The other day I bought a raffle ticket at an event that I was attending. Wondering whether I would have to stay until the end of the event to find out whether I had won a prize, I noticed that the ticket read, “You must be present to win”, meaning that if you’re not here, you don’t get the prize. Kind of like life. You’ve got to show up in order to get anything. Sounds simple enough, right? In theory, yes, but in practice, you may have noticed, not exactly.
“Just be present, show up, wake up, pay attention!” Everyone these days it seems, from yoga teachers to movie stars, to advice-column-writers, to Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil, and Dr. Seuss are urging us to be present, as though it’s the easiest and most natural thing for a human being to do. Well, I don’t know about the natural thing, maybe, but I do know for sure, that at least for me, being present is anything but easy.
Actually if I’m to be honest, being present isn’t really all that hard for me. I’ve actually become able, over time to get present quite quickly when I really want to. There is, however, a slight problem. It’s the little matter of staying, or not staying present. When I’m present enough to be aware of when I’m not being present, I can come back to whatever moment is here, now. So it seems like it’s not so much a matter of getting present, but rather about staying present that is he big challenge for me. As I came to discover in speaking with others, this challenge isn’t unique to me, but rather is one that I share with a great many other people. While my understanding of the near-universal nature of this circumstance doesn’t change the reality of my situation, it does enable me to take it a little less personally and to be more open to listening to and learning from those who may be further along the road than I am.
One such person is Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist practitioner, storyteller, meditation teacher, and author of many wonderful and practical books, which happen to address issues that have to do with things like staying present when you have a mind that tends to wander.
One day when I was attending a Dharma talk that Jack was giving, he told a story that spoke directly to this very concern. It was, fortunately, one of the few times that I found myself able to pay enough attention to actually “get” the message. That is, I didn’t just understand it with my intellect, but the essence of the message penetrated though my mind and permeated my being, in a way that I integrated and absorbed it at what seemed to be a cellular level. This is not to imply that I consistently embodied it 100% of the time thereafter, but rather, I became able to more quickly bring back into my awareness the point of the story when I had forgotten it and put in whatever correction I needed to in order to get back on track. No small thing, at least as far as I was concerned.
The story is about training puppies to “stay”. If you’ve ever had a puppy and sought to train him or her to stay, you probably have noticed that the first time you give the puppy the command to stay, you are unlikely to be successful. In all likelihood, the puppy’s response to your command will be to act as though you’ve said nothing or that you’ve actually told him to jump up and down, run around in circles, bark loudly, and/or wag his tail vigorously. Should you repeat your command, it is likely that you will receive the same response from the puppy. Further efforts will probably generate similar reactions from the little guy. He just doesn’t get it.
Finally after about 300 tries, he might actually manage to stay a microsecond longer. You’re ecstatic! “Good puppy! Wonderful puppy!” You pat and caress him lovingly. Maybe you even kiss him. You tell him to stay again, and this time he might even stay a microsecond longer. Cut to the end of the story and this time (it could be several days or weeks or even months later), when you tell him to stay, the puppy instantly freezes. He doesn’t move a muscle, doesn’t blink, he barely even breathes. If you get up and walk away he stays perfectly still, rooted to his place on the ground His little eyes follow but not his body. You smile and quietly speak the word, “Come” and instantly he is unfrozen and filled with wild exuberance. He runs towards you in a frenzy of pure puppy delight.
There were many interactions between the first and last “stay”, but the outcome was successful because of your willingness to “stay” with your own impatience, frustration, and exasperation. Your refusal to get angry at the puppy and yell at him or call him a ‘bad dog’, or threaten, punish or hurt him in any way was a crucial factor in his training. The puppy didn’t learn to stay simply because you taught him correctly, but because you gave him love and compassion, and trusted his innate desire to please you, to learn, and to embody what he learned. He felt safe and loved was free from the fear of punishment for having done anything wrong.
This is the attitude that we can learn to give to ourselves when we are confronted with an experience that is unfamiliar, or threatening, or uncomfortable. Sometimes what we must learn to stay with is our limited ability to remain fully present with what is in our own experience. When we ‘should’ on ourselves and angrily and judgmentally tell ourselves that we should be able to do something which we haven’t yet mastered the ability to do, we might want to remember the puppy story and ask ourselves if we are any less deserving of the compassion and patience that we would give to a defenseless creature who really is doing the very best he can, with what he knows and is capable of in any given moment. Providing this kind of self-compassion can be both the most loving thing and sometimes the most difficult thing that we can do for ourselves.
As we, like the puppy, practice the art of stepping into our fears and repeatedly standing in the fire of challenges and opportunities that we might prefer to avoid, our capacity to face into the unfaceable grows and deepens. And when we can be a supportive and non-judgmental witness to our friends and loved-ones as they traverse their own treacherous territory, we simultaneously empower them as well as ourselves in the process of growing courage, strength and wisdom. But don’t take my word for it, see for yourself. And if you get discouraged, try staying with it anyway. Who knows? You might be surprised by the outcome.