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Excerpt from "My Life Contract"

Learning How to Be Here Now

by Joel Fotinos

A few years ago, I learned a valuable lesson in being present in my own life.  I had just arrived at a large retreat center near St. Louis, MO.  I was attending a mandatory 72 hour long weekend as part of my ministerial training, and I confess it was the absolute last place I wanted to be. 

A retreat in December had to be the worst idea ever.  I had left behind my spouse and child, which was especially hard because my son was only about a year old at that point, and changing daily.  Also, since it was December, I would miss some of the holiday hustle and bustle that is so enchanting in New York City.  Plus, the way the retreat was structured, I would miss two days of work during one of the busiest times of the year in my field.  I had stacks of work to do, all with fast-approaching deadlines.  Who in their right mind would schedule a retreat during this complicated, busy time?

After arriving at the retreat center, my immediate focus was on hooking myself up with the world I left behind. These were the days before smart phones, when we had to connect laptops to phone outlets to find an internet connection.  I was dismayed to discover that my room (o r“cell” as the case may be) not only didn’t have a phone outlet, it had only one electrical outlet, a small single bed, and tiny chest of drawers.  The only way to connect via email was to go to a “common room” with all the other visitors, and wait your turn to connect your laptop to the single phone outlet. This retreat was not starting well.

All I could think about the entire first day of the retreat was my family and my job – what was going on? What was I missing?  Was everything okay?  I thought about the endless possibilities and all the extra work that would require my immediate attention upon my return.  Not wanting to feel unproductive, I focused on a stack of work that I had brought with me, rationalizing that at least I could make this retreat worthwhile if I accomplished everything on the impossibly long “to do” list I had compiled on the plane trip over.  I sat in my room, working and feeling sorry for myself – and eventually I fell asleep.

Day two didn’t start well, either. We were summoned early for breakfast – a feast of oatmeal, toast, and fruit – and instructed to be silent during the meal.  Thankfully I had brought a report with me that I could read over while I ate. Several pages into the report, I noticed the retreat leader standing next to me.  When I looked up at him, he opened his hand and made a gesture that clearly meant for me to give him my report.  I felt like a school boy being scolded by his teacher.  Reluctantly, grudgingly, I handed him my papers. Clearly he didn’t understand how important my work was.  No talking or working during meals.  Now what?

After breakfast we had a couple hours of instruction, which was interesting, but I still wanted to get back to work, and to call home.  After the instruction, we were given “free time” – but it wasn’t really free.  We were instructed to spend time either in contemplation in the chapel or outside among the beautiful grounds of the retreat center.  It was December in St. Louis, so it was hardly sunny and warm, yet I decided I would rather walk around outdoors than sit inside and stare at the wall for a couple hours, so I wrapped up and headed outdoors. 

At first, I wandered aimlessly around, partly sulking, partly mentally working my to-do list.  Walking was a great way to coast and think about my work issues.  Within a few minutes of walking, I discovered an outdoor labyrinth on the retreat grounds, a stone-outlined path, in a roughly circular shape.  I knew a bit about labyrinths, that they are a designed pathway, filled with maze-like twists, curves and turns, and that people would walk them for spiritual reasons.  I had seen the famous labyrinth at the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, but had never walked it.  This labyrinth I stumbled upon in St. Louis seemed almost as large, about the size of half a football field. The entrance and exit were side by side, so clearly the path of this labyrinth would take me in and through this circular design, and out the same way.

On a whim, I decided to walk the labyrinth that chilly morning.  After all, what else did I have to do for the next couple of hours?  With all that thinking about work, walking in a structured pattern seemed like a great way to tune out mentally to my surroundings and concentrate on what I thought was important.   

At the labyrinth entrance, there was a small stand with a plaque which read something like “Ask a question and enter. Walk the labyrinth and you will leave with the answer.”  I realized I didn’t have a question, so I decided to silently request “let me know whatever I need to know for this retreat.” 

And then I entered into the stone-outlined path. 

The first few moments were mostly about making sure I was following the turns, and staying in the correct lane. Now that I was up-close and inside the labyrinth, I saw quickly how this path cleverly led the walker into each of four quadrants that made up the labyrinth and into the labyrinth center, then out again onto an adjacent path, again through all four quadrants.  As soon as I understood the labyrinth concept, my mind went back on auto-pilot, which for me included thinking about those same, tired work issues.  I found the experience meditative and conducive to focusing on my various pending work projects.

