The parting gift of 2021 for me was a little bit of wisdom and understanding. It did not come to me cheaply or quickly, but I still believe it arrived on time.
Intellectually, and from my pervious dabbling with mindfulness mediation, I already understand that life is only the present. Yesterdays are gone, and the future is an uncertain gamble, at best. Those who grasp at moments of past happiness are reconstructing remembered experience in hindsight from the viewpoint of the present. On the other hand, dreams of the future are sometimes just an escape from present discomfort. Living this way is a permanent sleep-walking state. We become completely or partly oblivious of the present moment, either imagining a future that might never arrive, or re-interpreting the past. In either case we are missing the point. Life is moving along in ever-changing patterns of good and bad times. All of them are temporary, and the point of it might not actually be where we have been or where we want to be next. The point is just the journey, the dance we perform and the music we play along the way.
In the past few months I was stuck in such a futile pattern. I came here, to the city of music and culture from a place where I knew I was happy. It was a place where I found love and glimpsed my own version of enlightenment. I missed Kenya. I missed Africa, the sunshine, the people, the coffee, the avocados, the simple uncomplicated life. I felt overwhelmed by learning about my new job, the challenges of raising a demanding teenager, the difficulties of adapting to a different lifestyle, and of simply finding a place for myself in foreign city. Most of all I missed the person that I became when I was fully embraced by my beloved Africa. So I tried hard to recapture that luminous phase of my life, and I grasped at everything I thought I lost. When I went shopping I tried to buy the exact same tools and utensils I had in my previous life. When I lost my beloved chain bracelet I tried to order an exact replica. I looked for Kenyan coffee, to recapture the taste of sunshine and inject life-giving warmth into my cold mornings. I grasped with desperation at memories, at moments where I felt my heart expand to encompass the whole universe, when I reached out to receive the world’s loving embrace. I remembered how well I loved, that I became wholesome in loving, and the universe seemed to hold and lift me, even while my beloved remained aloof and silent. I desperately wanted all that again.
The inevitable failure of my grasping phase came in little pointers and signs. The replacement bracelet was expensive and underwhelming, not at all like the one I lost, and the tools and utensils became useless white elephants, unsuitable for my modern European apartment. The coffee tasted like cardboard, and did not live up to my idolised version of African coffee. Each little failure was another loss, and another reason to wallow in misery and grasp even more at the past. In Kenya, I thought, everything fell into place for me, whereas here, everything went wrong. My spirit suffered as well. My attempts at recapturing the spiritual heights I experienced through running, yoga and meditation were half-hearted to non-existent. My heart felt closed and constricted and no longer capable of unconditional loving. I regained my cynicism in matters of the heart and started to re-interpret my emotional experience more rationally.
Comparing my present state of mind with the past one I remembered was jarring and unsettling. Sometimes I felt like I fell from grace, and descended from paradise to earthly suffering. At other times I thought that I must have been floating on an opioid cloud for the past six years, and just sobered up now to cold reality.
Eventually, and perhaps with the help of a lecture I listened to from Alan Watts, it dawned on me that neither my emotional nor my rational interpretations were correct. I simply failed to understand one basic lessons. Life is a flowing river, and it is a bad idea to grasp at flowing water. The clenching fingers fail to hold a single drop, and the tense limbs are no match for strong currents. That lesson holds for some things in the physical world too, like trying to fall asleep or trying hard to float in a pool. Trying too hard is sometimes the surest guarantee of failure.
Today, I have decided to float freely and stop grasping. However, in doing that, I also want to remember that I should not try too hard. True acceptance after all, is the absence of resistance, and sometimes the pull of the past will still be felt, but I need to understand it for what it is, an illusion, a re-imagining of the past from the viewpoint of the present.
There will always be things that I can, and should, work harder at, like getting more exercise or practicing meditation. But the present experience should be the heart of the practice. I should enjoy the meditation session, the single run, and the yoga lesson. And while the end goal of running another marathon or getting fit and flexible in my middle age years could work as a motivator, the end goal is not as important as the present experience. My present moment is all I have, and I will make it count.