By Geneen Roth
When I first heard the Buddhist description of hungry ghosts--beings with stomachs as big as caves and throats as narrow as pins--I was positive I was going straight to hell as a hungry ghost. After all, this was an exact description of my experience with food. And not just with food, but also with life.
After years of being haunted by this image, I think I've figured out what the hunger is about. It's about missing my own life. It's about having food (both physical and emotional) right there, and not being able to taste it because my attention is somewhere else. We're all walking around hungry for an elusive something, and we're missing the very thing that could fill us: showing up, being present in our own lives.
My friend James, a frequent curmudgeon and always successful businessman, recently told me he was amazed to realize that when he was lifting his foot and was actually aware of lifting it, he was completely happy. He said, "I know this sounds odd, but I feel the kind of happy I only thought I could be if the deal I am working on were to come through next week. I mean, the kind of happy that gives happiness its good name."
James was talking about showing up for his own life, feeling alive. When he was aware of his everyday movements, he felt that all of him was living his life, instead of his mind being off planning his next meeting while his body was walking, riding in the car, or climbing stairs. James was talking about a quality that we already have because we are born with it. It is called presence--being (body, mind, and soul) where you are and feeling it.
Every day, we open our eyes, get out of bed, eat breakfast, brush our teeth, talk to our families, do our work. And most of the time, our minds are somewhere else. When we get out of bed, we are thinking about something we should have done yesterday; when we talk to our children, we are thinking about the phone call we need to make; when we walk to the bathroom, we are thinking about the chocolate we shouldn't have eaten. Or want to eat. Or are going to eat. Or how great our lives are going to be when we lose weight or get a promotion or fall in love.
We spend our lives, each day, in every moment, thinking about what we already did or are going to do, and we completely miss what we are doing. It's like eating a fabulous meal while talking on the phone and watching TV. The meal ends and you haven't tasted a thing because your attention was elsewhere.
This lack of attention leads to a tremendous spiritual hunger that we can't quite name. We get fooled into thinking that it's about something we don't have yet, when it's really something that is unfolding minute by minute, right in front of our eyes. We keep believing that if we go after the next big thing--the job, the car, the house, the perfect sweater--the hunger will be filled. And yet over and over we find that filling the hunger isn't about acquiring more things; it's about noticing what we already have and already are.
When I talk about presence in my classes, students give me suspicious stares. Some decide that they don't like me and want their money back. Presence sounds dumb. "C'mon, Geneen. You make it sound so simple. What about my lousy relationship, or the fact that I have three kids under the age of 5 and not one second for myself the entire day? How can I be present in my life as it is, if that life makes me unhappy?" Good question, I say. And it is.
So, in the beginning, practicing presence needs to stay very simple. You start like James, by feeling alive in your arms and legs. The reason that living in your body is quite helpful is because the alternative--living in your mind--can drive you insane. There is no particular pattern to your thoughts; in a split second, they zing crazily from the time you fell from your swing when you were 6 to what you are going to say to the person who insulted you yesterday.
If you try to follow your thoughts, you get lost in fantasies, resentments, and anticipated disappointments. There is no ground, nothing solid to hold on to, no way of bringing yourself back to what you are doing now, this very second. You get to the end of a day--or the end of your life--and you wonder where you've been. (And the answer is: lost in thought!)
In the morning, before you get out of bed, focus your attention on your right foot, feeling your toes, your ankles, the back of your foot, your arch. Then begin sensing your calf, your shin, your knees. Continue moving all the way up through your right hip, and then focus on your right hand, fingers, wrist, and elbow. When you get to the shoulder, move across to your left shoulder and down this arm to your hand; then go from the left hip to the left foot. This should take about 5 minutes.
During the day, every time you remember, sense your arms and legs again, just for a few seconds. (I do this about 100 times a day.) This will help you land in your body and bring your mind back to the present moment; it will give you a kind of mountain-solid feeling.
When you are present, nothing is missing. Time seems to stretch. And the reason it does is because it's our thoughts--our crowded, worried minds--that make us feel so rushed. When you are present, a day seems like a week; a month, like a year. Presence enables you to see that this body, your home, the place you've spent years trying to change, is a pretty cool place to be.