It’s okay to be here

Post image for It’s okay to be here

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.

Photo by wonderlane


{ 53 Comments }

Jason May 5, 2014 at 1:37 am

Wonderful article David, I absolutely love this. And I’m glad you said ‘there’s no need to be perfect at this’. I often get frustrated at myself for not being able to do something that seems so easy, but it’s obviously like a muscle that gets stronger with practice. And just being armed with this knowledge, even if it’s not always in the moment, makes me much happier.

I often get this experience just talking to people in social group gatherings – it’s a feeling of discomfort if I’m not talking to the person I’d like to be talking to, which I just hate! Much better when you can just accept and embrace whoever is in front of you. I’ve become better at doing this in the seconds or minutes after these and similar events, but still working towards making it happen in the moment itself.

But in those rare moments when I do remember, and find myself really ‘in the moment’, I usually find myself literally laughing out loud involuntarily. It’s truly such a joyous thing. Your words are magic David, thank you.

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David Cain May 5, 2014 at 9:30 am

I think that is something I’ve never emphasized enough whenever I’ve written about mindfulness. It’s often a completely different way of engaging with life than we’re used to and there’s no reason to expect to be able to do it all the time, or even much of the time at first. Any instance in which you become mindful is a victory, and over time it will happen spontaneously more often.

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jo May 5, 2014 at 2:17 am

The article reminds me a lot of Acceptance Committment Therapy (ACT) – just accepting the feelings of that moment (either unpleasant or not) and accepting your natural reponse to those feelings. The unpleasant feelings tend to pass quite quickly, rather than trying to fight them off, and continually stress about them. Once again, brilliant. I simply love your blog. :)

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David Cain May 5, 2014 at 9:30 am

Thanks jo. Even just consciously acknowledging that you’re experiencing feelings right now really puts many problems into perspective: you’re here, and there are some feelings happening. That’s it. Feelings are always changing, always on the way out, but often we make the problem into something much bigger than the present-moment feelings. We interpret them as signs of character flaws, or insoluble life situations. But they’re just feelings and they’re really not that bad most of the time when you just look at them.

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Jill Gordon May 5, 2014 at 2:24 am

I so needed this reminder to just be, be here, in the present and to let it be.
Thank you.

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David Cain May 5, 2014 at 9:33 am

Welcome home :)

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Vishal May 5, 2014 at 2:25 am

Nice post David.
Meditation really did it for me. It made me realize that I am getting over emotional on petty issues, Which have no real significance in the long term. Then finally I read a wonderful book- Don’t Sweat small stuff and its all small stuff. It gave deeper information on this particular subject.

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David Cain May 5, 2014 at 9:34 am

Meditation is the best way to develop off-the-cushion mindfulness. I think anybody that makes a conscious habit of mindfulness will eventually find themselves experimenting with a meditation practice.

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Wan May 5, 2014 at 2:57 am

“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.”

Nicely said, David. It captures the problem that most people have.

As much as we like progress and doing something to improve our future, there are times when our only option is to sit and do nothing. Being stressed out wouldn’t help us. The only thing that can help us is accept the things that are happening and breath.

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David Cain May 5, 2014 at 9:36 am

Right… and even when you are actively trying to make something happen in the future, you can always settle in to where you actually are in the mean time. It’s never unhelpful.

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DiscoveredJoys May 5, 2014 at 3:09 am

50 years ago a Scout Leader told us (we were a bunch of lads camping under canvas) that headaches didn’t automatically require asprin. The pain was natural, bearable, and indicated that we probably needed to sleep more or have a bowel movement.

I can’t say that the advice was particularly profound, yet it has stuck with me. Sometimes the quick automatic response to discomfort is not the most effective.

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David Cain May 5, 2014 at 9:41 am

I’ve found that we’ll reflexively try to turn away from the moment under even the tiniest amount of “pain,” even less than that of a headache. For example, I look at the clock, thinking it’s about 9:15, and it’s actually 9:27, meaning it’s a little later than I thought and therefore I’m having a slightly less productive day than I thought. That creates a very small amount of angst, and I’ll resist even that, instead of just acknowledging it and taking it on board. The day is full of little instances of difficulty that present perfect opportunities to practice acceptance.

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Mike May 5, 2014 at 5:13 am

Try as I might, I have never succeeded with mindfulness or meditation. Further, for all the people I know who have spent thousands of dollars on mindfulness courses and retreats, none of them seem to have mastered it either. I figure then that mindfulness is probably something that no one really ever masters. Rather, practicing mindfulness is more likely to involve many frustrating attempts to ‘get it right’. Perhaps we can learn to accept this too.

