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From the Heart: The Paint Can of Life

by Alan Cohen


I recently painted a deck on my house. I enjoy painting, a meditation in being present that doesn’t require much thought but lots of attention. If you tend to live in your head, paint something. Your hands may get dirty but your mind will stay clean.

With just a few planks left to color I noticed I was almost out of paint. Looking back and forth between the paint can and the unfinished boards I wondered if I would have enough paint to finish the job. I dipped my brush in the remaining paint and made sure I didn’t drip any unnecessarily. I repeated the process until I was swirling the brush around the inner sides of the paint can to make sure I absorbed every ounce of liquid. After several minutes I was amazed at how much paint I had “squeezed” out of the remaining supply. By the time I finished, the inside of the can was completely dry.

It’s amazing how much you appreciate things when there is just a little left, and how much more use you get out of them. I have had the same experience with the end of toothpaste tubes. You can get a lot of toothpaste out of the last few squeezes! The same goes for writing postcards. Have you ever written a postcard while on vacation and filled the space with large letters of banal words? Then, when you realize you’re running out of space, you start writing what you really wanted to say in little letters around the margin. Or have you phoned someone, gotten their answering machine, greeted them with pleasantries, and just when you were ready to deliver your message you got cut off by an annoying beep?

All of these experiences lead to a poignant lesson: Do what’s important first. As Thoreau suggested, “Live deep and suck out all the marrow out of life.”

The trick, of course, is to make every moment count before it is your last one. One of the gifts of facing death is to gain the appreciation of life. Many people who have been given a terminal diagnosis shift their life to enjoy every moment so richly that their disease disappears. My friend Shin-ichiro Terayama was a physicist who was told that he had cancer and but a short time to live. Shin went to a Japanese garden to meditate on the purpose of his life. There he decided to dedicate his life to appreciation and celebration. He began to say “thank you” for everything, including his cancer as a wake-up call. A few months later Shin was pronounced cancer free. That was 25 years ago. Now Shin teaches the power of appreciation. He is like a light bulb, always smiling and shining, teaching by radiance more than word.

My friend Bruce told me that he remembers his first thought as a child. When I asked him how old he was at the time, he answered, “the moment of my birth.” What was the thought? “Don’t forget,” Bruce told me. “My soul was branding my purpose into me as I crossed the threshold from the other world to this one: Don’t forget who you really are. Don’t forget that you are born of spirit. Don’t forget what you came here to do.”

Of course Bruce forgot, as we all do. Like all of us, he fell under the hypnosis of earth, the belief that we are alone, limited, mortal, and separate from love. It is a rare soul who remembers truth in the face of illusions. Yet Bruce, also like the rest of us, at some point began to consciously remember. He began to reclaim his identity as a spiritual being and recognize the presence of love in a world gone crazy with fear. Exactly what we all need to do and, each in our own way, are doing.

Why, then, if we live in a universe of abundant supply, do we experience lack and limits? A sense of limits helps us focus on what we have and use it wisely. People who have little means generally appreciate their assets more than people who have boundless means. My mentor Hilda Charlton lived in India for eighteen years. She told me that some people in that country are so poor that if they get a tin can they appreciate it as a treasure. They use it over and over again and cherish it. By contrast, I know people who have extraordinary volumes of stuff, but appreciate them little. Who is closer to heaven?

I’m not suggesting that we need to live poor or labor under lack or limits. I am suggesting that we need to celebrate what we have and make the best use of it. A woman called in to my radio show (www.hayhouseradio.com) and asked me the difference between right use and consumption. I told her that if you value what you have and use it to help yourself or others, that is right use.

If you can apply the paint carefully and lovingly even before you get to the last drips in the can, the paint has served you well and you will be at peace with your project. While we seem to have many different projects in life, one theme is the deck on which they all sit: You always have enough if you are using well what you have. That’s what not to forget.


Alan Cohen is the author of many inspirational books, including the newly-popular Enough Already: The Power of Radical Contentment. Join Alan for in-depth Life Coach Training beginning September 1, to become a professional life coach or apply coaching skills to your career or life. For more information about this program and Alan’s other books and free daily inspirational quotes via email, visit www.alancohen.com, email info@alancohen.com or phone 1-808-572-0001
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