Ending Suffering: Tuning into the Present Moment
The best gift to ourselves and others is being present.
Posted Dec 24, 2009
As we have seen, most of the time we are not in touch with our fundamentally awake, compassionate and open qualities: our “brilliant sanity.” Instead, we are apt to withdraw into a narrow sense of ourselves, preferring the familiar to the unknown.
The teacher known as the Buddha taught over 2500 years ago that it is possible to go beyond the claustrophobic sense of “ego” and find an end to suffering. As we have seen, the Buddha’s early teachings are known as the Four Noble Truths. We already have looked at the first two. The First Noble Truth teaches that life contains discomfort and pain; simply by being alive, we are bound to experience it. Some experiences, he taught, hurt and no spiritual path can make that not so. Pain is not a sign of our doing things wrong. (See the blog entry for November 15.)
The Second Noble Truth describes how we create suffering on top of pain by trying to escape the inevitable pains of life. Furthermore, we mistakenly believe that we are a separate, permanent “self” or “ego,” and that causes us further suffering. (See the blog entries for November 29 and December 13.) We noted that while pain is inevitable, suffering, the discomfort created by struggling against pain, is not.
The Third Noble Truth is known as the “Truth of the Goal” or the “Truth of the Cessation of Suffering.” If the first Noble Truth is the “diagnosis” and the second Noble Truth is the “etiology” of the situation in which we find ourselves; the third Noble Truth is the “prognosis.” It describes a possible outcome of our “dis-ease.” Suffering can cease. We can learn how to stop perpetuating suffering and relax into who and what we are: brilliant sanity.
How do we find brilliant sanity? Where do we look? How do we look?
We’ve been told it’s right here all the time, and yet we don’t usually experience it. It’s a bit of a puzzle, a paradox. We’ve just learned that we cause suffering when we try to avoid pain. Wouldn’t looking for brilliant sanity be an attempt to try to avoid pain? How, then, are we to proceed?
There is no place to look for brilliant sanity except where we already are. Brilliant sanity can only be found in the present moment: right here, right now. There’s just no place else it can be. It’s deceptively simple. It’s simple, but it can be challenging. How so? Aren’t we right here? What does it mean to “be present” or “be in the present moment”?
Most of us spend a lot of our time caught up in being anywhere but right here, right now. We get caught up in thoughts. For example, we might go over the conversation we had yesterday with a colleague. “Maybe,” we might think, “I should have told her that she was wrong. But, maybe I could have found a way to tell her so that she would have heard me instead of just making her so defensive. I bet she didn’t hear a word I said. She’s just like my mother . . . .” And off we go. One thought about the past leads to another one. We re-run successful and not-so-successful encounters. We get lost in the past or in a fantasy of a past that never actually happened but might have if only we’d said or done something different. We become editors of our memories.
Or we jump into a not-yet-here future. We might do this by looking forward to something that hasn’t happened yet. Maybe, this time of year, we are looking forward to getting together with friends or family over the holidays. We might imagine the joy we might feel. Or we might dread the discomfort we might anticipate. We worry and plan for various eventualities. Who will step in and deal with Uncle Pete if he starts drinking too much? How on earth will we deal with Aunt Sonia’s endless chatter?
It’s easy to get caught up in our memories, plans and fantasies. We do it so readily, we don’t even notice most of the time. We are well-practiced at distraction. Whenever we forget where we are in that way, we lose track of the present moment, “nowness,” the reality of our lives. It’s not that we shouldn’t think about the past and future. The problem is that we don’t even notice when we’ve done it. The result is that we are missing our lives much of the time.
Another way that we miss our lives is in being very busy. I have seen more and more clients in therapy whose main difficulty is feeling overwhelmed and over-extended. Their appointment calendars and PDAs are filled with commitments. They have endless errands to run. Feeling pressured to make decisions, one after another, they are never certain that they are choosing correctly. Both men and women seem to feel plagued by this uncomfortable sense of never being caught up, of never coming to rest.
