane lifts off the runway is a moment of sheer delight. On one such journey, I made the following observation:

I have just seen that it is attachment and identification that prevent true work. When one is content and there is no desire, no preoccupation claiming the light and strength of consciousness, then the mind naturally dwells in the present. Desire exists only when tied to a future, not-yet-arrived moment. The subtle attachment to an illusion is what produces tension—a net drawn tightly across the surface of the mind preventing entry.

We have all experienced trying to do something while our attention was still on something else. Some years ago someone brought me a publicity release to check through. I had been in an all-day meeting and was on the phone to an author. I read through the release and made a few corrections, but it was not until the following day that I remembered that the reason for publishing the book was not mentioned in the release. I had been so caught up in what I had been doing, in addition to everything that still had to be done, that I had forgotten to come into the present. The lines of tension surrounded me and prevented me from appreciating the situation clearly.
Perhaps the reason so many of us feel driven by exterior circumstances is that we often have a fixed idea of what we still have to do (or are avoiding thinking about it) and when we believe we should get it all done. None of us can measure up to this “tyranny of the shoulds.” For some reason, we think that everyone else is living a perfectly ordered life, even though it is obvious that they are not. We all have things that never quite get done, but the truth is that however long you live, and however hard you work, you cannot finish everything.

Rest Is Vital

My friend Sarah Jane once pointed out that after God had worked for six days, he saw that everything he had made was very good, and he ceased (shavat) from his labor. But almost all of us don’t see or don’t admit that what we have done is good (let alone very good), and we rarely stop working, because we believe that whatever we have done is not quite good enough. The concept of a Sabbath, first described in Genesis, was and still is a revolutionary one. It is important to stop at a certain point.

It is the claim that we put on doing that is the problem. Somewhere deep inside us we believe that we are what we do. We identify with our actions. We invest ourselves in every action, under the illusion that if we are not doing something, then perhaps we don’t exist. Invest means “clothe in.” It is a habit, something we don. Somehow, we persuade ourselves that it is our responsibility to do every job. We become identified with both the work and the results. But the truth is that it is not our work; it is the work. If we can find a way to relax our grip on our actions and what comes out of them, there is great freedom. Just watching the activity, rather than becoming completely identified with it, is restful rather than exhausting.

The space in the mind has many blessed qualities. It is this space that is the fabric of the universe. Everything we do happens in this space.

Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;

It is the center hole that makes it useful.

Shape clay into a vessel;

It is the space within that makes it useful.

Cut doors and windows for a room;

It is the holes which make it useful.

Therefore benefit comes from what is there;

Usefulness from what is not there.

Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tsu, chapter 11, translated by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English, with Toinette Lippe

In Vedanta there are five elements: earth, water, fire, air, and ether—or space. Space is often the element that is overlooked, and yet it is the one we yearn for—the one where we feel at home. Without space, there would be no place for the other elements to manifest themselves. Or, to put it another way, without a “here,” there can be no “now.” Once we begin to catch sight of our desires and then let go of them, we can take an extra step: We can rest. It has been said that true rest takes place only between one desire and the next, between the moment when you have relinquished one thought, and before you have been hooked by the next. When worries awake me in the night, it is obvious that I have not been resting. I was not able to surrender my problems before I went to sleep. I am not resting either in my bed or in the infinity of space.


Toinette Lippe
Toinette Lippe

Toinette Lippe was born in London, where she began her publishing career. In 1964 she came to New York City “for a year,” worked at Simon and Schuster for three years, and then at Alfred A. Knopf for more than thirty years as reprint rights director and editor of the Feng/English translation of Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching, Frederick Franck’s The Zen of Seeing, Ram Dass and Paul Gorman’s How Can I Help?, and other spiritual bestsellers. In 1989 she founded Bell Tower, where she published seventy books that nourished the soul, illuminated the mind, and spoke directly to the heart. Her own two books, Nothing Left Over: A Plain and Simple Life and Caught in the Act: Reflections on Being, Knowing, and Doing, were published in 2002 and 2004, and reissued as ebooks and paperbacks in 2014. For twenty years she made pilgrimages to the “rose-red city” of Petra in Jordan, to Fes in Morocco for the World Sacred Music Festival, to a monastery for a nine-day silent retreat, to Bali for the Arts Festival, to Havana for New Year's, to Rome to be with the Pope in St Peter's for the turn of the millennium, to China and Japan to visit Buddhist monasteries and paint rivers and mountains, to India and Nepal to follow in the footsteps of the Buddha, and to many other places. On her return she would write a long account of each journey and share it with a host of friends who enjoyed her trips vicariously. Toinette began to study brush painting in 2001. Her paintings, cards, and signed copies of her books can be viewed and purchased at www.toinettelippe.com.She taught ink painting at the Educational Alliance on New York’s Lower East Side from 2007 until 2011, and now offers small classes and private lessons on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.