Mike

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David Cain May 5, 2014 at 9:48 am

I wouldn’t worry about mastery. I think that is a major stumbling block for people, that they think they should be able to do it at will all the time. It is simple, but we are highly conditioned to do the opposite. So we should learn to be happy with small indications of progress. If you try to be mindful while you wash the dishes, there is about a 0% chance you won’t get lost in thinking while you do it, and many people will think this means they have “failed” to be mindful. But progress is made this way, by making repeated little efforts, which eventually become reflexes. Your ability to do this has a snowball effect. It gets easier as you get better, and this makes it continually easier to get better.

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Randy Hendrix June 28, 2014 at 9:17 am

Well said David…

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John May 5, 2014 at 7:19 am

Everybody has to be somewhere :). Thanks for the mindfulness reminder.

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David Cain May 5, 2014 at 9:49 am

Not just somewhere, but here! Always!

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George May 5, 2014 at 7:55 am

How serendipitous for this to come at this time for me! I was just thinking the other day on my stresses about the debts I still owe, and I realized then that while I’ve been striving to find ways to get out of debt, it’s the stress itself that is the greatest issue for me–not the debt. It’s the stress itself of feeling like I’m under someone else’s thumb, and the idea that because my limited income is tied up in part with debts, that limits me even further as to what kind of life I can live.

So I opened myself up to the idea that I could somehow focus on relieving the stress BEFORE the debts were fully repaid, so I could be more comfortable with the state of being in debt while I worked at paying it off. This article gives some great direction in that regard, so thank you.

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David Cain May 5, 2014 at 9:53 am

Yes, you’ve hit on the most important thing about the habit of staying present: it reveals what your problems really are. They really just consist of feelings. The situation that seems to cause the feelings is just the seed of the reaction in ourselves. We have a huge amount of leverage on our own end over the experience we have in relation to the events in our lives.

The debt would be no problem at all if it weren’t for the despairing and stressful reactions. Whenever I notice I’ve become upset, I find it really helpful to do this: 1) acknowledge that all that has happened is you’ve had a thought and it caused an unpleasant feeling, and 2) look for the feeling in the body. Find its location and its texture, and see if you can let it be there for a little bit, knowing it will dissipate and that it is nothing but your body’s reaction to a thought.

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Brownvagabonder May 5, 2014 at 8:39 am

I have found mindfulness to be especially useful when I’m travelling. This desire to be home when I’m abroad or abroad when I’m home is exhausting as I’m never satisfied with my position in life. Being present and mindful reminds me over and over again that I’m where I need to be right now. No need to change anything.

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David Cain May 5, 2014 at 9:56 am

Being present and mindful reminds me over and over again that I’m where I need to be right now. No need to change anything.

It really is as simple as this, although we are very much conditioned not to accept this. Wherever you go, there you are, no matter what. So if you need to be anywhere, it’s here.

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Ed May 5, 2014 at 9:17 am

Resistance to reality, resistance to “what is”, definitely causes a lot of unneeded pain and suffering.

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David Cain May 5, 2014 at 9:55 am

I would even say it causes all of our suffering, if we distinguish suffering from pain. Suffering is a particular kind of mental awfulness that accompanies pain when we believe it’s not okay to be having this particular pain right now.

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Free To Pursue May 5, 2014 at 9:53 am

“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.”

Powerful. I needed to be reminded of this today. Thank you.

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David Cain May 5, 2014 at 4:49 pm

It’s amazing how unwilling we are to relax into even the smallest instance of unpleasantless.

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Andy May 5, 2014 at 9:57 am

Dude. My favorite article yet. I laughed at the simple yet profound concept.

All of your articles lately have been awesome. You are getting really good at this. Please keep it up.

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David Cain May 5, 2014 at 4:45 pm

Thanks Andy. I think it’s a hyper-useful topic and I’m going to be writing about it a lot.

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Michael Eisbrener May 5, 2014 at 10:58 am

“Be ‘OUT-HERE’ Now! When I am life is rather pleasant, often joyful and the present moment is always exhilarating. I have not worn a watch since I was 12 years old, nearly 50 years ago. The ‘being on time’ game is a place to begin. ‘On time’ is 30 minutes before you are due. Being present all the time is fun.

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David Cain May 5, 2014 at 4:51 pm

It is fun. There’s something playful about noticing all these strange corners of time that happen between the “significant” moments. We are here all the time, but we forget that.

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John Norris May 5, 2014 at 2:24 pm

David, are you channelling Byron Katie? Her book “Loving What Is” changed my life. And my friends are grateful :)

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David Cain May 5, 2014 at 4:46 pm

I have never read Byron Katie, I’ve just seen a few simple videos about the four questions in “The Work”. She’s on my list.

