The Waiting Place

Reflections on Waiting, and the Present

Copyright (c) 2009 by Kenny Felder

Every paragraph or quotation in this essay should, I think, stand on its own as a little interesting thought. But together, I hope they paint a broader picture of the attitude most of us carry through our lives. A radically different attitude, based on "being" instead of "waiting," is recommended by many of the spiritual teachers whom I respect the most.
"Most of the time I feel like I am waiting for happiness. I find that I am waiting a lot in my life. I wait for the week to be over, I wait for class to end, I wait for people to arrive, and so on. I even wait for movies to end. This part is weird, though, because movies are entertainment, and you would think that I would enjoy them and not want them to end because they should make me happy, or at least entertain me. When I was younger, they did. When it started nearing the end of a movie, I would get anxious and I wanted the movie to go on forever. These days I find myself checking my watch."
-From an essay by a student of mine

Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.

Waiting for the fish to bite
or waiting for wind to fly a kite
or waiting around for Friday night
or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
or a pot to boil, or a Better Break
or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants
or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.
Everyone is just waiting.
-Dr. Seuss

I go to the refrigerator, grab some leftovers, and put them in the microwave oven for 90 seconds. As soon as I hit "Start," my brain starts looking for something constructive to do with that 90 seconds. Is there a dish that needs washing? Does the trash need to be taken out? Perhaps I have to go to the bathroom?

I used to believe this was efficiency. I'm such a busy, productive guy that I strive to make good use out of every available moment. I was kidding myself: what is happening, instead, is a little tiny panic at the prospect of spending 90 seconds with nothing to occupy my thoughts. 90 seconds of just standing here, watching the microwave oven count down, with nothing interesting happening to distract me from the silence...I can't bear it! Somebody, please, dirty a dish or something!

A minute and a half. How pathetic is that?

Below is a link to the most brilliant, amazing article I have ever read in The Onion. I'll wait while you click on it, read the article, and then come back.

(This is me, waiting.),94/

OK, welcome back!

The article depicts a man named Videk who has spent his life waiting for one big, life-changing event. "I remember in high school, thinking that as soon as I got a car, the best years were really gonna kick in...After I graduated high school in '68, I joined the Navy. I thought the best years of my life would finally arrive...Right before I finished my first tour in the Navy, all I wanted to do was get back to North Dakota where things were so much better." The car, the wife, the kids, the Navy...all these milestones turned out to be disappointing. The magical transformation that brings about the "best years of his life" is never going to happen.

I have shared this article with a lot of high school and college students over the years. Most of them react by saying, "That Videk guy is a loser: he should just change his sorry attitude." But the students' lives aren't so different from Videk's. You spend four years in high school, working like crazy, deferring gratification, pouring everything into one number—your GPA—so you can get into a great college. It's like holding your breath for four years. Once you get that big, fat, college acceptance package, the whole ordeal is over—it worked—and you let out that big breath and finally relax. For about two months, that is. Then you start over as a Freshman in college, sucking in another 4-year breath. "I just have to graduate with a good GPA so that I can get into a good graduate school, or start with a good company and a good starting salary." And then, when you finally get that job, guess what? You're the new kid on the block, and you have to work extra hard to prove yourself...

Videk isn't a "loser," he's an everyman. You can spend your whole life working for the next big step, until finally you retire and spend your waning years looking back at the good old days.

Oh when I look back now
That summer seemed to last forever
And if I had the choice
Yeah — I'd always wanna be there
Those were the best days of my life.
- Bryan Adams
That could be your life story. But does it have to be? What's the alternative?

Here is how most of us think about time. Stretching back before us is an infinite expanse of "the past." Stretching forward after us is an infinite expanse of "the future." And right in between them is something razor-thin, a mathematical limit, an infinitesimal dividing line called "the present." It keeps moving along, dividing past from present, but not big enough to really contain anything in itself.

Here is a very different model to try on for size. There is only one thing, and it is "the present." There is no such thing as "the past"—only a collection of memories that exist in the present. There is no such thing as "the future"—only hopes and dreams that exist in the present. The present moment is infinite, completely self-contained, all-encompassing, and perfect.

I am not presenting this as an intellectual game, but as a radically different way of holding your head. Eckhart Tolle conveys this with the very concrete image of tying your shoes. Normally, you assume that the time spent tying your shoes doesn't matter so much; it's just a stepping-stone toward the far more important time when your shoes will actually be tied. But really, what makes that moment more important than this one? Next time you are tying your shoes—putting this lace here, crossing it with that one—see if you can allow your mind to rest completely in that moment. Can that moment be enough, without needing any future goal to justify it? And if your answer for that moment is "no," then what moment can?

Every morning, I promise myself that today, I will let each moment speak for itself. Within a few seconds, my promise is forgotten and therefore broken. But I try again. I'm trying right now, as I type this. I can feel my breath coming in and out as I type. In. Out. In. Out. The (future) moment when I post this essay is no more important than the (present) moment when I am typing this sentence. In. Out.

And speaking of breath...4 - 5 times a week, I start the day by jogging around the block. For 20 minutes, in the name of long life and cardiovascular fitness, I put myself through the Kenny-equivalent of the tortures of Dante. I don't mind the sweating, and I don't even really mind the occasional leg pains, but I absolutely hate the never-quite-enough-air feeling. This feeling starts about two minutes into the jog, and lasts for the entire rest of the time.

The obvious solution is distracting myself. I try to solve a math problem, or run through the lyrics of a song, or think about a movie I just saw...anything to carry my mind away from my lungs.

