What if the Present Moment Sucks?

There is a consensus opinion that “being in the present moment” is an effective way to deal with anxiety and depression. I agree with
that. It’s about mindfulness. It’s about looking at life as it is, being in the present moment and accepting what we see and feel as much as possible. It’s about surrendering to the situations in our lives and being gentle and compassionate with ourselves.

Projecting into the past or the future doesn’t end well. Focusing on the past can bring up regrets and focusing on the future can bring up fear and stories that aren’t true. I can’t count the times that stopping
to breathe and bringing my focus to the present moment have soothed me.

But what if the present moment sucks? What if we’re in pain or grief or loss or we have a broken heart? I was in a Buddhist workshop years ago when the leader began to speak about the difference between pain and suffering. I’m paraphrasing what he said: “Pain is inevitable. It’s part of being human and so is suffering. But when we face our pain instead of resisting it, we’re giving ourselves a chance to let go a little bit and transform suffering into acceptance.”

What I took away from that teaching is that pain in its purest form is tolerable. Suffering, resisting pain, on the other hand, is not. It’s about staying with the pain and facing it. Buddhism is fertile ground
on this topic. Thich Nhat Hanh, the late Vietnamese Buddhist monk defined mindfulness as being fully present in body and mind. The Dalai Lama says we are so anxious about the future, we don’t enjoy the present moment. Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, says, “When you want to run away from pain, remind yourself to stay. When resistance is gone, so are the demons. Even in the toughest times,
we can learn how to be more gentle, how to relax and how to surrender to the situations and people in our lives.”

In the eighties, I visited a friend in County Hospital who was in a ward, dying from AIDS. He was suffering physically and mentally, and I asked him if he wanted to try something.
“Anything,” he said.

He had neuropathy in his legs, he was hurting pretty badly, and I asked him to meditate with me. I synched my inhales and exhales with his and I asked him what would happen if he stopped resisting. I suggested that he find the center point of his pain and breathe into it. I described it as moving into the eye of the storm and resting in the stillness.

He tried it and after a few minutes, I noticed that his breathing had changed. So I asked him if he wanted to do the same thing with his emotional pain. He agreed. He was feuding with his mother, it seemed like all she did was complain, he told me, and whenever she was there, he felt agitated. He felt like she was blaming him. I asked him to picture her in his mind, and instead of pushing her away and resisting her, he could try breathing from his heart to hers. He had trouble at first but pretty soon, he was inhaling gently and tears were rolling down his cheeks. He opened his eyes, he looked over at me and said, “My mother is in so much grief that I’m dying, she’s acting angry and upset. Making peace with her is the last thing I have to do here before I leave.” He had found compassion, his body relaxed so did the upset.

From my own practice, I’ve learned that the only way to transform suffering into acceptance is facing it head on. I remind myself to stay instead of run. I feel my feelings instead of going numb. I exhale instead of holding my breath and I say “Yes” when I want to say no. None of it is easy, pulling away and resisting pain is human and habitual, but if I can find the courage to go against my own grain, when I don’t run away, I can find clarity about where I’m stuck and learn how to work with it.

Acknowledging pain and sticking with it is not for sissies. To stay with disappointment, betrayal, illness or a broken heart is a hero’s journey. The goal is to move into the unknown with no stories or
excuses and seeing what’s there. When we face conflict and adversity with an unwavering focus, we triumph over suffering and we come back home transformed.