How a Moment of Presence Changed My Life
Calming emotional chaos helps you recognize opportunity.
Posted August 29, 2020 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
Yesterday I was hijacked by an overwhelming moment of stress and anxiety. And, as I was overcome with the enormity of everything going on in our world today, I felt my whole mind/body complex succumb to the emotional chaos. I felt it, it felt horrible, and I saw my whole world through the lens of that chaos.
Thankfully, I remembered a similar past experience of emotional upheaval, the moment of full presence that followed, and how that moment changed my life. That moment taught me a lesson I will never forget, and that lesson often resurfaces during times of trouble. It reminds me how a moment of pause, a deep and full presence, and an intentional engagement in connection, can change a moment, a day, and a life.
It was a challenging morning getting the kids off to school, and I was pressed to make it to work on time. Everything that could go wrong was going that way. It was raining, and there was major construction both near my house and at the university where I teach. My mind was racing with all the exaggerated and negative interpretations I was bringing to the morning: what a horrible mother and professor I was, all the awful things that could happen if I were five minutes late, how I just couldn’t “get it together,” and so forth.
As my mind raced, my body reacted, and I could feel my anxiety level skyrocketing. I had just enough time to make it if there were no hitches. The stress was building, and I could feel its impact. Immediately I was delayed, and I was beginning to feel the stress of time, furthering the frustration of the morning. “I’m still okay,” I thought. There was a faculty parking lot right next to the building I taught in, and I could always find a parking spot there.
That is, until that morning. I was shocked and dumbfounded when there were no spaces. I had to drive all the way around to another lot where I would have to cross several muddy grass athletic fields, a long walk in the rain carrying numerous bags for my heavy teaching load. Beyond stressed and anxious, my inner chatter intensified, telling me how dire the situation was and relating all the upsetting things that were sure to come of the situation.
As I began to make my way, with all my bags, through the mud and the rain, miraculously some voice deep within me cut through all the negative chatter and reminded me: “Bring yourself present, Alane. Look for the opportunity.”
Something incredible happens when you bring yourself truly present. For me, the shift was palpable, and, given the emotional state I was starting from, what happened in the next several minutes was nothing short of amazing. Immediately I began to feel the soft rain on my face and appreciate its texture. For the first time, I saw the loveliness of the morning. The fields were actually beautiful, and behind them, I could see the snow-topped mountains.
As I noticed these things, my “brain chatter” and the overexaggerated emotional significance I was bringing to the morning began to quiet. I felt a measurable shift in both my physical and emotional state, and, for the first time since I woke, my laser focus of stress dissipated, and I began to let in the expansive beauty of life. I even found some amusement in the mishaps of the morning. That shift made me much more available to the opportunity of the moment, and that moment offered something surprising.
I ran into my dad. We both taught for the same department at the university, but because I always came in from the other side, I almost never saw him. He was teaching a golf class, on the grass fields, in the rain. I had no idea he had a class in that space or at that time. I cannot explain exactly what happened at the instant that I saw him; all I can say is that sometimes life intervenes, makes magic, and offers heart-to-heart connections with another that are impossible to put into words. This was one of them.
Although I was peripherally aware that my class was still waiting, being fully present in this moment with my father seemed more important. I dropped all my bags and playfully held the umbrella for him as if he were a king and the most important person in the world. I will never forget that moment of genuine eye contact, full presence, and heart-to-heart engagement. He laughed. I laughed. His class laughed. The rain became a downpour, and he excused his golfers for drier conditions.
I entered the building, and while I was walking down the hallway to meet my class, I reflected on what a transformational moment that had been. Even though I was wet and muddy and a few more minutes later to my class than I would have been otherwise, what I was bringing to my class in the way of my emotional presence was night and day. Instead of coming into my class frazzled, harried, stressed out, and emotionally unavailable, I came in fully present, full of love, and ready to connect with my students.
I had experienced a tangible reminder of the importance of presence, and if the story had ended there, it would have been enough.
I went on to teach my class, full of the love and connection that had been exchanged between my dad and me, and I somehow knew that was a significant moment for us. But my dad had another story. After he canceled his class, he started not feeling well. He decided to leave work for the day and go home to rest. While at home, he had a massive heart attack and passed away. That was the last time I ever saw or spoke with him.
I have thought of that story many times since and the absolute grace I was given to hear that deep voice within me reminding me to be present with the moment and look for the opportunity. I can only imagine how different the story would have been if my last words to him had been: “Dad, I cannot talk right now. It has been a horrible morning, I am stressed out, and I am late for class. I am sorry, I just do not have the time.”
Right now, life may be giving you some major challenges. While it is not my intention to minimize those challenges, I do know, from an academic standpoint, that a full presence can calm emotional chaos enough for you to see opportunity where you saw dread. I also know, from personal experience, that engaging in that opportunity with full presence and deep connection can change a moment, a life, and many, many subsequent moments.