Are We There Yet? Have you ever been on a road trip with a young person riding in the backseat asking, every few miles, “Are we there yet?” Have you ever been that young person? I have. My father’s answer was always, five more minutes. As I got older, I knew he was joking. But I’m sure the first few times, I believed him.
You can’t really blame a kid. We tell kids “we’re going on a trip”, “it’s going to be great”. “All you have to do is sit here for several hours, and then we’ll be there!” It’s not like they have to do all the hard work of navigating, driving, or even staying awake. All they have to do is sit there – and still, they are always anxious to get there, always asking, “Are we there yet?”.
Wherever there is.
Maybe it’s grandma’s house, where presents and treat await. Maybe it’s a trip to the zoo or a long-awaited vacation to some amazing destination. Wherever it is, we’re all excited to get there. A break from home and school, a diversion from our ordinary surroundings; there has got to be better than here, otherwise, why make the effort?
Our Zen practice is a journey. Our life is a journey, and our small mind is the child in the back seat, always asking, “are we there yet?”
When we embrace Zen as a practice, we always want to know if we’re doing it right. If we didn’t care if we did it right, we wouldn’t be putting in any effort, would we? We approach it like any other practice, practice makes perfect, right? We imagine that when we can sit right, meditate right, live right, … when we get there, we will be better, more relaxed, more peaceful. More Zen.
We usually have an idea of enlightenment too. And the idea is usually that somehow when we get there life will be better, more relaxed, more peaceful. Meanwhile our small mind is constantly wondering if we’re there yet. During sitting, if for a few moments the monkey mind stops whirring, immediately, our mind jumps in with the question, is this “it”?; am I “there”? Anytime we have a moment or two where we feel some degree of peace, we are wondering, “is this enlightenment?”
This impatience is understandable, and we all have it. Talk of enlightenment is inspiring stuff. Imagining a life free from anxiety and suffering; who wouldn’t want to go there? It sounds like a great place! So, how should we respond to this very natural question arising? I’d suggest the same way we might respond if our own child were asking this question; gently and with compassion.
Recognizing that the impulse to wonder if this is enlightenment, if this is “it” is natural, so we can be at ease with ourselves. It’s ok that we wonder that, it’s the nature of our mind to plan, vision, have desires, and to question all those things at the same time. So relax, this is normal.
Secondly, how can we respond with compassion and find a way to draw ourselves back to this moment, to right here? Well, if I were on a road trip with a very inquisitive eight year old (which is sometimes how my mind feels!), I might encourage that child to take a look out the window. Watch the clouds moving across the sky. Count the old fence posts along this country road. See how the flowers in the ditch seems to grow in the most unlikely of places. By connecting to the ordinary right here, we can begin to reconnect to this present moment. That child may still wonder if we’re there yet, but the questioning eventually will be less insistent and maybe less frequent. In time, that child may learn to worry less about where we’re headed, and feel more connected to where we are.
The trouble with question, “are we there yet?”, is that it creates a separation, a gap, between right here, right now and some ‘other’ place. We imagine there is a better place, a more peaceful place, a more enlightened place. And in doing so, we create a gap between ourselves and the very thing we desire.
It turns out, we’re never ‘there’. We’re always here. There’s no place else to be. This notion that we are here, in this pile of anxiety and suffering, and enlightenment is over there, free from those challenges, well, that, right there, is the problem. In asking the very question of “Are we there yet?”, we’ve created both the here and the there. We create a delusion of me before enlightenment and a me after enlightenment. In this delusion, “me after enlightenment”, I’m a really nice person, I never lose my temper and I’m always able to see the big picture. (It’s a great delusion, I actually really like it. Unfortunately, I can never actually get there, wherever that is!) There doesn’t exist. It’s only right here.
Maybe the question we should be asking is, are we here yet?
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