the depth of the present moment

My wife Alia and I are helping her sister re-organize her house, painting the interior etc. I happened to discover a can of Turtle Wax that her sister got to polish her car. This reminded me of my own Turtle Wax experience a couple of years ago that I recorded in a post. Enjoy!

All of the wonderful spiritual teachings about living in the present moment finally come down to one thing: how do I live? As so often when I am delving more deeply into a certain aspect of Reality – sure enough – I find myself in a situation that gives me a real-time experience of that aspect. The last couple of weeks I have been noticing the repercussions of leaving the present moment in some very vivid ways. I posted my reflections on “Purpose” and how I notice that, in a certain sense, following a purpose tends to pull me out of the present moment. On the other hand, the mantra that came up for me while writing the post “ZEN: Purpose” has spontaneously arisen in my mind several time over the past week and has proven to be quite effective. The mantra is “I am my own purpose”. This brings me into a frequency of being enough just as I am and that no action or purpose or indeed anything at all is needed to fulfill or complete me.

ZEN_SameRiver_WThis, of course, leads to the realization of what it is that ever gave me the impression of not being whole or fulfilled. Once again it is the same old thing: only when I comprehend myself as being an entity separate from the entire Field do I feel lack of any kind. From there the trail leads to the mysterious “I” thought that represents that sense of being an individual entity. As soon as I think (or express somehow) “I”, it is accompanied by the complementary thought of “not-I”, whether expressly or implicitly, just as “white” implies “black”. This awareness of how all words and all language are based in a system of “in relation to” has become more visceral for me recently. Nothing I say has any meaning without its frame of reference.

Is it useful to see how all of my concepts – including the core concept “I am” – are made out of thin air? If I do really see this then I no longer follow my concepts but accept them merely as the useful constructs they are, and I see how they help me to navigate daily, functional life as a human being. I will not follow them to find out the truth of my existence, the truth of who or what the  “I” actually is. I will shift my perception to another level of this experience as existence. Which level can there be in which there are no concepts? My answer is that I can only shift my perception to the level of direct experience. This is the set-up for the experience I will relate now.

turtle wax 1Having grown up outside of the USA basically until age fifty, I had never used Turtle Wax before. This amazing product seemed to be the right thing to restore the finish on the 1992 Mercedes that we acquired about a year ago. The directions say to apply the wax to small areas at a time and so I did. I kept the car out of the direct sunshine, as per the directions and then waited for the wax to dry to a haze before buffing it with a soft, clean cloth. The buffing seemed to go pretty smoothly on the first section, but already the next section was quite difficult to buff. The wax had dried to resemble more plaster than wax. By the time I had gotten all the dried wax off another section and the finish was shiny and smooth I had been rubbing hard for close to 2 hours. Time for lunch.

When I returned, the sun had been shining on the car for over an hour and the wax was now as hard as stone. I needed all the force I could muster up to remove it and buff the surface. By now I understood that the directions meant “apply AND buff” one small section at a time. Did irritation at the unexpected strenuous effort needed to wax the car arise? Yes, of course. Did my mind look for someone to blame for this unpleasant situation. Yes, of course. After having read the instructions again did I feel some relief knowing that I, myself, was to blame? Yes, I generally find it a relief to know that I made a mistake and just go on from there in the spirit “OK, I have to pay the price for my own stupidity”.

Mercedes 1So now I was on my own with about 70% of the surface still to be buffed. This is where the whole situation started to get interesting for me with my particular mindset. First of all the question popped into my mind, “What does this situation want to teach me?” And the prompt answer was, “How to keep going when you feel like you don’t have the strength”. This was the second level of learning for me. How? I knew it wasn’t just a question of “gritting my teeth and pushing through”, because, after one more section, I didn’t even have the strength to grit my teeth, much less to push through.  By now I had the back left fender, the trunk and the back left door nice and shiny – and the rest covered with stone-hard, sun-baked Turtle Wax.

I knew that there was only one way to do it. I had to really practice what I preach: one step at a time, staying in the present moment. Such a simple term: “the present moment”, but what abysmal depths are hidden within it! Ok, let’s give it a try… How big should my moment be? Well, let’s try eight by eight. I targeted a square 8 inches by 8 inches and went for it. Success! It worked! Nice and shiny! Then another, and another. Cool, I thought, no problem! But then my gaze wandered off beyond the single 8 x 8 in front of me and saw HOW MANY patches were still dull, chalky colored! Omigod! I’ll never get it done!