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Sandra Pawula May 5, 2014 at 4:13 pm

David, You’ve outlined the essence of freedom in my mind. Attachment and aversion normally dominate our lives. But, if we can just be with what is as you so skillfully suggest and describe, we can start to feel a bit more humor and spaciousness about it all.

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David Cain May 5, 2014 at 4:54 pm

There is so much that can be built on what I’ve written here, and as you probably know there are long traditional teachings about learning to be here. Noticing attraction and aversion is a very powerful habit. Just being acutely aware that there is aversion happening right now brings you most of the way to accepting it.

And the humor is important too. Humans are ridiculous, and in those moments where we notice how uptight we are over silly things, it can be really funny.

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Nicole May 5, 2014 at 10:37 pm

Worthwhile mentioning that as a motorist you’re not “stuck in traffic”; you are traffic. Cycling is a great way to relieve stress and get places on time! And regarding mindfulness of the moment, the experience of riding a bicycle is so much more enjoyable than sitting in a car, even in the rain!

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David Cain May 6, 2014 at 9:15 am

Yes, this is true. I did you one better and quit entirely. Now I have a four-second commute by foot. One of biggest problems I had with my old job was the insane amount of driving. A bike isn’t an option because I had to carry a few hundred pounds of equipment wherever I went, and I had to work on multiple sites in one day. I spent a couple hours in my car every day.

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Vishal May 6, 2014 at 12:37 am

Nice post.
About meditation and mindfulness check out a complete meditation guide at http://gameligit.com/meditation-a-practical-guide/

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Deena May 6, 2014 at 1:08 am

When you speak about turning towards discomfort, sitting with it, it reminds me of natural childbirth. I have had two children without pain medicine or medical intervention. My method of dealing with the pain was exactly that… to focus on it and accept it. To ride it and hold it and look at it. It was like the deepest meditation possible, and a truly spiritual and transforming experieme that taught me that discomfort is okay. Sometimes I forget though, especially when it sneaks up on me. I sometimes wish I could pause life, take a few breaths, and then continue.

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David Cain May 6, 2014 at 9:21 am

Wow, that sounds like an powerful exercise in non-resistance! The meditation teacher I had at Hollyhock told a story about how he happened to have kidney stones when he was training as a monk in India. He was able to stay with the pain simply by making space for it, and he says the pain was very intense but he suffered very little, until he took a painkiller which killed his mindful edge and then he collapsed into suffering.

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Leena Kloppers May 6, 2014 at 2:38 am

Thanks David, you have brought home the point of the power of letting go quite beautifully in your post. I could relate to your story and its not an easy thing to learn especially for those of us who like to be in control of things. However, I am also learning to let go and accept things, people and situations to be as they are and not as I want them to be. It makes a world of a difference. Thanks for the wonderful uplifting post.

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Tim May 6, 2014 at 10:36 am

Interesting…you echo the same idea I got from reading a book recently. The art of living : the classic manual on virtue, happiness, and effectiveness / Epictetus ; a new interpretation by Sharon Lebell. The book reminded me that I can’t control the world around me, but rather my reaction to the world. If you let go of the external items you can’t control you tend to just be more happy and accepting about life.

Great post.

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Edward May 6, 2014 at 1:55 pm

This seems to be an increasingly difficult thing to remember how to do. As kids, we were always here. Even as teens, I used to hang out with my friends downtown, wander a bit, and always be here. Over the years I’ve forgotten how to do that–there always seems to be some goal or destination manifesting itself. Walking to the grocer store and then home after work, I have to tell myself that there’s no rush at all. I’m not required in either place. …No need to walk as fast as possible, or contemplate what it will be like when I get to where I’m going. Cutting through a park there’s absolutely no reason to walk at a quick clip and not look at things or pause at the river. Getting that whispering monster off my back, being just here, and quieting my mind is a huge struggle. There is no goal to get home and cook dinner. I don’t win a contest when I get there. You know? Again, David–you put the ethereal into words. That’s not easy to do.

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Siobhan May 6, 2014 at 9:44 pm

This is a wonderful article.

What struck me most is how applicable it is to childbirth. The reflexitive desire to get away from discomfort, to resist the moment as it is, is precisely what makes childbirth so difficult.

This allowing the moment to be what it is, this turning towards it, is exactly why I enjoyed giving birth. It was absolutely the most physically painful experience of my life, in a sense… (though tearing all the ligaments in my right ankle is was a close second) it was also the most pleasurable, in another sense.

