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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM

You Must Be Present to Win

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, February 28, 2010

            There was once a young Buddhist who loved his religion, but was struggling with some things. One was the idea of “being present”, an important lesson which the Buddha teaches. You have to be present, be present, the Buddha says time and again. “But why?” this young Buddhist wondered. He just couldn’t wrap his head around the idea; he couldn’t picture what it looked like.


            “What was the big deal about being present?” he wondered. Why was it so important?


            But even though he wasn’t, perhaps, always present, he was open, this young Buddhist. He knew if he kept himself opened, if he looked everywhere he could, that he would find his answer. So he opened up his mind even more; he decided to learn the lessons the Buddha intended him to learn. He was going to figure this “being present” thing out, come hell or high water. So, one evening, he walked home from the temple one night with an especially open mind, and with a mood of being aware. He lived in a city, and was walking toward the bus stop, and suddenly he heard several hundred people in a Bingo hall off by the side. There was a big Bingo game going on. Funny thing: He had walked that street dozens of times before, but had never noticed that Bingo hall before. “Ah ha!” he thought. “This was just meant to be. This was where he was supposed to learn his lesson about being present!”


            So he went in. And right there, on the front wall, behind the man who was calling the numbers, was a great big banner, and it said, in huge block letters: “YOU MUST BE PRESENT TO WIN.”


            He knew in a flash what it meant. As another Buddhist adage goes, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” Then you can find enlightenment anywhere—even in a Bingo hall!


            What does that mean-- “YOU MUST BE PRESENT TO WIN.”? What does the Buddha mean when he talks about our need to “be present” in life.


            Well, in the context of the Bingo game, it means that even if you have all the winning numbers, if you’re not there actually to play the game, you don’t get the prize. You can’t come back later and say, “Look—my card had the numbers—a “2”, a “19”, a “43”, a ”51”, a “74”—You called all those numbers last night—I should have won the grand prize. But I wasn’t here. Can I have the money anyway?”


            “No,” you’d probably be told “Tough luck. YOU MUST BE PRESENT TO WIN. It says so right there, on the sign.”


            In life, we might have all the right “numbers”, too: Pretty good health; a decent education; economic stability; a supportive family; certain talents of the heart or mind. But unless we use them—unless we engage them—unless we nurture and foster them—then they won’t amount to diddly. If we take our lives for granted—if we’re not “present” for them—then we’ll drift through life, dazed and confused, like a sleepwalker. Then the awareness of the shortness of our days will suddenly loom large before us, like a garage door slamming shut. We will sense how little time any of us really has here, and how much of life we have not lived. We’ll grow depressed and despondent at the thought of how meaningless and fleeting it all seems.


            The psychiatrist Rachel Naomi Remen tells of attending a reception when she was still a medical student, to mark the retirement of a distinguished doctor at the hospital which she was affiliated. She writes:


            “Later in the evening a group of medical students went to speak to him and offer our congratulations and admiration. He was gracious. One of our number asked him if he had any words for us now at the beginning of our careers, anything he thought we should know. He hesitated. But then he told us that despite his professional success and recognition he felt he knew nothing more about life now [at the end of his career] than he had at the beginning. That he was no wiser. [The doctor’s] face became withdrawn, even sad. ‘It had slipped through my fingers,’ he said.”


            Remen continues:


            “None of us understood what he meant. Talking about it afterwards, I attributed it to modesty. Some of the others wondered of he had at last become senile. Now, almost thirty-five years later, my heart goes out to him. [And I understand what he meant.]”


            “Oh, to have reached the point of death,” said Thoreau, “only to realize that one has not lived at all.”


            Now, we can’t say that this good doctor had never lived. He had had an extraordinarily successful career, by any traditional standards. He was esteemed by his colleagues; no doubt, respected by the community; he had, perhaps, even saved the lives of countless men and women. What greater tribute can we pay to another person than to say that?


            But on another level, the doctor himself realized that something was missing. Something important in life wasn’t there. It had slipped through his fingers. It was gone, never to be retrieved. In one important arena of life, he had not/i> won the gold medal, or the silver, or even the bronze. He was numbered back in the pack, among the also-rans.


            How could this be so? I’m sure that this doctor did everything in his life he was supposed to, at least in his professional career. He showed up, worked long hours, made his rounds, held office hours, prescribed the right medicines, diagnosed the right diseases. But none of this, of course, necessarily meant that he was present to the life that was before him. Being present—in life—means more than doing a lot of different stuff (even Very Important Stuff).


            In Bingo, being present is easy. You sit down, with the card before you, and you put your markers on the numbers that are called. Five in a row—and you win! Life itself is a little more complicated.


            Woody Allen once said that 80% of life is showing up. You get up in the morning; you put one foot in front of the other; you go through the motions; you follow the schedule, complete the routine; and you’ll probably end up with a decent enough life—on the surface at least.


            But it’s probably in the other 20% of life that our hunger for truth and meaning takes root.   That other 20%-- beyond schedules and deadliness and personal and professional responsibilities—is where “showing up” is not all that’s required. It’s where “being present”—really being present— being there-- is required if we’re going to win. (And by “winning” here, I mean experiencing some sense of meaning and connection and holiness and wholeness, some sense of genuinely deep and true spirituality, in our lives).