PIC PHIL TRAGENAs I said, this was the really interesting part. One part of me observed how my whole nervous system was brought to its knees by the simple action of letting my attention leave the immediate task (8 x 8) and wander over the ‘rest’ that was still to be done. I was immediately totally and completely exhausted, kaput! But I had accepted the challenge: “how to continue when you have no strength left?” and now I was in the middle of it. I brought myself back to the experience of the first three 8 x 8’s and stopped, gathered myself and began another patch. Soon I had the driver’s door shiny, too, and had started on the hood.

I have never seen a hood look as vast as a dried up salt-lake, but now I did… Again my mind feverishly looked for a way out! I saw so clearly that the mind really is an animal that is born to “find a way out”. I thought of all those friends whom I might call to help me, and actually one of them lived right in the complex where I was polishing. He wasn’t there but I knew his girlfriend and he would be back within the hour or so. Then I heard the other neighbors across the way playing basketball on this sunny afternoon and tried to envision enlisting one of them: couple of bottles of beer to help wax my car? How about it? But I realized almost simultaneously that these are the young guys that have their rapper music with powerful sub-woofers booming sub-sonically till 1:30 – 2 am a few times every week. I had just gone over a few days ago and told them that our bedroom is just behind their sub-woofer room and that it was bit late the other night… He gave me his name and cell-phone number to call if they got too loud. In any case, not really buddies in that sense.

I again felt how my strength was immediately sapped down to zero just by allowing my thoughts to consider these “ways out” of the situation. Once again I returned to the ‘suchness’ of this present moment: “My muscles have little strength and I am irritated at having to continue with this activity”. Could I wait and finish it tomorrow? Not knowing what would happen by tomorrow and not wanting to make another mistake to find out that by tomorrow I would need a chisel to get the stuff off, I opted to continue with the buffing until finished. Of course it was also the desire to see the finished product today and not tomorrow. So I gathered my patience again and focused on my 8 x 8’s. The hood was finished and also the passenger door when my friends arrived. As it turned out the young guy I might have asked had to leave for work in about half an hour so wouldn’t have had time anyway, but by now I was progressing steadily toward the last third of the surface.

London 1946

London 1946

This stuff was so hard by now that I was clear about it continuing to harden like concrete, which will still cure and harden more even after 20 years. So I needed to complete the polishing today. The soft cloths had to be changed often because using one cloth too long made it much more difficult, so I went for more cloths. Every break in the strenuous rubbing, using all the force I could find to rub off the “Hard Shell Turtle Wax” (they weren’t kidding!), was welcome and allowed me to return with a bit more energy. Finally I got to the roof, which was pressing down instead of against the side, like on the doors and fenders. I had applied the wax at 10 am, had taken a 2 hour lunch break and now it was 5:45 pm. I had been polishing most of the day! Again, looking over the past hours like that drained my energy visibly. I was able to see each thought that left the present moment of 8 x 8 and how it affected my mood, my energy and thus my strength. Never before had I seen “the present moment” translated so graphically into an 8 x 8 square of auto body! I realized that the present moment can always be translated into something very definite: a drop of water, a pan to be cleaned, a mile to be driven, a word to be spoken, a word to be listened to, a face to be looked at, a cat to be pet, each square inch of the cat to be pet…etc., etc.

PIC PHIL TRAGENAt least in this situation it wasn’t true that I had “no” strength left, but rather I had not the strength to polish in the way I was used to doing it or according to the image that my mind held of how easy or quick it should be. I did have the strength to polish 8 x 8’s if I kept my mind JUST to that 8 x 8 and felt how to remove the hardened wax on that small area. I realized how often the challenge of “staying in the present moment” is taken too lightly and so it is not realized how much it depends on my focus. If I focus on too large a moment I will feel overwhelmed. The present moment encompasses everything: it is infinite. What I realized today is that is it also infinitely small. The present moment I focus on with an electron microscope fills up my whole world just the same as when I focus on my 8 x 8 patch or the Milky Way. Looking at how to pay my bills, I feel completely overwhelmed when I focus on all the bills I need to pay from now until 2020, for example. If I just focus on this one bill, there always seem a way and I am not overwhelmed. How much of what I call ‘problems’ are simply my focusing on more than I have capacity for right here and now?

I knew that Alia was wondering what was taking me so long and I imagined her coming out to check on me. I also imagined there still being a small patch for her to try to buff, because I felt that she wouldn’t have the strength to buff even a small patch, as hard as that stuff was now, and I wanted to see if I was correct. Sure enough, when she came to check on me at about 6:25 pm there was a small 6 x 6 patch left. I asked her to try to polish it and, indeed, it was too hard. I then was able to finish those LAST six inches by six inches, using my VERY LAST STRENGTH!

End of Story


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