I always giggle when I see the photograph that accompanies blogs or articles on “being present.” The image, nine times out of 10, is of a person (usually a woman) sitting cross-legged on a beach, looking out at an ocean or other body of water, with the sun setting or rising in front of her. The implication is that this peaceful beautiful scene is what presence feels or looks like. The truth is, if life were a beach at sunset we might not have to work so hard at being present “in” it.
If what we were hearing was the lapping of the waves against the sand, we might want to listen to the sound of now. But what happens when what we are hearing is the siren of the ambulance directly behind us when there’s nowhere to change lanes? If what we were smelling was the fresh salt air coming off the sea, we might want to breathe in what is here. But what happens when we are smelling the cleaning solution the gym attendant is spraying on the machine we are using, even though we are the only one in the place? If what we were feeling was the warm sand against our toes, we might want to dip into the present sensation. But what happens when what we are feeling is the cold wet slush soaking our pants as the bus wheels past? If what we were seeing were the pinks and blues of a glorious sunset, we might want to keep our eyes open to what’s now. But what happens when what we are looking at is a homeless person hunkered down for the night under filthy blankets on an icy sidewalk? How can we be “in” the present moment when we don’t “like” the present moment?
Life includes experiences we want and ones we don’t. We are better at being present in the ones we want, and we need more practice staying in the moments we don’t want. Many people ask me why we would even try and be present in the bad moments. Our assumption is that by agreeing to be present in what we call the bad moments, we are somehow agreeing to them, surrendering to them, and giving up all efforts to change them. We believe that, in order to keep things good in our life, we must brace against, ignore, and reject anything not good. This is an incorrect assumption with profound consequences.
Agreeing to be present in the hard moments is simply agreeing that what is happening is happening, and that we are in it. We accept that this is what we are living right now, whether we like it or not. We say, “Yes this is so and yes this is hard.” This “Yes,” this acceptance, is fundamentally different than, “Yes, we want this.” When we accept what is so right now, we give up the fight against what is supposed to be, and the idea that what is happening should not be happening, and certainly not be happening to us. When we give ourselves permission to be “in” the moments that don’t feel good — which may even feel like hell — ironically, we experience a kind of wholeness. There is a profound completeness, you could almost call it a joy, in being able to experience life fully, in all its presentations — even the ones we despise.
Furthermore, as long as we are “checking out” on the moments that we don’t like, we are an extra step away from being able to change them. It is counter-intuitive, but until we fully accept what is happening we cannot move on, we reject what is and as a result, what is gets stuck. When we settle into, and accept our starting place, we plant our feet in the place from which we can launch change. Scary though it may feel, agreeing to be here doesn’t mean agreeing to be here forever, it just means agreeing to be here in this moment, right now. The fact is, whether we agree to being here, in “it,” or not, “it” still is; our rejection or acceptance of “it” does nothing to “its” is-ness. When we are present in the hard moments, we are released from the primary cause of suffering, which is refusing to be where we are, rejecting our very life. Joined with the moment, we stop wasting our energy, futilely demanding that what is so not be so. When we enter where we are, pretty or not, we can at least stop bracing against our life, stop expending the effort that is required to keep us out of now. Once in the moment, inside our actual experience, we can begin the constructive work of creating change.
It is also important to remember that when we settle into the more challenging moments of life, we do not lose awareness of how we feel or the desire for change. We don’t suddenly become unconscious. We still don’t want it to be the way it is but that not wanting is simply included in the “what is,” along with the wet slush and the ambulance siren. Our dislike of the moment is part of and not a contradiction to our presence. Being able to be in the moments we don’t want is a challenge that requires different skills than being in the moments we want (which also takes skill). Experiencing what is, as it is, along with our dislike of it, forms a base of compassion for ourselves — that we are living this hard moment and it is painful and we want it to be otherwise and it is what is so right now. All are true — all at once. This self-compassion, of diving into the whole of what is, regardless of the difficulty that inspires it, is always healing and always carries the feel of a loving embrace.
Life presents all of us with the opportunity to be present “off the beach” — on a small scale, when the skies open up and we have no umbrella; on the larger, as we sit with our parent dying in the hospital, or any one of the infinite human hardships we face. Life gives us endless chances to practice being “in” what is when what is is not what we want. To be able to be “in” the moment in all its forms is to experience the full depth and scope of our human existence. To embrace what is happening, how we feel about it, how we wish it weren’t so, how we are going to try and change it and everything else, all at once, without having to reject any of it… this is what it means to be fully alive! Even when we are not at the beach, we are here, tasting life, and that in and of itself is the real gift!