I was so preoccupied thinking about work, that I was surprised to suddenly find I had made it to the center of the labyrinth. 

In that center was a small clearing, about the size of my New York office, which marked the half-way point of the labyrinth walk.  In this center were a couple of rustic, wooden benches.  I was tempted to just go ahead and finish the walk, but decided instead to sit on one of the benches for a few moments.  It was cold, and I wouldn’t linger, but my coat and scarf kept me toasty warm, and the sun was peeking out over a cloud, so a quick break seemed like a good idea.

While sitting on the bench, my mind went back to the plaque at the start of the labyrinth.  Ask a question, and get an answer.  Since my question was vague, I wasn’t expecting much.  Still, since I was there anyway, I re-asked the question and decided to just sit for a few moments in silence and see if any wisdom came forth. 

“Let me know whatever I need to know for this retreat,” wasn’t really a question, I realized, so I tried again. “What do I need to know right now?”

Immediately I thought of the old saying made famous by Ram Dass: “Be Here Now.”  Yes, I thought tomyself, that is a lovely idea.  Be here now.  Got it.  Okay, what else do I need to know, before I get back to finishing this walk and back to my pile of work?

“Be here now.”

Er, I thought, I already got that.  What’s next?

“Be here now.”

This is irritating, I thought.  Why does my soul, or Life, or whoever it is speaking keep saying “be here now”? I grumbled to myself that this was a complete waste of my valuable time, yet that voice would not be silenced: Be here now.

I took a few deep breaths and thought, what do I need to know about “be here now”?

Just asking that different question shifted my mind enough to see this experience in a new way.

“Be”…okay, that means to stop, simply “be” or “exist”.  What’s the opposite of simply being?  Oh, right, “doing”.  Well, I guess that’s what I’ve been trying to “do” since I got here – more doing.  So this voice is saying to do the opposite of doing, which is to be.  Just be.

It immediately felt good.  Okay, next was “here.”

Obviously I’m sitting here in the labyrinth, I thought.  “Are you?” the voice in my head replied.  I intuitively understood what the voice meant.  Nearly the whole time I was in St. Louis – and even on the plane headed to St. Louis – my mind was back in New York City, lamenting not being with my family, thinking about work, feeling as if I had more important things to do.  While my body was physically sitting on a bench in the middle of a labyrinth at a retreat center in Missouri, my mind remained back in New York.  I wasn’t here, I was there.  Paradoxically, having that realization immediately brought me to where I was and into the present moment. 

Next, “now.”

“Now” meant not thinking of what had gone on before this trip or what was waiting for me upon my return.  It was about bringing my awareness fully into the present moment.  When I realized I was finally in the present moment – in the now – I found that my breathing got deeper, and I suddenly felt more grounded, calm and at peace.  It had happened almost instantly.

Be…here…now.  Be here now.  Finally, I had surrendered.  I sat on that bench, being there, being present, just being.  I sat for what felt like a long time, until the moment when it felt right to get up and finish the second half of the walking labyrinth. 

This time, as I walked the curves and turns, I was fully aware and present to the experience of walking.  I became one with the environment around me. The sounds, the smells, the entire experience was fixed within me.  As I exited the labyrinth, I paused for a moment, realizing that the answer to my question had indeed arrived.  I silently thanked the amazing space I was leaving and walked back toward the retreat center.

As you may guess, it ended up being an incredible retreat, and by the time I returned home, I was spiritually nourished, renewed and replenished.  Somehow it took being hundreds of miles away from my life in New York City – kicking and screaming and fighting every mile – to realize how to actually be in my life.  It’s a lesson that I never forgot, and continue to learn from to this day.  Even now, when the hustle and bustle of life in New York City can get to me, I take a few breaths, and begin to say, “be, here, now…”

Joel Fotinos is the author ofthe just-released book My Life Contract: 90 Day Program for Prioritizing Goals, Staying on Track, Keeping Focused, and Getting Results (Hampton Roads).  He is also a vice-president at Penguin Random House, and publisher of theTarcher/Penguin imprint.  For more information, go to www.joelfotinos.com

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