Waiting for a tour company bus at a hotel in Bath, England, I met a young travel writer from California. I was traveling alone and she was with her ninety-year-old grandmother. The bus arrived late, with only one seat left for the three of us. Needless to say, her grandmother got the place on the bus, and the writer and I went off in search of the train station. Later, on the train, we talked about her travel-writing work in France. “My favorite word in French,” she said, “is parfait—‘perfect.’ ” In France, she said, people seem to find it easier to appreciate and enjoy the moment — things can seem perfect. In American English, however, perfect presents an impossible standard to live up to.
I agreed. In a restless country like the United States, we look on perfect as the impossible future to work toward. The present moment is beside the point. We always look ahead to the betterpaying job, the bigger house, a place to live with more pleasant weather. Nothing should stay the same; it must improve. If most of us arrived at some moment that began to feel perfect — a beautiful day, a fantastic job, a magnificent work of art — we would probably begin to look for ways to enhance it. This does many good things for us as a culture, in terms of productivity and innovation. But, as my train companion pointed out, it makes it that much harder to really be happy in the present moment. It makes it harder than ever to just be comfortable.
We might benefit from the Buddhist spiritual practice of mindfulness. This means essentially a discipline of heightened awareness in whatever one does — eating, walking, talking with a friend, working, waiting for the bus. Behind this lies the assumption that much of the time we live an unexamined and automatic life. We do not really know or appreciate what we are doing. We stuff down our food, half listen to the people we encounter, mindlessly groom our amazing bodies, pass by miles of natural wonders without any of them registering on our personal radar. The beautiful and the fascinating surround us, but we do not see them. Once I attended a retreat where, as a meditation exercise, I was instructed to watch insects for half an hour. Initially I dreaded the potential boredom of the exercise, but before many minutes had passed I was captivated. That afternoon I saw butterflies, moths, ants moving large burdens, beetles I could not identify. It was like gaining unexpected entrance to a
secret world. Buddhist mindfulness invites all seekers to slow down and take a look, to listen, to notice. It is an invitation to enjoy ourselves more in every moment.
The world may be imperfect and at times immensely frustrating, but it is also stunningly beautiful, interesting, humorous, and fun. As I sat working at my desk one day, a hummingbird passed by my window, beating those marvelous wings at lightning speed. That same week I had the most delicious tuna in a little Spanish restaurant on an alley in San Francisco. Later that year, in the summertime, my aunt came to visit. My sister and I got her going about her high school dating adventures back in Indiana in the 1950s. Some weeks later I met a woman at a Eugene, Oregon, craft fair who makes eccentric little night-lights out of cat-food cans. As I drove back home to Northern California from Oregon, the moon was a silver crescent over the pine- crested mountains. Back home I visited the home of an architect friend of mine. He has a huge, multiframe architectural diagram of Rome on his wall. I found it lying on the floor of his house in sections on that visit — it had slipped from its moorings during a renovation. He dubbed this the “fall of Rome.” Late in the summer, I made that trip to England. En route home, I picked up a beautiful but sad British novel in which a child’s misunderstanding ruins a young man’s life.
All these details from a few months in my life make up a store of richness and grandeur, yet so much of the time I know I have become too busy or preoccupied to notice such things. What does it take to wake up sufficiently to pay attention? It feels easier to persist in an unconscious, uncomfortable life. During my first year studying for the priesthood, the priest in charge of our novitiate told me he did not believe that Saint
Peter would meet us at any pearly gates when we died. This did not particularly faze me — I had always pictured this as more the stuff of jokes than the literal truth. He went on: there would be no ledger of sins and good deeds, nor would there be an interrogation about doctrinal purity or personal faith in Jesus Christ. I obediently played the “straight man” in this routine. “Well then, what will happen?” He said God would simply ask, “Did you have a good time?” The idea sounded preposterous to me, an existential joke. Is life nothing more than one long frat party? I
must have looked at him as if he had no sense at all. Now I wonder at what he said, and I believe that rather than advocating hedonism, he was trying to get me to think.