            What does “being present” require of us, then?


            First, it means concentrating on one thing at a time. That means saying

“sayonara” insofar as we are able, to the wretched modern human sin of “multitasking”. We human ones were not meant to function this way—and multi-tasking (when carried to the extreme it is being carried in our culture) is robbery: It does not give us more time, but less. It does not enhance us or advance us as modern men and women, but robs us of our humanity. It creates an illusion of more—more—more; but actually delivers less—less—less. Rather than experiencing the wonders of life (and life is chocked full of more wonders than we can even imagine), it lets us sample only the tiniest, superficial morsels of one fleeting experience after another. It claims it is liberating us to the wonders of a new technological age. But it is actually caging us in on the “jittery surface of things” (as Scott Alexander calls it); barring the gates to the deeper treasures of our spirits that lie down below. It claims it is expanding our minds, but it is actually trapping us in what Buddhists call a “monkey mind”. A “monkey mind” is one that cannot concentrate, that can not pay attention, whose thoughts rush about willy-nilly, much the way a monkey in the jungle jumps about from one tree to the next. When you have a monkey mind, you can’t concentrate on any one thought, but are constantly jumping from thought to thought to thought.


            Thich Nhat Hahn speaks about traveling with Jim Forest of the Catholic Peace fellowship, a close friend and an anti-war activist.


            “One time when we were together,” Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “I offered Jim a tangerine. He accepted the tangerine, but continued talking about the many projects he was involved in -- his work for peace, social justice, and so on. He was eating, but, at the same time, he was thinking and talking… He peeled the tangerine and tossed the sections of it into his mouth, quickly chewing and swallowing.


            “I said to him, ‘Jim, stop!’ He looked at me, and I said, ‘Eat your tangerine.’ He understood. So he stopped talking, and began to eat much more slowly and mindfully. He separated each of the remaining sections of the tangerine carefully, smelled their beautiful fragrance, put one section at a time into his mouth, and felt the juices surrounding his tongue. Tasting and eating the tangerine that way took several minutes, but he knew that we had time for that. When he finished eating… I knew that the tangerine had become real, the eater of the tangerine had become real, and life also had become real at that moment. During the time you eat a tangerine, eating the tangerine is the most important thing in your life.”


            The first thing being present requires is doing one thing at a time.


            It also means getting out of our heads.


            “I think, therefore I am,” Descartes said.


            But, as Thich Nhat Hanh also says, too often in life these days, it has become “I think, therefore I do not have to be present.”

            We sit down to enjoy a nice lunch of bread and cheese and lettuce and tomatoes. But we read the newspaper at the same time. So, along with our sandwich we also take in the war in Afghanistan—and the failure of healthcare reform-- and the growing budget deficit—and all the other daily pains of the world. Soon, we’ve forgotten the luscious tomatoes and the nutty cheese and the wonderfully grainy bread (all of these sublime blessings of life!), and we remember only the misery of the world. It is as though we have not eaten at all… So, we’re still hungry, physically perhaps, and certainly emotionally and spiritually.


            “Our mind has a mind of its own,” James Austen writes, “and easily wanders off into some fantasy of the future, or some evaluation, judgment or remembrance of the past. All this time, we sacrifice what is right in front of us: this present moment.”


            He continues:


            “Even when we think we are being present, we are often so attached to thinking itself that we mistake the thoughts we have about our experiences for the experiences themselves. We live our lives very much in words and ideas… We are often compulsive thinkers, never giving ourselves a rest from a constant inner conversation…”


            If we live our entire lives in our heads (as interesting and exciting and inspiring and enlivening as what’s going on in our heads can /i>be), then we’ll miss out on so much of life that is experiential, and sensual, and so much more than words or thoughts.

            Being there requires the full engagement of our hearts and our minds and our senses and our bodies.


            It also means being present, fully, to the sacred souls with whom we share the sacred moments of our lives. That means opening wide the doors of compassion to the blessed ones with whom we are called to share our lives. It means paying attention to that person—fully. Really listening. Really being there. How many other important things you have to do that day—that person must become like the small tangerine you are tasting right then, right there.


            “You have to make him or her very real in your [presence], not just for the sake of appearances… pretend[ing that] you are there, but … [you must hold them] consciously… with all your body, spirit, and heart... If you [are] holding the person you love [that deeply], the energy of care, love, and mindfulness will penetrate into that person and [he or] she will be nourished and bloom like a flower.”


            And so will you. And so will all of us.


            This present moment is really all that we have, any of us, right now. This very moment, as we sit here together, in this holy place, warmed by one another’s presence, and by the memories of those who have come before.


            We are surrounded by love, surrounded by hopes and dreams; we are surrounded, too, by sorrow and regret and pain—all parts of our human journey. It is an amazing thing—a miracle even—to be here together.


            To be alive. To be breathing, in and out, the breath of life. There is no greater miracle than this moment. There is no greater prize that life offers.


            May our eyes and ears and all our senses be open to the miracle of being—the miracle of being here. May we be open at last to this present moment. This wonderful, wonder-filled moment.



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