My friend Jane and I attended a meditation class this morning given by a man named John Barter. John is a psychologist by trade who does counseling and life coaching and conducts classes in mindfulness and meditation. He is also an ex-Buddhist monk, having lived a monastic life for many years in Thailand, Switzerland, and England before making the decision to disrobe. His chosen subject could not have been more appropriate for the issues I am struggling with these days. He began with a short story about a couple who had decided to marry and told their pastor the news. The pastor was very happy for them and gave his blessing, adding his wish that they always see each other as strangers. The couple thought this was a very strange blessing until the pastor explained that he had seen so many marriages fail when the partners began to take each other for granted once they knew each other well.
John related this to everyday life, explaining that our boredom or unhappiness is caused by not being fully present. He cited the steps we had to climb to get into his home, using me as an example, saying that these steps were a completely new experience for me, having never been to his house before. But everyone else in the room has climbed his front steps so many times that they probably did not pay any attention to them that morning. Yet the steps are never exactly the same. Perhaps a leaf that was not there last week has come to rest on the stairway. Or seasonal light has cast them in shade rather than sunshine. By not being fully present, we miss these subtle differences. We are so busy obsessing about something that happened last week or worrying about what tomorrow will bring that we fail to recognize what is happening around us at that very moment.
To his challenge to be fully present John added another factor – what he calls having “last time mindfulness.” Each event that occurs in our lives will never again happen at that precise moment, in the precise way it happened. Keeping this in mind helps in our attempt to be fully present. Even if you are doing something that you have done a hundred times before, it is not exactly like the time before, nor will it be exactly like the next time. If we ride a train to work each morning, the cow that we see one day may not be there ever again – perhaps because it is slaughtered or because it dies. If we see children peeking over a garden fence, those same children will never again be peeking over that fence in exactly that same way.
At our jobs the tendency is to believe that today is just like yesterday and tomorrow will probably be just like today. In reality, each day is different. Although we are in the same office it is not exactly like the office we were in the day before. Perhaps there is more dust on the desk. Perhaps there are more papers to file. Even if the people we deal with are the same every day, these people will have moods that differ from day to day, as well as joys, sorrows and problems that differ from week to week.
Because we see our marital partners every day, the tendency is to adopt a “same old thing” attitude. But the reality of the situation is that no two meetings between people – even those that know each other very well – is ever the same. The reality is also that each time we part, it could well be the last time we see one another. By holding onto these two principles – being fully present and having last time mindfulness – we can eliminate much of our suffering, boredom, and despair.
The married couple with which I began this story lived full, happy lives. The husband came home each night, knocked on the door, and when it was opened by his wife thought ‘Who is that gorgeous woman standing at the threshold of my home?’ The wife, as she opened the door thought ‘Who is this handsome man at my doorstep?’ They were married more than 40 years because they never took each other for granted – they were blessed to be able to always see each other as strangers.