Letting yourself have what you have (or, the difference between heaven and hell.)

“You will find yourself on death’s doorstep one day. It’ll happen. There will come a moment in your life—and you don’t know when—and you will be about to pass from this realm.”

I was sitting at a retreat at a yoga center in the mountains of Massachusetts. Autumn was beginning to show off. The air had just turned crisp and chilly and the leaves on the trees were starting to turn—some had rushed to turn their brightest colors and others were hanging on to their green. I had come here to hear an author speak. An author whose books I ran across by accident and which have become quite meaningful to me as part of my health and self-care journey.

She had come down from the mini-stage where she sat for most of her talk and she was walking among us—about 200 women in yoga pants holding hot cups of tea and journals—and she was telling us a story about a time she thought she was about to die. She reminded us we’d all find ourselves in that day—that day where death is closer than ever.

She summarized the countless studies that have been done on end-of-life regrets. What do people most regret when they are near death? Over and over people keep saying that the things they regret most are that they were not more present for the life they already had. They don’t wish they had worked more or traveled more… they don’t wish for more anything really—they wish they had actually just shown up for the life they’d already been given.

She asked us to write down the things we’d regret if today were that day. If today I found out I had hours to live, what will I wish I had done more of? I thought about what I really love. The real pleasures of being in this body that I have on this earth where I’ve been planted. Here’s what I wrote:

Place my cheek against my kids’ cheeks and feel the softness of their skin.
Look—really look at my husband, especially in his eyes (he has beautiful eyes.)
Rub and smell the dog’s fur.
Run fast.
Write the stories that are in me.
Cook beautiful, tasty food.
Laugh with my friend.


Bean-dog made the list!

Listen to beautiful music.
Let my mom know I love her.

She asked us what we noticed about our lists.

What I noticed about mine was that it didn’t have anything on it that I keep thinking I want –the things that take up lots of mind-space (to be thinner, stronger, to travel more, to make more money, to get recognition, to be better at music than I really am…) What I noticed about my list was that it was full of everything that I already have. What I noticed about my list was that I already have everything that I really want.

She asked us a few times during the retreat: What will having what you think you want give you that you don’t already have? Stated differently: What will (being thinner, traveling more, making more money, etc.) actually give you of any value that you don’t already have?

This was not an exercise in gratitude. It was not an exercise in feeling bad or guilty for not being a better wife or mother or daughter. It was not an exercise burdened by any value judgments or criticism.

This was an exercise in noticing: Noticing what you really want and noticing what you already have.

The noticing led me to a deeper understanding that I already have everything I want. I wondered, then, about my times of discontent. Perhaps when I am dissatisfied or suffering, it is not because I really lack something. Perhaps I am suffering because I am not letting myself have what I already have.  Suffering, perhaps, is not noticing what is already there, not really showing up.

“Hell is wanting to be somewhere different from where you are.” (Stephen Levine as quoted by Geneen Roth.)

Where do I encounter hell?
The grocery store, for one. And if I’m honest, the rushed evenings at home after work: dinner, homework, baths, bedtime….

I can go to the grocery store and try to get through it as quickly as is humanly possible because ohmygod why are all these people so slow and unable to navigate aisles? Or I can go to the grocery store and notice the abundance of food available to me, notice my own abundance that I have enough money to feed my family.

I can yell at my kids to take their baths, do their homework, go to bed. Or I can run the bath water and hear how it sounds and feel it running on my hands. I can see my kids’ bodies in that bathtub and how they’ve grown. I can hear them splashing. I can smell their skin as its drying.

You get the picture.

I can get through life wishing I were somewhere else or I can live life. I can constantly try to jump ship or I can really inhabit the body I was given and the moment I’m in and the speck of earth where I’ve landed.

I can drop my attachment to all the things I think I’ll get when I get the things I think I want. I can drop the story about how things will be better when I weigh a little less or earn a little more. I can notice what’s right in front of me, what’s in me right now.

Right now? I’m writing the stories that are in me while I sit next to my dog. Birds are singing outside. My tea is warm. My body feels pretty good. I’m fairly certain my kids made it safely to school. There is breath in my body. I’m awake, present.

But what if your moment right now sucks? What if right now your moment is that the person beside you is sick and dying? What if right now you are sadder than you’ve ever been? What if right now your kids didn’t make it to school safely?

You can be present for that too. Regrets aren’t about the deck of cards you got dealt. Regrets are about not having been present for your life. When your life feels good and when your life feels bad. When you are faced with beauty and when you are faced with what feel like unbearable circumstances. For all of it, you can be present. You can, in the words of the author at the retreat, “come home to yourself” (Roth).

What an invitation.

I read a meditation once that said: “The divine lives in you, as you.” It resonated with me and matched what I’d learned early in my Christian faith: that God abides in me, that my body is a temple of God’s spirit. If that is true, then coming home to yourself is coming home to God. Being present in this body, on this earth, in this moment is communing with the one who made you. It is the highest spiritual practice. It is perhaps, the place you’ll find peace. Can you imagine that?