Three Lessons on Being Present

It is now my last night here. I have been volunteering on this farm in the south of France for a little over two weeks, but tonight I had to say goodbye to a landscape that is now so familiar to me.

Since I got here, once every night I take a long walk along the winding road leading to the farm. There are no streetlights. You can usually see the stars, and tonight they were brighter than I've seen them before—the sky is always clearer in the country. And every night as I walk, thoughts, images, memories promenade through my mind, and occasionally one arrests me for being more poignant than all the rest. The one that caught me on my final night here was a simple question. “What did I come here to expecting to learn? And what did I learn instead?”

[video]

I'm not sure entirely what brought me to this farm. I think maybe deep down I viewed it as something of an idyllic acquaintance with nature. Perhaps it was the momentarily attractive idea of doing gruntwork and breaking myself in. Or perhaps I was just tired of bouncing around from country to country, from culture to culture, and wanted to let my soul have a moment to itself. And maybe, somewhere deep down in some embarrassing corner of my mind, perhaps I suspected that I'd fall in love with country life and would decide to live the rest of my life as a hermit at the foot of some mountain.

In pulling bramble down a hill, there is only one thing to do. Keep pulling, keep going. To stay in the moment, in the flow of pulling bramble down a hill. But the moment you turn around to see what foliage betrays your efforts—in that moment, your flow is interrupted. You're no longer subsumed in the forwardness of where you're going, but you become preoccupied with the impedance of that which is behind you (and whose observance does not make your work any easier or faster, but in fact only slows you down). I realized that instead of constantly turning my head and being annoyed at how much the bramble caught (and wondering how much longer it'd be till lunch), if I simply didn't look behind me and kept pulling (and if I felt something catch, just give an extra tug), it all went by much easier and quicker. I focused only on where I was going and what I was doing. And not only did time fly by, but it felt better. My work didn't feel as frustrating or as pointless.

Pulling bramble down a hill is relatively simple, sure. But in life, the solutions to most problems turn out to be surprisingly simple too. Work a little harder, wait a little longer, love a little more. There are not many obstacles in life that aren't solved by doing one of these three things, in some way or another. And yet, when obstacles arise we wring our hands, we curse the heavens, we comment on our misfortune and enlist the commiseration of others. We roll around in our minds all the things that went wrong. We imagine all the different ways it could've happened, we stare at the clock and count down the seconds, we even count all the things wrong with the person we care about.

But in the end, the solution to any problem is always to look forwards, not backwards. To maintain the flow (or call it zen) of living in the moment and pushing forward, whatever it may be – whether in working, in waiting, in loving, or in dragging bramble down a hill. To look forwards, not backwards. This was the first lesson I learned.

The second lesson: the world around you is already full and beautiful.

We are all guilty of this. It's probably the gravest of all sins, and yet the most common—to forget the beauty of the world around you.  See, I had decided in my mind that when I got to the country that I would behold how beautiful the country is. And indeed, the French countryside is beautiful. I was not wrong that I would find it beautiful.

But I remember one day, on my 8th or 9th day on the farm, I was doing some work outside a barn that faced a view of the hills surrounding the farm. My back was aching, so I got up, stretched a bit, and looked out towards the muggy fields. And I realized that although I'd only been on this farm for a week—I'd already forgotten about the beauty of where I was. I wasn't paying attention to it at all. After only a week, I was as blind to it as I would be to the grass in my backyard. And when I commanded myself back into reverence of this scene, the rolling hills and the empty expanse of greenness, it occurred to me—what's special about this? Being in the country, or being anywhere beautiful is not some kind of continuous rapture, not some continuous aesthetic bombardment of beauty and fantasy on your mind. It's no different from being anywhere else. You get used to it, and soon it just becomes background.

So why is it that when I'm home, back in Austin, Texas, I don't command myself to reverence of the beauty around me? All it takes is a conscious desire to appreciate the world. I always imagined that I would go to beautiful places around the world, and there I would be struck. I would be able to appreciate the world as it should be appreciated. But the world around you is already full, and it is already beautiful. Every moment you can look around you, assume a beginner's mind (in the buddhist sense), and appreciate the beauty that surrounds you. Beautiful places are nice. But they are also everywhere. And that is the second lesson.

The third lesson: the world is silent.

Socrates once said that all learning is a fiction—that in the process we call learning, one's soul is merely remembering things it has always known. This is how this lesson strikes me. It's a simple lesson, perhaps one you've known all along—but it's one of which your soul must be reminded.

Go outside and walk around. Take out your earbuds, forget your phone, leave the chatter on the ground. Look up.

Stop.

And then keep walking.

The world is silent. It is the world to which you always have and always will belong. No matter how society, or your friends, or your own mind tries to sculpt you, the world remains silent. No matter how hard you try to be liked, to be respected, to attain any perfection that you're utterly certain is worth striving for—the world will never give so much as a nod.

Stop thinking for a moment. Stop imagining who you are and the story of your life, why you matter to other people, why you matter to yourself. Stop commanding your humanness, and instead, listen to it.

The world is silent. The winds blow, trees sometimes waver and leaves sometimes fall, and the sun rises and sets all the same. The world says nothing to you. The world is silent. And this can be a comfort or it can be a great terror, depending on little more than one's perspective. But it also needn't be either. It can simply be.

And in that silence is the third and final lesson.

Link to the album

Haseeb
October 29 2011
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Effective Altruist. Software engineer. Writer. Instructor @Outco. Former poker pro.
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San Francisco, CA
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