It’s been a long, hot summer in Spain, the greatest relief from which was a trip up to Sallent de Gallego (drawn above) high in the Pyrenees. It’s a beautifully preserved village where a music festival is held in the last two weeks of July every year, the very best escape imaginable after the rising heat of a Madrid summer.
While walking around the streets of Sallent I came up with a fun sort of meditation practice which was simply to say ‘begin again’ to myself every time I found my mind wandering from the present moment. When I said it I’d clear my mind and look closely at whatever I had in front of me – so that everything was new time and again. I enjoyed this enormously, and it kept my chattering mind a little quieter as well.
It made me think a lot about ‘beginning again’. Can’t we begin again at any moment in life? A relationship? A project? Whether these be new, old or just continued. And just as a person can begin anything anew at any time, couldn’t a nation begin again in its relationship with another country or the rest of the world? Perhaps it wouldn’t take much.
All of us have that ability, to begin anew.
Now, two notes on the present moment. After the Pyrenees we went to Plum Village, the retreat center set up by Thich Nhat Hanh over 30 years ago. We’ve been to the summer retreat there every year for the last 8 years.
At one moment I found myself sitting at the steps of a Vietnamese bell tower rather overwhelmed by various things going on in my mind, looking at a monk I know well and thinking to myself, ‘I want to go over there and ask him if there isn’t some magic pill I can take to melt all these troubles away and put me straight into the present moment.’
At that moment I remembered – ‘but that’s what they’ve been teaching me here for all these years! All you have to do is follow your breath!’ But before I could even do that I just felt the breeze on my neck and listened to a guy playing the guitar a few feet away and there it was, in crystalline perfection, in its absolute simplicity, the present moment in the music and the breeze.
There is no magic pill. It’s just there waiting for us, perhaps all we have to do is to ask to be in touch with it. And when you find it, all the mind-made troubles disappear. The labyrinth falls away to reveal just this – just what’s right in front of you. Pure beautiful reality.
Later this summer I listened to a fascinating podcast about a police officer who had brought mindfulness into her work on the streets, which included an interview with Thich Nhat Hanh. He said:
“My practice is to live in the here and the now, and it is a great happiness to be able to live and to do what you like to live and to do. My practice is centred in the present moment. I know that if you know how to handle the present moment right, with your best [intention], then that is about everything you can do for the future. That is why I am at peace with myself. That is my practice everyday and that is very nourishing.”
How wonderful! To dedicate one’s life to living in the here and the now, and by taking care of the present the best you can, to take care of the future.
But what struck me equally was the phrase ‘That is why I am at peace with myself.’ Can I say that? At the time I took out a pen and paper and wrote down all the things that I thought were keeping me from that peace, and whether I could do anything about them in that present moment.
I was able to resolve the biggest thing on the list with a single phone call to someone very important that very morning, in that present moment, and peace returned for the rest of the day, and the days that followed. It’s true, all we can do is take care of the present. It’s all we’ve got, and it’s alive with myriad possibilities for resolution, peace, and beginning again, in any way we care to imagine, and at any moment we choose.