There are those of us who hate being late so much that we’re sometimes absurdly early for things, and have to walk around the block or sit in nearby parks until our appointments begin.
Yet sometimes even these people find themselves late. Most of my life, being late for work was a torturous experience for me. Stuck in construction-addled traffic, I’d watch the clock as I missed my target: 7:47, then 7:54, then 8:04, and I’d still be crawling along. I’d feel my insides start to boil. I’d get mad at whoever was causing the slow traffic (because it’s somehow easier if it’s someone’s fault.)
One day I was particularly worked up, still on the road to work at 8:15, and with my windows up I remember saying out loud, as if to explain to the traffic around me, “Hey! I need to be at work right now!”
It was such a dumb thing to say, and it struck me, somehow only for the first time, that it wasn’t true at all. I didn’t need to be at work. I couldn’t truly need to be at work at that moment, because I wasn’t — I was here, in my car. And aside from my super angry and fearful feelings, there was nothing particularly objectionable about being here.
Being where I actually was at the time (in the car) was an option after all, and in fact it was the only option. Obviously, at that moment I would have preferred to be at work over being in slow traffic, but it was really just a preference, not a need. I was in the car, and therefore at that moment it was impossible to be anywhere else. If it’s impossible, how could I need it? It would be like insisting I need a unicorn just to carry on.
Had I ever actually needed to be anywhere other than where I was? I guess not, because regardless of my preferences, I don’t believe I have ever, even once, been anywhere other than where I already was.
I had also never truly needed a coffee, or a hug, or the Seahawks to pull it out, or my stomach ache to go away, or any other form of having the moment go my way. I have certainly wanted all these things, sometimes very badly, but I’ve never needed them. And this was proven every time I didn’t get them.
Where stress comes from
This reframed the entire experience of being late, and everything else. You can always be where you are (and indeed nothing else is possible.) The real issue is learning to consciously allow yourself to be exactly where you are, including any of the parts that you would prefer to be different. [This idea of reframing your “needs” as preferences is a very powerful one -- see Ken Keyes Jr’s work.]
So, with a slightly adventurous spirit, I decided to bravely let myself be where I was: in the car, at 8:11, with a headache and a Sting song playing on the radio.
And it was fine. I still had a lot of the heated feelings in my body, I still kept having thoughts about getting yelled at or sheepishly slinking into an in-progress meeting, but it felt okay (and understandable) to have them.
This is a news flash to some: It’s okay to experience unpleasant feelings. It’s okay for things to happen that you don’t want to happen. It is possible to notice these things happening and consciously allow them to be there. And it makes a huge difference to how traumatic or not-so-bad the experience ends up being. It may still be unpreferable or unpleasant, but it stops being awful. All different kinds of pain can become manageable if you can let them be there while they’re there.
“Being late” was really just an unpreferable feeling, and unpreferable turned to horrible when I insisted I shouldn’t be having that feeling — that I couldn’t be having that feeling. Obviously that’s not true. I could and I did.
For the record, that morning wasn’t one of the mornings that nobody noticed me coming in late. When I walked in, my boss was talking to his boss right near my desk, and it was a fairly uncomfortable moment as I unpacked my things. By then I had forgotten that it was okay to be there too. It was just a feeling and it came and went pretty quickly.
The need to be somewhere other than where you are manifests itself as stress. We are often afraid to simply let ourselves be where we are. In fact, it seldom even occurs to us. And that’s more than a small logical oversight, given that we are always where we are.
The most underrated skill ever
In the West at least, most of us receive zero training on the value (and even the possibility) of consciously allowing our current experience to be what it is. Just a little bit of regular mindfulness or meditation practice can make this fundamental skill into a habit.
Mindfulness wasn’t new to me then, but my lateness experience gave me a much simpler way of applying it. At any time, if I felt any aversion to what was happening, I could ask myself: Can I let this experience be what it is? (Given that it already is what it is anyway.) Whether I can voluntarily take it on board or not makes a night-and-day difference in the quality of the moment, and therefore the quality of my life.
This suggests a whole different attitude towards pain. Something amazing happens to pain when you make the brilliant and unexpected chess-move of turning towards it: you realize you’re still there, and you don’t have to be afraid of it anymore, because it’s already here. This willingness, if you can muster it, makes the moment inhospitable to the worst aspects of our worst moments: panic, reactivity, despair, and horror. The threat is gone, and the only cost is that you have to let happen what is already happening.
Letting the moment simply be what it is is altogether different from wanting it to be that way, or refusing to do something about it, if there is indeed something you can do. This applies to so many everyday moments that can be awful if we don’t let them be what they are: waiting in line, not knowing whether you passed an exam, being in the presence of misbehaving kids.
The key to allowing yourself to be here is locating that aspect of the present moment that you most want to be different — which always seems to amount to a feeling of some kind. For example, it would feel perfectly okay to not know if you passed the exam if you didn’t feel any anxiety in response to that not-knowing. The unpleasant/unpreferable part is the anxiety, not the not-knowing.
If any “here” you find yourself in includes some anxious feelings, or fearful thoughts, can you not simply let it be true that right now there are some anxious feelings or fearful thoughts happening? Or that the room is a little warmer than you’d like? Or that your friend didn’t text you back for some reason?
There’s no need to be perfect at this, and you won’t be. Sometimes, I can’t seem to find that willingness to allow myself to be here. (Or more often, I forget.) And in those moments I can at least let that be true.
Simply getting in the habit of noticing your state of mind regularly (anxious? angry? uncertain?) goes a long way to understanding why you don’t want to be where you are, when indeed you don’t want to be. What feeling do you think you “shouldn’t” be experiencing? And can you just let it exist in you anyway, while it’s there? This is a part of everyday mindfulness and (in my humble opinion) it is just about the most useful thing a human being can learn.
So much of our suffering comes over very minor things, simply because we are not in the habit of letting ourselves be exactly where we are, even though we’ve never been anywhere else.
If you’re interested in living more in the present
I’ve been writing a lot recently about the habit of living mindfully and its incredible benefits. I’ve been getting a lot of emails and comments from you on the topic, and it’s been my personal focus for the last year. (Some related articles: One | Two | Three | Four | Five )
Exploring mindfulness has truly transformed my life and I want to help other people do the same thing. Over the past few months I’ve put together a full-length guide on making mindfulness a lasting habit. I’ll have a lot more details later, but in the mean time you can learn more here.