Life involves stress. To think otherwise is like pretending that the earth is flat, it just isn’t so. To understand that life involves suffering is the first of the four nobel truths. Simply to know that there is suffering, for example: stress, is not enough. We must understand what it means. Knowing that suffering exists involves the intellect while understanding involves our heart, our whole being. It is easy to say, “Yeah, yeah, stress exists, ” when we aren’t in the midst of it. But then as soon as stress enters our life we think, “Ahhhh, life isn’t supposed to be like this!”
When we cultivate understanding that suffering really is a part of life and not something that is separate or wrong we begin to step fully into the here and now and embrace our true human nature. We may not realize it but most of us spend a majority of our time wishing our present moment was different. We’d rather be doing something else, be somewhere else, be with someone else, and most of all be someone else other than who we are. We waste a lot of time and energy swimming against the current of life’s natural flow. To go with the flow does not mean to be unaffected by or apathetic to life’s unfolding, it means that we can practice not to get caught by it.
What does it mean to be caught by our suffering? I’ll use a personal story to help illustrate. When I first started practicing meditation and sitting with a sangha (spiritual community) my husband Mike and I were living in our old Ford van and working on the east coast. Once a week we would sit with a sangha and practice sitting and walking meditation, coming back to our breathing and slowing down. We were both very new to the practice of mindfulness and meditation. We really enjoyed the group and looked forward to attending each week.
One day after work I walked to the public library just down the road, where it was common for me to wait for Mike to get off work and pick me up. It was a sangha night and I had been craving the group all week long. As it was getting close to the time when Mike would arrive to pick me up I stopped my browsing and reading inside of the library and went to wait on a bench outside. As a side note, I’m one of those people whose idea of arriving on time means getting there 10 minutes early. After about 15 minutes of waiting outside I went to check the time in the library. It was then that I began to get a little irritated that he hadn’t shown up yet. Back outside I went to watch the road for him. A few more minutes drifted by and I went to check the time again. Frustration set in. We were going to be late to sangha if he didn’t show up soon! When I went back outside I started pacing on the sidewalk around the parking lot. With every passing car that wasn’t my husband I grew more and more anxious. I started muttering to myself in low tones though clenched teeth, “I can’t BELIEVE he’s late! This is fuckin’ ridiculous! Where the hell is he?” My whole body was locked in a ball of tightness, my forehead was scrunched and my breath came and went in shallow spurts. I was all sorts of angry!
Once again I made the jaunt, now with terse, hurried steps, to check the time. After making the unchanging assessment that yes he was still late I went back outside and plopped down on a wooden bench in desperation. In woe and exhaustion I wearily slumped back on the bench with a soft thunk and my face tilted upwards. Just then, as if it were written in the sky, the words, “Just enjoy me,” came to the forefront of my mind. Just enjoy me! I took it as a message from the present moment as though it were calling to me through the heavy weight of stress and anger.
With those words I gently smiled and became aware that it was a beautiful spring day. I noticed the sunshine, the blue sky, the birds and the trees. Until then I hadn’t been aware of any of it. I started doing some slow walking meditation in the grass and came back to my breathing in and breathing out. I stopped waiting and started enjoying. I became aware of the fact that all of my huffing and puffing and cursing under my breath did absolutely nothing to get my husband to show up any quicker. And while it may not seem like a big revelation at the time, in the heat of my anger, it was a bright light shining in the dark.
When Mike finally did show up, much too late for us to even attempt to make it to sangha, I opened the van door, smiled and said, “Thank you for being late.” And I meant it. In that moment it was clear to me that had I remained caught by my anger my first words to him would’ve been very very different.
It was my first real life encounter with the practice of mindfulness. And it opened my eyes to the power of cultivating my relationship to the present moment. I saw how my meditation practice that I was generating on the cushion at sangha translated into mindfulness in my daily life off the cushion. I didn’t need to go to sangha to practice. I could practice wherever I was, in any moment.
When I was at the library I received a glimpse into the teaching of how when we are able to fully embrace the here and now we can learn to let go of the need for the present moment to be anything other than what it is.