“We human beings all think there is something to accomplish, something to realize, some place we have to get to. And this very illusion, which is born out of having a human mind, is the problem.” 

This is a passage from the classic book by American Zen teacher Charlotte Jocko Beck titled “Everyday Zen: Love and Work.” It’s one of several publications I’ve come to rely upon over the years, when seeking some additional guidance during transitional periods.

When I read Beck’s passage, it reminds me that it’s perfectly okay to just be present. The day doesn’t need to begin by creating and then crossing off items from a so-called “to do” list, as I once was known to carry. It’s not imperative that I go to this place or that on a given day. That place will still be there tomorrow whether I’m there or not. Additionally, it’s not necessary to make sense of why I did or didn’t do something at a particular moment. 

For over four decades, nearly each day of my professional life included a physical destination, where I consistently performed a specific function: the first 20 years working in corporate, the last 20 split between special needs and preschool education. They’re two fields that have very little in common, yet each required pre-determined goals, adhering to a time-sensitive schedule and achieving measurable outcomes.

In the absence of these highly-structured paradigms, my daily routine (assuming that one chooses to define it as such), has now been completely turned upside down. I can’t help but chuckle when reflecting upon those things that I once considered to be an absolute necessity, such as punctuality, preparedness and follow-through. Mind you, they still play a role to some degree, just one that is significantly less important on a day-to-day basis.

What I find rather interesting ,when looking back, is that much of this structure occurred long before I entered the workforce and was completely self-imposed. Once I found an activity or project that interested me, I became fully committed to seeing it through from its inception to completion. It’s not necessarily a bad quality to have, just one that left little room for deviation or distractions.

Now, more than ever, I’ve come to discover that when we allow each day to unfold with little to no planning, the degree of connectedness to whatever happens is significantly increased. This goes for both pleasant experiences and those which one might consider downright awful. Will we resist when negative things happen to us? Of course, but the more we are able to observe our reaction and identify the emotion and the role our mind plays in creating it, the greater the chance we’ll be able to simply move on.

Stepping outside of our human, mind-driven world takes time. Destructive patterns need to be reconciled, in order to establish free-flowing consciousness, which, in turn, allows for present-moment experiences to be fully maximized. Continuing to hold on to conditioned responses, especially when confronted with adverse situations, serves no purpose.

All too often, we become wrapped up in identifying with a circumstance, so much so that it “becomes our life.” A great example of this happened recently when I left my teaching position this past year to care full-time for my elderly father who was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Never having assumed that role prior to his decline, I became completely immersed in his world to the point where I literally lost touch with my own identity and sense of self. It was a big lesson in learning to separate the circumstance from everything else. There will always be external factors that we find ourselves identifying with, but they need not become who we are. They don’t define us.

Dave Davis
Dave Davis teaches preschool for the Head Start program based at the Children’s Museum of the East End in Bridgehampton, NY. He is also a frequent contributor to “Who Smarted?,” a popular educational podcast for elementary school children.

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