But sometimes I use the exact opposite technique, which makes a spiritual exercise out of my physical exercise: I try to pay careful attention. How do my legs feel? Exactly how does each breath feel as it comes in and out of my body? What actual physical sensations are causing me to say, "I'm not getting enough air?" Do I really feel a "burning sensation" in my lungs, or is that just a convenient metaphor?

What if this were the very last moment I was going to feel this way? What if I were only two steps away from crossing onto Ridgecrest Rd, where I stop jogging and walk the rest of the way home? In that case, I would be fine. I wouldn't mind any of these feelings at all. In a very odd way, I might even enjoy them.

The torture, then, is not in the feelings at all: it lies in the mental projection. "I'm only as far as South Lakeshore. I still have to get to the lake, and then all the way around Markham, and then there's going to be that uphill part, I am, and...I'm still on South Lakeshore. I've only passed three more houses." If you've been going through that kind of thought process for 45 seconds, the 15 minutes you're still facing seems like a really, really long time.

But if I can quiet that thought process and just focus my mind right here—the legs, the sweat, the lungs, the breath—not the imaginary 15 minutes coming up, but the step I am taking right now—then there is nothing wrong at all. This moment is fine just as it is.

If you live in the moment, does that mean you never do your homework, since that is sacrificing what you want right now for something in the future?

Not at all. It means that, if you are doing your homework, then you just sit there and do your homework.

Here's a vignette that has played itself out many times in my life. I get home—let's say it's from a trip of several days or a week, and let's say the house is empty—and I find the kitchen full of dirty dishes. The kids (and Joyce for that matter) weren't consciously thinking "I'll leave these for Daddy to take care of," but they were thinking "I don't feel like dealing with this, so I'll just stick it here." For days. Realistically, if I don't spend the next hour doing dishes, they're going to pile up even more.

So I tackle the dishes, and while I'm doing them, I'm composing angry monologues at the kids and Joyce. I repeat those monologues over and over in my head, about how unfair this is, and how I do more than my share. I think about the nap I wanted to take, and the backed-up email that I should be catching up on, and I work those into the monologue. The monologue cycles through my head, repeating with minor variations as I sink deeper into a stew.

Now, let's play that scene again. In the new, improved version, I notice the monologue going through my head for the 20th time. I don't try to stop it, but I don't identify with it, either: I just watch it spinning around my head. It starts to fade. I think about the emails I need to catch up on: should I do them instead of the dishes? No, the dishes are the right choice right now. Well, then, just do the dishes.

Doing dishes is not, in and of itself, an unpleasant activity. I'm rubbing my hands in warm, soapy water.

If I can distance myself from the story of Kenny's life—the days I've been gone, the other things I think I should be doing, the people who should have done these dishes, the time still ahead of me when I'm going to have to catch up on my email—let all that go, and just sit here and do the dishes, it's a pleasant, relaxing hour. Then, when I am done, I can decide what comes next. It may be a nap, or it may be catching up on mail. Or it may even be talking to Joyce about how to prevent this from happening again. Whatever it is, I do that.

Bear in mind that I had already decided (by hypothesis) to do the dishes. Maybe that was the right decision, and maybe it was the wrong decision. But whatever I'm doing, I can make it miserable by thinking about all the other things I'm not doing, or I can make it pleasant by just doing it. I have that choice every moment.

So now it's your turn to run the experiment. Set up a timer, and for 2 minutes, do nothing at all. Try to observe what happens in your mind when this happens. Do you spend the whole time impatiently waiting for the 2 minutes to be over? Thinking about all the things you should be getting done? Do you lapse into a daydream or memory, only to realize you forgot to "observe what happens in your mind?"

Please don't just think about what would happen if you tried this. Actually try it. Give up two minutes of your life for the experiment. Then, if you're willing to give up a bit more time, write down what happened. It's a step toward a different way of being.

But of course therein lies the ultimate irony, because once again the present moment has been reduced to a step toward a more perfect future. It's so incredibly hard to let it be what it is!


From: Richard Felder
July 7, 2009

First off, I really like it as an essay. It's well-written & thought-provoking, and I think it makes your point very well.

How it impacted me personally is more complex. I feel sure that you're right. I've heard many people whose wisdom I respect—Ram Dass, Jung, the Dalai Lama, Emmanuel (stretching the definition of "people" somewhat), say that time is an illusion and everything is present now, and in some part of my mind I believe it, and I also believe that if I had the discipline to meditate regularly, or just to be fully in the present regularly, that I could get into a state of living that reality instead of just viewing it as an unattainable ideal. So my reaction is a mixture of affirmation of your message, admiration of your expression of it, and frustration at my apparent unwillingness or inability to act on it but not enough frustration to goad me into trying to overcome whatever the limitation is. The problem may be that I basically like my life, and the idea of working hard to change it in any way is just not that appealing to another part of my mind.

From: Kenny Felder
July 8, 2009

First of all, thanks! I really wasn't sure how this one worked. I find that when I write about something like feminism or children's rights, I am always personally happy with the essay, in the sense that I feel it expresses my feelings really well. When I write about spiritual stuff, which is so much more important to me, I always end up feeling that I didn't convey what I really meant to. So it means a lot to me that this one worked for you.

Anyway, a few notes on content.

I was always totally confused when people said "time is an illusion." I tried to imagine life without time, and got stuck immediately. So part of what I wanted to do in my essay was to re-express that idea in a way that made sense to me, intellectually.

On the personal level, I would echo what you said pretty much exactly: I like my life too much to do the real work that would be required to try to break through. So I write essays about it and meditate a little, but I never get really serious.

But I very strongly related to my student who said that she is always checking her watch, always waiting for the next thing, even during a movie. In that sense, I would have to say that I am not satisfied with my life. It seems that, with very few exceptions, every moment has that day-before-Christmas feeling, and Christmas never comes.

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