At one point the sensations reached a level that had me on the verge of panic. It was TOO intense. How could I continue to integrate it ? How could I surrender even further ? I began to feel my mind scrambling around, looking for an out. But there was only through. And as my daughter emerged from my body, I emerged as well, newly born.

I remember thinking afterward that the surrender required in the act of birthing was perfect practice for surrendering to being a vessel for a tiny human’s needs. The perfect doorway to walk through.

Thanks for this article. My daughter is two and a half now, and my ability to surrender to the moment has frayed considerably. This is a perfect reminder that a lot of my frustration in day to day life is my own resistence to the reality of the moment. I resist, and cause my own suffering.

I don’t have to like it when she pours her bath water on the floor, after I’ve asked her a thousand times not to, but I don’t have to be so affected by it. It’s really not painful to get her out of the tub and ask her to wipe it up. It’s really not unpleasant to give her what she needed in the first place, and step away from whatever it was I was trying to get done, and just play with her, to circumvent the water spilled, but really to get back into the present moment where she is playfully (and perhaps not so patiently) waiting for me to show up.

Thanks again, David.

-Siobhan

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terentius May 8, 2014 at 7:41 am

Hi Cain,
There is quite enough of joy and wonder exactly here and now. Most of times i wish I was somewhere else and so miss out the fun of the present place and moment.

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Alberto May 8, 2014 at 9:25 am

Great article!

I am learning mindfulness in those days. According to many people is a skill that can change a life.

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James May 9, 2014 at 11:47 pm

How about being calm in the moment and just let it be. Thanks for the article.

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Dave May 10, 2014 at 8:55 pm

My new hobby is to take a long walk and leave my cell phone behind. It’s easier to be present without the little device in your pocket tugging you to be anywhere but here.

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Jo May 13, 2014 at 1:58 am

The times in my life when this had benefitted me the most, were times that I felt heartbroken. Even if I am the one who initiates it, it’s never a pleasant feeling. More than anything, we just want it to go away. But I’ve found that wishing it away, because it feels like we can’t stand the pain, is the surest way to prolong it. After my last breakup, instead of trying to escape it, I just kept reminding myself (daily, if not hourly at first): “this is how you are supposed to feel.” I came out of that so much stronger and happier (and quicker) than I ever imagined. Accepting what is, instead of wishing for something else, is one of the most freeing feelings I have ever experienced.

You don’t talk a lot about relationships, but the same logic can be applied when you’re the rejected one. Someone either wants to be with you or they don’t. It is not under your control. Once you really “get” that it makes no sense to want to be with someone who doesn’t want to be with you, feelings of rejection quickly turn into feelings of freedom and strength.

The first thing we studied, in my first philosophy class ever, was the Enchiridion of Epictetus (translated by my professor). Have you ever read it? I don’t remember exactly, but the very beginning of it goes something like this: “There are things you can control, and things you cannot. Once you learn the difference, you will be happy.” It took awhile to sink in (because I was so young at the time), but it has really stuck with me.

I thought of it because he started out the class with an example of being stuck in traffic.

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Scott May 14, 2014 at 10:39 am

Very timely and very helpful. I appreciate the thoughtful comments as well.

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Neil May 18, 2014 at 4:45 am

“being in the presence of misbehaving kids” – just what I need to remember right now, thanks :)

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kate May 21, 2014 at 1:54 pm

If I’m correct, i think this was said by Winston Churchill….
‘If you’re going through hell, keep going”….

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George July 8, 2014 at 5:10 am

Yes, but… but…

It can be hard. Particularly when you have really messed something up, and can’t get back to where you were – larger life stuff.

The sooner you come to the realisation you describe, the better; the longer you “fight” each moment, the longer you go on without seeing opportunities and information that’s presenting you with new paths constantly.

I strongly believe that children should be taught the skill of “letting be” as early as possible, so that they can see things as they are, from calm, from that point on in their lives – making decisions with proper awareness of their “preferences” and of their surroundings. Maybe even a spot of daily Zazen meditation for the kids each day: a ten-minute “sitting time” twice a day at school from an early age, to music or whatever. I think this would have a strong effect in learning how to Be There With How It Is for later.

The sooner you let go of everything, the sooner you can have anything – magnifies the earlier you do it in life.

Meanwhile, I like this: Life Is A Game, Here’s The Strategy Guide

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George July 8, 2014 at 5:51 am

Also for related fun, sooner you realise the better type stuff. Sure you have written about this in a post elsewhere:

Goals, Dreams, Success, and the magic do directionality.

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George July 8, 2014 at 6:24 am

(of)

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