It was shortly after my 30th birthday that I had the surgery.
I had been in horrible, near constant pain for the last three years and I rarely slept more than a handful of hours a day, if at all. Within the preceding nine months, I had already been in and out of the hospital four times, even up to two weeks at a stretch. I would be in the hospital twice more before the year was over.
All of this wasn’t counting the innumerable doctor’s visits, the daily infusions which lasted nearly a quarter of the year, the constant tests and scans, the piece of metal from the PICC line which got embedded in my heart (and is still there to this day), or the drain which remained in the perpetually open wound in my abdomen for over a year.
It wasn’t cancer. It was Crohn’s disease.
As I awoke from my surgery, despite everything I had experienced up until this point, I was in the worst agony of my life. It felt like the sum of all of the pain which had preceded it. The pre-surgery epidural wasn’t placed correctly and here I was bearing the full brunt of having just been split open from the bottom of the ribs to the bottom of the abdomen.
I was murmuring weakly the only word I could muster, “pain….pain.” I was barely conscious as the nurse started berating me saying that if I wanted the pain to stop I need to roll onto my side so a new epidural could be placed. I tried to move and it was as if every nerve in my body was shot through with the fiercest of electric shocks. It jolted me back in place and I couldn’t move again for what felt like an hour or more.
In that place, time had lost all meaning. I wasn’t thinking about the past or the future. All that remained was a kind of eternal present.
Let’s linger there for a moment.
What pulls people out of the present?
I don’t like to admit it, but I’m an anxious person. It’s partly an inherited trait and partly something which the various circumstances of life have cultivated within me from the time I was a relatively small child, up until today. I mention this because I understand what it’s like to have your thoughts darting back and forth between feeling shame over the past you can’t change and probably don’t remember accurately anyway and the future which becomes the canvas upon which all of your fears and insecurities get projected.
I can state the reason why all of this took hold quite simply.
I never felt good enough. I wasn’t attractive, I didn’t have anything resembling talent nor a quick wit, and I wasn’t particularly athletic either. By high school, I was tall in a way which made me stand out (6 feet 8 inches) at a time when I wished I could just shrink away, or at the very least blend in. In fact there’s a particular kind of curse which comes with being tall. Your future opportunities in the eyes of most get narrowed down to three categories… sports, sports or sports.
I played football and basketball in high school and being a particularly clumsy person, I didn’t enjoy either, or at least, the older I got the less I was able to enjoy them until at last there was no joy to be found. My older brother was the real athlete in the family. At the same time he was playing college basketball, I have keen memories of tripping over my own feet while going for a reverse layup and being laughed at by an entire gym full of kids. But because I felt that burden to do what my height and size dictated I should do, I struggled to know who I was or what I wanted to do in life or even simply what I enjoyed. At least not until much later, but I’ll come to that in a future article.
The point here is that you can’t always change who you are or the circumstances of your life. In fact much of the time that’s a near impossibility. We tell ourselves otherwise and are hammered with messages to that effect, but we’re surrounded by far more stories of failure and shame which go unacknowledged because the nature of the shame ensures that they’re rarely spoken. It’s not a comfortable thing to admit weakness after all. We’re not supposed to. It’s one of those unspoken rules of our society which we go along with even if we’d all be better off being okay with our weakness.
Even bad habits which you try to kick again and again reassert themselves in ways which make the burden of guilt and self condemnation twice what it was before. This puts us on the perpetual defensive against our own frailty. We try to mend it, hide it, proclaim victory over it in various ways and yet in the end, some things seem beyond our reach. The effect is that it becomes a struggle then to live in the present moment. We feel the weight of anxiety from the person we’d like to be and the person we actually are.
Why is it important to live in the present?
Not to be trite, but the importance of living in the present is because you are here. You only exist in the present. What was in the past is a story you tell yourself. It may have been a good story or a bad one or a mix of the two, but either way you can be fairly certain that your recollections are, as they say, “based on a true story” but not truth itself.
Likewise, whatever you think about the future, again whether good or bad, is just a fantasy. You assume that this future will be there waiting for you and that what you do today will have a direct bearing on what that future looks like. This isn’t entirely unreasonable but it’s woefully incomplete.
…if you deny to the present the value you ascribe to the past or the future, then this business of living will always elude you…
You can’t guarantee your next breath much less “the future.” I’m not suggesting we abandon all plans in order to embrace an attitude of “Let us eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die!” That’s just trading one bit of senselessness for another. What I am saying is that if you deny to the present the value you ascribe to the past or the future, then this business of living will always elude you and your anxieties will spread like bind weed.
