Why would I want to be present?
While we may all appreciate the value of being in the present when things are going relatively well, there are times in life that we might ask, “Why would I want to be present to THIS (lousy) moment?” This might apply to situations that range from mildly irritating (e.g., a boring meeting, poor service, a frustrating interaction with a family member) to what most would consider extremely uncomfortable and even painful (e.g., an abusive relationship, a life-threatening illness, financial devastation). When facing an unpleasant “Now,” what, if anything, makes being present to it something to which we would aspire?
There is an old adage that goes, “Pain is mandatory, suffering is optional.” The idea, of course, is that there really is no way to go through life without some kind of pain. Being human implies that we will break our toes, break our banks and break our hearts at some (if not many) points along the journey. That said, how we respond to these inevitable “pains” determines the degree to which they cause us suffering. Suffering, in contrast to pain, is a subjective experience. Suffering refers to the meaning we make (and subsequently, the actions we take) in response to the pain we encounter. So, for example, one person may experience a romantic breakup as an acutely painful disappointment and/but eventually, come to appreciate the lessons learned from the failure of the relationship. On the other hand, another might experience an apparently similar breakup as a devastation of self-esteem from which their hearts never recover from enough to date again. Similar pain can lead to very different suffering.
The choice to be present
So, what does this have to do with being present? Given that none of us has the ability to avoid pain entirely, what we DO get to choose is how we will encounter pain. In short, we have two choices…. to meet it with awareness or to meet it without awareness. When we choose the latter, we may feel an initial relief from not looking directly in the face of that which hurts. We may busy ourselves, distract ourselves, deflect, minimize the reality of how annoyed or sad or enraged or even terrified we may be feeling. We call it something else. We take it out on people (often, including ourselves) or even objects rather than be present with what is really going on in the moment.
At first, this can feel like a lesser of two evils. But in fact, our decision to be anywhere but in the present moment comes with a significant cost. The cost is our opportunity to choose. More specifically, by resisting being “right here, right now,” we lose our ability to make a conscious choice regarding how best to proceed. By minimizing, denying and avoiding the reality of a less-than-pleasant moment, we miss our chance to acknowledge not only what we are experiencing but to identify our options for reducing our own suffering.
The difficulties of not being present
Let’s explore this with a relatively “low impact” example. Imagine being disappointed with a close friend. Perhaps, you felt a bit snubbed that he didn’t listen very attentively to you over a recent lunch date as you were describing something important to you. You part ways, head off in your car and find yourself ruminating over what was said and not said as you drive off. In a bit, you purposefully shift your thoughts to what awaits you back at your office. You return to find a note on your desk, a request from a rather “difficult” colleague to meet about a situation of ongoing conflict between your departments. As you head into this next conversation, you find yourself being immediately defensive to the first words this peer has to say. Before you know it, you have reacted to her with a snide remark and the dialogue escalates to something pretty unpleasant. What just happened? Was it all about finally giving that co-worker a piece of your mind you have wanted to for weeks? And what will the cost be, short and longer term, of blowing up this situation? In fact, so often, the genesis of this kind of “expensive” interaction is something that took place long before the current “showdown” unfolded. It goes back to not having fully been “right here, right now” with an earlier, painful moment.
What might the alternative have been? Let’s “rewind.” Imagine leaving the same disappointing lunch meeting with your friend. Imagine getting in your car but rather than starting up the engine, you sit a moment and check in with yourself. You notice your own unsettled feelings, the tension in your jaw… and perhaps, given a moment or two, the bit of literal ache in your chest. You acknowledge that you have really been feeling vulnerable with the issue you shared with your friend… and had really had hopes and expectations you had not fully realized about how he might offer some comfort. You do not shame yourself for being unrealistic. You do not get into recrimination about what he “should” have done. You go a bit deeper and just notice what is true…. right here, right now. And you label it: “I am feeling disappointed. I had some hopes for a certain kind of comfort. I am feeling unmet.”
What do you gain by being present?
As you acknowledge what is true in this moment, notice that being present has nothing to do with what you could have done differently (e.g., “Gee, I should have told him more clearly how much I was hurting.”) or what may happen next (e.g., “I am going to call him right away and tell him I want him to listen more carefully”) Instead, for a moment, you are truly and simply, “Right Here, Right Now.” You aren’t seeking to change anything…. only to be in the present moment. It may not feel very comfortable, but what do you gain?
Most importantly, you gain the opportunity to gain an accurate assessment of what “is” before you launch into whatever your response may be. Whatever follows (e.g., offering yourself a bit of compassion, deciding you want to talk with your friend more about your experience, deciding you are really okay and do not need to process it, deciding you want to allow yourself to relax a bit before thinking more about it all, etc.) will take place from a vantage point of awareness. You will not be flailing in the dark, if you will. You will have the powerful advantage of a clear sense of the true “Here” from which you take your next step.
While this may seen like a rather simple example, notice how often it is just these kinds of missed opportunities to be fully present that are the prelude to a lot of pretty significant suffering! What can begin as an apparently less painful response to an unhappy “Now” so often leads down a path of far greater and more widespread suffering.
It is for this reason that choosing to be present to the current moment, even when it isn’t the most pleasant of moments, holds a power and potential that choosing otherwise cannot offer.
~ Dr. Mary Jen Meerdink Ph.D