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As human beings, we tend to have a sense of time that is linear, as in, it moves from past to present and then on into the future. It's the way our brains are able to make sense of things and also a way for us to put things into some kind of perspective. The way we perceive time is based primarily in the way we are brought up to see things and the constructs around which we move in our daily lives. When time is linear we really only have one way to go, into the future. Sure, we can reminisce on the past, but we cant go back. We can only keep moving on the imaginary railway into the unknown future.
I never really thought about time as anything other than a point on the calendar or on my watch (now our cell phones) that required something of me when I arrived there. Either be at work at this time, be at school, get this task done, meet this person, do this thing… That is until I had my mind opened to the concept of the only thing that really exists: the present moment.
One night while I was living in the dojo, Toyoda Sensei asked me to cut the carrots for some soup he was making. Of course, I was ignorant to just how he wanted them cut so he showed me how to slice them like match sticks and also how to keep my fingers out of the blade.
While I was cutting, I began whistling and intermittently carrying on a conversation with the other deshi. Toyoda Sensei yelled at me that I needed to focus on what I was doing and that I was being selfish by trying to do so many things at once when I was supposed to be giving all of my attention and focus to the carrots.
I questioned this wisdom of the moment saying something like, "aren't I being unselfish by trying to talk with the others, participate in the conversation, and provide awesome whistling in the meantime?"
His response was my first real introduction to zen in daily life, he said: "when you are doing something, just do it…with all of your being! Don't try to do or be something else when you should be focused in the moment. If you are with your girlfriend, just be with your girlfriend, if you are with your family, just be with your family, don't try to be somewhere else. And if you're supposed to be cutting carrots, then just be one with the carrots since your essence and state of mind is being injected into the meal. If you are trying to do too many things when you are supposed to be just cutting carrots then the meal will come out tasting different than if you put all of yourself into the meal."
This was a very new and unheard of concept to me but one that resonated with me. I liked the concept that we were at some level connected with our food and our actions and, although I didn't fully understand it at the time, that we could somehow influence the outcome of events by our very presence in the moment. I could, by my very presence and focus on the carrots, influence the essence of the meal and that, at some level, could even affect the flavor that the participants in the meal would experience.
It took me some time to grasp this concept and, to some extent, I am still trying to understand it. In fact, I have spent a considerable amount of time since that evening studying this idea of staying in the moment and what affect it can have on our lives further.
What I got from it though was the idea that "now is the only time". When we project ourselves into the future, the past, or try to split up the present into too many slices of time…meaning doing too many things, we aren't really present in the only thing that really exists, the present moment. When we aren't really present we aren't giving this very moment everything we can and thus, being selfish to the moment, to oneself, and to the activity we may be involved in.
Since there is only this very moment that we're experiencing, trying to be in the past or the future takes us out of this moment. When this moment becomes the past moment, its gone! We can never get it back. It now becomes part of a memory and can never be recovered. If you're supposed to be doing something like cutting carrots, training in the dojo, or being with that special someone, that act deserves all of your being because in a very short amount of time, this moment will be gone forever.
By being present in the moment we are giving 100% of ourselves to that act. This is what I believe Toyoda Sensei meant by ‘selfish' when referring to my carrying on conversations or whistling. Not that its selfish to be part of a conversation or to whistle, but that by now focusing on the act at hand, I wasn't really present for any of those acts. I was only half conversing since I was supposed to be cutting carrots, I was only half cutting carrots since I was also conversing, and If I was whistling while I was supposed to be cutting, I wasn't giving the carrot cutting my full attention because part of me was focusing mental energy on remembering the tune I was whistling.
There is a Japanese phrase/concept very prominent in Chanoyu, tea ceremony, which has also transcended other arts. It is Ichi-Go Ichi-e, which translates as "one time-one meeting" or "one opportunity-One encounter". It has, of course, been loosely translated as "now is the only time","for this time only," "never again," or "one chance in a life time." And while many will simply translate this to the "you only live once, so do it now" concept, I believe the proper way to view the concept is that there is no getting the past back and no point living in the future so ‘be here now'.
So, my challenge to you going forward, be present in everything you do, try to focus with your whole being, stay in the now instead of trying to conjure up the past or the future and remember…now is the only time!