Watershed: Three Questions and Mindfulness

There’s a line in the Indigo Girls song Watershed that goes, Every five years or so I look back on my life, and I have a good laugh. Absolutely worth pausing to enjoy:

The line reminds me of a therapy session I had a little less than a decade ago. I’m a firm believer in therapy. Every few years or so I look at my life, and decide that a little more therapy wouldn’t hurt. Anyway, after hearing me narrate my stories and give account of my life as I understood it, the therapist paused and suggested, Well,  you might ask yourself two questions: 1. what do you want? and 2. what do you need? Since then I’ve come to call these the two existential questions. Because when I come to crossroads in my life—when I take an assessment of it—I come back to these questions. Every time—what do I want, and what do I need. Considering them helps me clear away the clutter. And often, I find that clearing away the clutter, all the superfluous options, the unimportant details, all the non-options, all the false urgencies, all the manufactured drama~~ if I can do this, I can get a little clarity.

Now while at least temporarily I have only one good eye with which to look back upon my life, my timeline has been sped up. Thanks to the Bell’s Palsy I went ahead and turned to my existential questions early. As Sarah chauffeured me through Atlanta traffic~~a whole other kind of existential question, and that was pre-I-85 collapse!~~I expressed my hope that my two questions~~what do I want and what do I need~~might come in handy now to remind me to be mindful and set peace-full goals for my home and professional life. Sarah asked, Shouldn’t you also ask, What do you have? I mean, don’t you need to know what you have to start with?

And then I realized something: want and need are words that aim me toward the future. Have is grounded in the present. To be mindful of the present moment, in other words, my existential questions are literally getting me ahead of myself. I started making a mental note of when I continued a conversation with, Yeah, and I need to….or ok, and when we finish this, I want to… They really added up. To start with what I have indicates not only mindfulness but also gratitude for the present moment. It is not about possessions; rather, it is about being. For example, when we were house shopping two years ago, Sarah and I had very different ideas about what sort of home we wanted. I was looking for low maintenance, newish, bells-and-whistles, upgrades—I wanted as much house as we could afford. Sarah, on the other hand wanted a house that wanted our TLC, one that had projects that we could really dig into. She wanted us to live beneath our means in case I decided to stop being a department chair and bum around as a professor writing blogs and books all day.

I was not a project person. I’d rather read or travel. We ended up with a 1973 house that I call the Brady Bunch house. It has a basement that I call the Hot Tub Time Machine Basement—circa 1970s. We ended up with it because it makes her happy, and that makes me happy. She can see the possibilities it holds, and she can see the finished products of our DIY labors. I, on the other hand, approached—I raced through—the projects with a fury. Hurrying to get them done, shopping for new things to replace the old—as often as I could I would bring in a handyman to do them. Look at how great the mudding on the ceiling looks, honey. Yeah, and we need to…..This went on until on day, Sarah helped me understand that working on projects brings her relaxation and joy. That she looks at them as something we can do together. When I hire a handyman, it robs her of some of her joy. When I would looked at the house and saw only years of impossible work—and be not insignificantly depressed by it—I was rejecting opportunities for being—being together, being mindful, being grateful.

In the following jewel of mindfulness teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh, pretty much sums up my perpetual state of mind over the last 50 years:
If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future -and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.
Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness

When I have already moved on to the next activity, or item to purchase, or place to go, or meal—then I am not mindfully grateful for the blessing of being present. Life in the present is gratitude for the miracle of life while standing at the sink. I take on our projects now and work on them in the moment; stirring paint is stirring paint. When I’m sanding a desk, I feel the wood grain and the flecks of paint. When we demolish a portion of the porch, I do not panic to plan exact dates and details of when it will be put back together.

No doubt~~knowing me~~I will have to remind myself of this regularly. Old states of being are hard to move past. I like to have something to look forward to, a curiosity deserving of its own unpacking. But the old tools weren’t working; pushing forward was not working through. I have to work at it, at mindfulness, and it is so much more difficult than I thought. For example, I spent one whole day looking at web sites for mindfulness trainings and retreats–one was in IRELAND!~~I downloaded three mindfulness meditation apps on my phone. Found an online mindfulness course. I was obsessing over mindfulness, an irony Sarah kindly but pointedly noted with a grin. And when you’re learning to face the path at your pace, every choice is worth your while (Watershed). Every choice is the opportunity to actually live one minute of life at a time. And that’s jaw-droppingly incredible to me.

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