How much is that doggie in the window?

She was a large woman and when younger would probably have been described as a strapping blonde. Everything about her was a little larger than life – from her big voice to her big bones to her big personality. Now a widow in her sixties, she was visiting the home in which I was temporarily renting a room and appeared in my doorway unannounced and unexpected needing to talk.

She veered off topic often, circling around and around the story of her life. Last year she had moved to a small town in the foothills where she knew no one, then bought a three-bedroom house and filled it with brand new furniture. She soon found that no one came to visit; one bed, she said, had only been slept in twice, perhaps by the distant daughter who had a life of her own in a big city.

Now she was dissatisfied with her foothill retreat and would put the home on the market and the furniture in storage. But what next? Where to go, what to do? Mexico might be a good choice because money would go so much further. She would prefer Virginia but it was too far from the daughter who rarely visited. Oregon was too rainy, Arizona too hot.

She lived alone except for a small dog, a silky terrier with big sad eyes. Today she was taking the dog to the vet because it had stopped eating and lost weight. As she talked to me she stroked it constantly and remembered aloud the dogs in the past that had been put down because of illness or age. The small dog’s eyes looked at me imploringly. Was it asking for rest from the incessant talking, for rescue from the restless hands?

Later in the day she reported that the vet had diagnosed kidney failure and was keeping the dog overnight for observation. She would visit the vet tomorrow after her dental appointment and, if necessary, be there while her companion was put to sleep. Then she would go to the pound and get another small dog for the trip back home.

The speed in which she was ready to replace the dog that had given her so much companionship for so many years revealed the depth of her loneliness. She would choose another dog to drive with her back up the highway to the small town of strangers in the foothills. It would learn to listen to her big voice, to feel the need in her big hands and to sleep beside her in the big new bed in the unwanted house while she wondered where to go and what to do with the rest of her life.

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Tomorrow

Eckhart Tolle talks about living in the present – as the way to deeply experience life. What he is also saying by implication is to let go of the past and to let go of the future. We hear about letting go of the past all of the time. We must forgive and forget. Learn our lessons and move on. If we reflect how our present lives are so deeply affected by the events, feelings and conditioning of the past it is pretty self-evident that these old tapes should be left behind.

But we don’t hear as much about letting go of the future. In fact, we constantly hear how to change, direct and create the future we want by intention, goal setting and the like. What is it like to live without a future? What is it like to live as if there were, might not be, would not be a tomorrow? Would it be like living in a hospice situation? Would we be so riveted by the uncertainty of a tomorrow that there would be no today?

But that isn’t living without a tomorrow. To fear the loss of a tomorrow is to bring even more focus to it; to bring fear into uncertainty. Let us make clear now that we are not talking about calendar time – not making an appointment to see the doctor or go to work or visit a friend. We are talking about tomorrow as psychological time. Some day when I have more money; some day when I have more time; some day when I know more; some day when I am famous, healthier, happier, etc.

But someday never comes, does it? No matter how much we plan for it, we can not plan to be ‘happier’ or ‘healthier’ tomorrow. The only experience we can ever have is today, right now, this moment. If this moment is not happy, how likely is it that a moment three hours from now will be any happier? Can I say with any certainty that if I do this and this today I will be happier tomorrow?

If there is no tomorrow, if there is no ‘better’ day to look forward to, how can we make today, right now, more bearable? Is this all there is? Is this as good as it gets? Is this enough? If it isn’t, what can we do? If there is nothing we can do now to make tomorrow happier, is there anything we can do right now to make right now happier?

Birds don’t think about tomorrow. Cats, dogs, lions or elephants do not ponder the economic crisis and how they will eat tomorrow. Trees and plants do not wonder about global warming or rising coastal waters. All they can do is deal with right now, today. Therefore, they have a greater possibility of happiness than we do with all of our planning, projections and goals.

How do we live today if we let go of the belief that things might get better- or not get better – in the future? Maybe we will never be healthier, richer, freer of worry, feel more loved than we do right now. Maybe tomorrow we will not be healthier, richer, less worries or more loved. Can we accept that not knowing? Can we release the desire to control and direct the path we are on?  Do we have a choice?

Pursuit of Happiness

One night, several years ago, I was talking to an old friend on the phone and he asked me how I was doing with my tobacco abstinence. I told him I had still not smoked – six months at that time – but it was not unusual for me to ‘miss’ it when I felt stressed or unhappy. He said one of these days he would turn over his new leaf and go on a diet and start exercising.

My addiction is to breathe in something that will relieve the pain, if only for a little while; his addiction is to swallow something that will relieve the pain, if only for a little while.

I told him how I had felt the night when I had so suddenly quit a forty+ year habit. “I was very unhappy and alone in the world. Although my dog Emmie’s spirit remained good, she was drawing closer to death every day. I had money problems and physically I just didn’t feel so good. When I looked ahead, I no longer believed that tomorrow would be any better than today.”

In the past, when I would feel overwhelmed by life or on the brink of a deep, deep sorrow, having a cigarette would muffle the edges just the slightest bit, just the tiniest bit of a reprieve and I would feel better if only for a few minutes. But in those last few weeks, even having a smoke didn’t help. The real reason I quit smoking was it just wasn’t working anymore.

Smoking is very déclassé these days. There’s even more social acceptance if you are hooked on drugs or alcohol. At least then you can go to some ritzy rehab clinic and emerge a newer, better, stronger person. But smoking is considered a ‘dirty’ habit that not only affects the user but the second hand smoke kills others around him – which is ironic because alcohol and drugs ruin individuals and families everyday.

Everyone has a deep sorrow or sometimes it is experienced as fear – somewhere in their psyche or soul or mind or heart – I don’t know if it can be in all those various locations but it is tenacious in its grip and terrifying in its revelations. When we feel this sadness it is so profound that we will do anything not to go into its depths – for fear of not emerging. So we run from it, or try to cover it up, or try to feed it, or try to silence it, etc.

But it cannot be evaded or satisfied or silenced. That night before I quit smoking, my question to the universe was “what can I do to make my life better?” or in other words, how can I be happy. The answer was to stop smoking. Not that not smoking was going to make me happy but that I could not understand how to be happy unless I stopped smoking. In other words until I stopped running away, until I lived with this great loneliness, this great sorrow, I would not be able to transcend it.

The existential question is “What can I do to make ‘me’ happy?” But it is a trick question. Who is the “I” who feels it must act, and who is the “me” who is demanding to be happy? I know for sure that the ‘me’ is the ego, that self-centered, frightened, survival-dominated part of my mind who never has enough love or safety or possessions or security. If this ‘me’ can never be happy or satisfied, or no thing ever satisfies the ‘me’, then why do “I” go on trying?

How can I make tomorrow better than today? How can I pursue happiness? Isn’t happiness another illusion? Isn’t it a temporary state that some times exists because the ‘wanting’ is temporarily silenced and when that desire is satisfied another soon rises in its place. It is not in the nature of the ‘me,’ of the ego to ever be satisfied.

When smoking no longer temporarily silenced the wanting, there was nothing left to do. There were no more pain killers. The pain must be lived with on a daily basis, side by side, shoulder to shoulder. It is only in living with pain that we can see through it.