Isn’t it ancient wisdom by now that ambition never satisfies in any lasting way? The pursuit of a goal can invigorate while the attainment of that same goal can devastate. Why is that? Perhaps because one can only pursue a goal in the moment to moment reality of the present. The joy is in the doing. Once achieved, either a new goal becomes the future carrot which goads us along in the present or else what was achieved becomes a part of the past which might at this point be thought of as part of the lore of our lives. This is akin perhaps to the memories of a great meal, but far from the sustaining quality or joy of the meal itself.
To be in the present is to participate in the most real thing that we can experience in this life. In that real moment, if left undisturbed by the anxieties of the past or future, we can discover a lightness and peace which can be found in no other way. When your mind is taken out of the present you are consumed by what may have been or what could be.
It’s easy after all for an idealized version of the past or future to be preferable to what is actually happening right in front of us.
Perhaps you think fondly over the past or anticipate the joy that you’re certain awaits you in the future. This becomes contrasted with the present and that same anxiety finds its foothold. It’s easy after all for an idealized version of the past or future to be preferable to what is actually happening right in front of us. But we must remember that these are shadows on the wall. They have some kind of form, but our imaginations, fears, anxieties, and hopes fill in the details. None of it is as real as the moment.
It’s also worth remembering that every good thing that ever happened to you happened in the present of that moment. And of course this applies for the worst of things as well, but that’s precisely why the present is the substance of life and why it has a vivid quality to it which eludes the past and the future.
Ways to Live in the Present Moment
From the outset I must say something which perhaps you don’t want to hear. There is no easy way to achieve this, especially if you’re somebody who has been saddled with such tremendous anxiety for so much of your life. Tragedy has the potential to do it and extraordinary pain (usually of an involuntary nature) has that same potential as well, but the truth is that being present is a practice which you have to cultivate over time.
Our society and our world promote innumerable quick solutions to the most vexing questions of life. If they worked, don’t you think we’d be among the healthiest and most fulfilled people ever to have lived? Are we? We have material abundance but still depression is as common to the modern life as smart phones. We have enough wisdom to know that the things (or experiences for that matter) we buy are fleeting at best, but we pursue them as if they were an end unto themselves.
How then do we start to practice being present?
1. Think of anxious thoughts as clouds passing by.
Remind yourself that you are not your thoughts. You are more than just a mind, or just a body or even just a soul. All three of these aspects of ourselves can become sick. Reality can thus become distorted and our perception can fail us. We can be so certain about various aspects of our lives and the people we encounter and yet be wrong, or at the very least incomplete in our understanding. Therefore hold onto your perception of things lightly.
2. Practice being kind to yourself.
Treat yourself as if you were a dear friend whom you were trying to help. So often the voice inside our head slanders us relentlessly. Don’t argue with that voice. It will always aim to get the last word in. Rather, let another kinder voice speak to you from within.
3.Do small things.
Remind yourself that though small things may add up to apparently big things, the small thing is the only thing you can do anything about in any given moment. The small always reflects the nature of the moment.
Even when life seems miserable and without hope, there is always something to take hold of. Even and perhaps especially in suffering, gratitude becomes most important. I can’t tell you what precisely to be grateful for, because it’s such an individual thing, but allow that gratitude to come to the surface and take hold of it. It’s a remedy for anxiety but only if we allow it to avail us.
These things are not a complete solution in themselves, but they are a start. Like I said in the beginning, being present is something we must practice. Each of us will have particular strengths and weaknesses in accomplishing this, and so offering a precise prescription or method just isn’t possible. But as we learn to distinguish our genuine selves from our anxieties, what we need will become clearer over time. It’s important to think of this as a personal journey rather than merely fixing something which is broken.
The journey shapes us.
In the aftermath of my surgery and all that I’d been through in the previous three years, I thought life would return to normal, but in truth I couldn’t remember what normal was. There were vague recollections of a past which seemed as though from another lifetime, but when I tried to connect the pieces of the present with those of the past, I realized that I wasn’t the same person. There was a kind of continuity, but there was no going back to what and I had been. I had no choice begin again and discover the person I had become and was becoming.
The process wasn’t easy. I had no idea where to begin…but the present seemed like a good place to start.