As a contemplative therapist, I am interested in helping my clients reconnect with brilliant sanity. As I’ve said, we can do that only in the present moment. Joe seemed to slow down only in his hour a week with me. The rest of the time he was racing from the high school where he taught, to the classes he was taking to upgrade his teaching credential, to the grocery store to buy food for dinner, to the gym for a workout. He was juggling his work, his relationships at home, and attending to an ailing parent. He was plagued by anxiety and insomnia.
Our work together centered on learning to be where he was and when he was. Very simply, over and over again, I would invite Joe to notice what he was noticing in his sense perceptions. What could he see? What did he hear? What did he feel in his body? These seem like simple questions yet when we are feeling speedy, we lose touch with these immediate experiences of the present moment.
You might try it for yourself: take a few moments to turn away from the computer screen and just tune in to yourself. Notice the sensations in your body. Begin by noticing your breathing. Just notice it and let it be however it is. Then, beginning with your feet, scan up your whole body. Notice how your feet feel. Are they are the floor? Do they feel heavy? Numb? Is there no particular sensation at all? Then move on to your ankles and legs and continue, section by section, to tune in to the sensations in your whole body.
Then, look around, what do you see? Notice the sounds in the environment. Is there anything you can smell? Taste? Take a few moments to do that now—in this very moment. If, at any point, you become distracted by thoughts or anything else, just simply return to paying attention to your breath, body, or sense perceptions.
In the next blog entry, we will look at some more ways to cultivate our natural ability to be alive and awake in the present. For now, feel free to use this tuning-in technique any time. Let it interrupt your distracted mind and bring you into the present. Don’t be discouraged if you can’t stay present more than a moment or two. You are not alone. We all get distracted pretty easily. It takes practice to be present.
Joe began to notice that when he was at school, he was thinking about getting to the gym. At the gym he was thinking about what to buy at the grocery store. At the grocery store he was already at his father’s helping him to make dinner. He was never whole-heartedly doing what he was doing when he was doing it.
He was AWOL from his life.
Increasingly in our time together, and then during the rest of the week, Joe brought his attention to his moment to moment experience. What he discovered was that, for him, speediness was less about the number of things he did and more about his being on to the next thing before he finished the last one. He found that he was actually more skillful and efficient when he was fully present with what he was doing. It also let him begin to relax. As he began to feel less pressured, he began also to sleep better.
Unlike Joe, for me, being more mindfully present in the moment reveals that I am often doing something I don’t need to be doing. You can’t know if you’re more like Joe or more like me – or some other way-- unless you take the time to “show up” and experience the present moment for yourself. No one else can tell you what your experience is.
Cynthia was a woman who was caught up in a painful, and probably abusive, relationship. When she began paying attention to her actual experience in the present moment, she realized that she felt good with her partner only a few minutes a day. The rest of the time, she was miserable. Contemplating doing something different brought up the experience of fear. As she cultivated the ability to be present with her experience, including her feelings, she discovered that she didn’t have to avoid her fear. She could tolerate it and let it inform her choices about how she wanted to live.
Cynthia felt more confident in her choices as she became increasingly present with herself. If we are not present with ourselves, we can’t really have confidence in any of our decisions. If we’re not really “here,” on what are we basing our choices? Our fantasies? Our hopes and fears? No wonder we often feel unsure of our decisions.
When I was in my early twenties, my boyfriend—let’s call him Pete-- spent the summer in Europe. I remember saying to my father in mid-June that I wished we could just skip to the end of August so Pete would already be home. Pop gave me some excellent advice: “Don’t wish your life away,” he said. It’s a bit like what the Buddha taught about the importance of the present moment.
We can begin by practicing coming into the present moment through our bodies and our sense perceptions. Then, we can practice being present with others. It can be quite a surprise to realize how little of the time we’re really here with each other and not lost in thought or just waiting for the other person to stop talking.
One of the best presents we can give to each other, in this season and in any other, is the increasingly rare and precious gift of our full attention. Our willingness to show up, to be present with each other, in times of joy and in times of pain, is truly an offering of love and friendship.