The Present Moment
Dear Parents, Guardians and Friends,
The word ‘curmudgeonly’ makes me smile. If you can say it with a Glasgow accent, it’s even more enjoyable. There’s only one difficulty: a ‘curmudgeon’ is defined as an ‘ill-natured and churlish person’. Maybe I might include myself among the club of ‘curmudgeons’ before I make the mistake of finger-pointing! I can’t help feeling as I drive around Exeter that more and more drivers seem to have an increased urgency, assertiveness and, yes, even – ‘curmudgeonliness’! Why this should be so, would demand some sociological research, perhaps. But I wonder, albeit tentatively, whether it might be a symptom of an underlying anxiety that’s prevalent in our culture. At least it’s worth me checking out whether or not some of that may be true in myself; including ‘curmudgeonliness’!
Several times a week, I try to practice what is known as the ‘Examen’. A simple version of it goes like this: What has given me life today? What has drained me of life today? And what lies within me that needs attention and care? Try it out. You might find it helpful; jotting down, perhaps, a few notes as a kind of inventory, remembering not to turn the ‘Examen’ into a lengthy analysis session. So often what comes up for me is that throughout the day, my mind and heart are giving attention to the future, whether it’s the near or distant future. In other words, I’m rarely actually ‘in the present moment’. Mindfulness or awareness practice is about ‘this moment’.
Jesus didn’t have a diary! His life was almost entirely shaped by the events, the people, the atmosphere, the circumstances immediately around him. Yes, he spoke of a coming Kingdom, but that was configured in terms of loving and sacrificial responses to life in ‘this moment’. Not that I’m suggesting you abandon the Calendar or diary on your various devices. Scheduling is the way things are, fortunately or unfortunately. Calendars or diaries can so often glare or shout at you for what you haven’t done and you must do next. Jesus was quite a busy person, but he had a constant availability. Putting it crudely, he was ‘done to’ rather than designing his schedule.
There’s a disease which a friend of mine has discovered. He calls it: ‘The Disease of Misplaced Significance’. In other words, there’s another person, another location, another activity, job, expectation which I’m under pressure to address. But none of them are ‘here’, where I am – nor is my attention ‘here’. This is the place of significance and, in a rather challenging sense, it’s the only one there is! The ‘disease’ then leads, for example, to attitudes in cars [including mine!] and, of course, to each other. Planning for future responsibilities and desires have significance, but they can take on an importance that is ‘misplaced’.
Some years ago, my wife Elspeth became increasingly concerned about my driving. My guess is that most of you reading this letter feel at least a little defensive about being criticised for your driving. I do! However, I decided to train through the Institute of Advanced Motorists for the test that is quite demanding. One of the key aphorisms of the Institute is that there are no ‘good’ drivers! You can only drive as well as other drivers allow you to! Humility before you start! The training begins with an ‘observed’ drive. In my case, it was an experienced police driving instructor. We met at the car park in Sainsbury’s and after about a mile, I was asked to pull into a safe place. ‘When are you imagining that you might sit your test?’, she asked gently. ‘Well, I think I could learn the Police System of Car Control in about 6 weeks’. [To be found is a book called ‘Road Craft’]. After the one hour observed drive, she gave me her humiliating verdict. ‘I’m not letting you sit this test for a year!’. ‘Was my driving that bad?’ Her answer was quite disturbing. ‘Most people’s driving lacks awareness and competence’!’ What I learnt during that year was that driving with competence requires the attention to be ‘in this moment’ – a learning that has the potential to feed so many parts of my life, including the spiritual. This was and remains for me a practical experience of the crucial art of being attentive in this moment. The spirituality of driving? Yes!
The ‘examen’ is not just about driving, but about all aspects of your daily life. Its advantage is that you can take just minutes over it and it can help you re-centre your heart and mind. If you do have a go at the examen I mentioned above, I’d appreciate knowing how you got on with it.