In the West, we are very goal oriented. We know where we want to go, and we are very directed in getting there. This may be useful, but we often forget to enjoy ourselves along the route.
-Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step
I remember a moment when I worked in the Masai Mara, a National Reserve in the south of Kenya. I was a research assistant for Michigan State University’s Spotted Hyena Project, and I had many responsibilities. One day I was feeling as though there was just no way I could possibly find time to do everything I needed to do. I must have been exuding stress, because as I rushed about camp, Joseph (a Maasai man who was a member of the camp staff) stopped me to ask what was wrong. I told him I was stressed. I recall so vividly the look of utter bewilderment on his face, and the completely genuine tone of his question, “But, why?”
Joseph’s inquiry was very valid. I had food to eat and water to drink, was working a job I overall loved, was healthy, had a happy and healthy family, had wonderful friends. In the grand scheme of things, what reason did I have to be stressed? I was forgetting to live in the present moment. Unfortunately, the culture I come from generally deems it normal to have a lack of concern for what is now. Our focus on ever-greater achievement and getting ahead renders it elusive to us.
I do not mean to demonize Western culture; indeed, there are many wonderful things about it. I do, however, wish that the West could rediscover Joseph’s wisdom, and the wisdom of others here, who do not seem removed from the present moment. In many areas of Kenya, I feel the existence of now. I feel it when I spend time with our camp staff, who often sit outside and talk with one another. I feel it when I am forced to slow down and wash clothes by hand, and when I interact with the children in the nearby town of Archer’s Post who are playing with one another by the small shops. It is hard for me to pinpoint the exact source of this feeling. People may suggest a lack of focus on excess money, the presence of a gratitude absent in more affluent societies, a quietness of mind driven by the lack of perfectly updated and widespread technology. Maybe it is all of that, or perhaps more or less complicated. Regardless, one of the most precious things I have gained from living with the Maasai, Samburu, and other Kenyans is an understanding that it is possible to see today, and that hard work and peace can coexist.
Animals, too, can be great teachers of now. I think this may be because they have not abstracted their means to survival. They do not have to get money in order to get food; rather, they just have to get food. I think this is part of what draws us to nature. In all of its utter complexity, it is actually quite simple. An elephant will spend its day eating, resting, interacting, and generally doing what it needs to do in order to survive and reproduce. An elephant is free to just be, and of that I am envious. Spending time watching animals like elephants brings me back down to existence for the sake of existing. There are many perks to being human, and being able to ponder things at the level human languages allow can be a blessing. But with unchecked thought comes abstraction, and I think that the skill of paying attention and remaining close to our origin is a measure of intelligence we forget to test.
Here in East Africa, greetings are a big thing. It is very rude not to greet someone. To move right into business, to abruptly walk up and ask a question, seems almost a refusal to acknowledge that you are sharing now with another person. Now is an amazing thing to share with someone. I am so glad to be sharing now with the people here, who have taught me so much. In Kenya and at Save the Elephants, I have met some of the most genuine, unassuming, insightful, brilliantly-in-touch-with-life people I could ever imagine; I would not trade knowing them for anything. And in our work together, we are all constantly reminded how lucky we are to share now with creatures like elephants, who have managed a high level of cognition without abstraction, maintaining existence for its own purpose.