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Dec 29
Dharma Teachings
Wisdom of Staying in the Moment

Reflections on our tendency to escape whatever is actually happening, right now

by Susan Firer

The Wisdom of No Escape was the first Dharma book I read. It was written by Pema Chödrön, an American Buddhist Nun and Amazon has this to say as a summary of the book: “This book is about saying yes to life in all its manifestations—embracing the potent mixture of joy, suffering, brilliance, and confusion that characterizes the human experience. Pema Chödrön shows us the profound value of our situation of ‘no escape’ from the ups and downs of life.

I have a number of personal experiences of attempting to escape the present moment. Realistically, probably one every day. Well, maybe not that often. But it’s finally starting to sink in that there is no escape from our lives. It’s like a fish trying to escape the water, and we all know what happens to the fish!

I feel like I should acknowledge, before I go into some of my experiences, that we all do this from time to time. Suicide is the ultimate escape, but there are others – like addictions of many kinds where we try to alleviate our suffering or pain or at least numb ourselves from it for a while. I’ve come to realize, through my meditation practice and having access to great teachers and examples since my mid-20s, that trying to escape only causes more discomfort, doubt, self-loathing, and pain, and it takes a lot of effort for a fleeting benefit. Take a moment to see if this resonates at all with your own experience.

One of the things I used to do all the time was not answer the phone when it rang. I still do this, unfortunately, but I’m working on it! I would rationalize in all kinds of ways that, “I just don’t want to talk right now.” “I’m too busy, I’ll call back when I have more time.”  What I’m ultimately doing is avoiding engaging in my world, and avoiding dealing with things on the spot as they arise – even if they are pleasant. I’m not suggesting that you have to pick the phone up EVERY time it rings, or else you are in avoidance mode. But maybe pay attention if it is one of your habits.

Inevitably, this habit causes me more suffering, discursiveness and lost time than if I had just picked up the phone on the spot. One time I did this with a very close friend of mine.  He called and I saw it was him, but I just didn’t feel like talking and I was busy. I knew he accepted this about me, so I figured I’d just call him back later or in a couple of days. That later never happened, as he died unexpectedly a couple days later. I don’t say this to be morbid or as a downer, but one never knows what may happen after our initial avoidance. The saying “No time like the present” is very wise.

There was another point when I was living with my mom toward the end of her life. She and I were very close, so even though it was a big change for me to be with her close to 24/7 (every day all day for those of you who aren’t familiar with the term), it was still pretty chill, and we enjoyed our time together immensely. Well, as things started to get more difficult for her and caring for her became more of a challenge, I became very frustrated and speedy one day, and was a bit rough moving her position on the couch. At this point she was taking morphine so she was really out of it, and not able to speak or move anymore. After I adjusted her position, I went into the other room and just started sobbing, having a little pity party for myself. “This is so much work, no one else is helping me blah blah blah.” Happily, this breakdown was fairly short, and I realized that I was wishing for a different reality, a different now. I was trying to escape, but there was no place to go. It was a very precious moment. I went back to her and apologized for my abruptness, told her I loved her and just sat with her.

The wisdom of staying with each moment the best we can is that it makes us stronger and more able to be present for ourselves and others. There is no moral judgement here – we all want to escape our circumstances from time to time, but the practice of staying is what life and growth is about. We become stronger and get to know ourselves and others on a much deeper level. I should clarify that this doesn’t mean to stay in a dangerous situation that is unhealthy or harmful to you or your loved ones. Getting out of a situation like that takes immense strength and wisdom and it is not at all escaping, in my opinion at least.

We have so many ways of escaping (we could all be great magicians – you know, like Houdini escape artists!) and each of us probably has 2 or 3 favorites. Ultimately, it is up to us to decide if we are escaping reality more than we are engaging in it. Once we are willing to acknowledge that we may be doing this, then we can begin to look at why we do some of the things we do. Do we really need to stay at work for that extra hour? Does surfing the internet for cute pictures of kittens until the wee hours of the morning still bring us joy? Why are we working out seven days a week for two hours at a time?  It’s all about getting to know ourselves and looking at the root causes of our actions.

If we can be gentle and kind with ourselves, our mind has more space. It’s less tight, less constricted. We can start very simply by noticing our patterns. This is where meditation can be helpful.

Meditation is not doing nothing. It actually takes a lot of exertion and discipline. In meditation we are taking time for ourselves. We are slowing down, decreasing activity, and just noticing how our bodies feel and how our mind feels, and noticing the thoughts that we continually spit out. When we do this on a regular basis, we start to notice our mind – maybe for the first time. We begin to see the steady stream of thoughts that our mind produces. Instead of acting or reacting to these thoughts, we just notice them, let them go and come back to our breath or our body. We are practicing non-judgement during meditation. It sounds very simple and on a certain level, it is. What we are actually doing is training ourselves to be in the present moment, free from our storyline.

Meditation is a workout for our mind. I think we all can agree upon the benefits of exercise to keep our body healthy, strong, and flexible, but what about our mind? What do we do for it? Meditation is the training of our mind. We do many repetitions of just coming back to the present moment free from the mind that has been conditioned by life’s circumstances. This is our original mind, a mind that is open, wise and strong. It is the mind that doesn’t need to run away from the challenges of life. It’s the mind that can accept “the potent mixture of joy, suffering, brilliance, and confusion that characterizes the human experience.

Be gentle, confident and fearless!

Editor’s note: A version of this article was previously published on the website blog of the Windhorse Retreat Center: https://windhorse.shambhala.org/2017/12/15/wisdom-staying-moment/?preview=true

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1 response to “ Wisdom of Staying in the Moment ”
  1. Jill Sarkady
    Jan 18, 2018

    The above reply is interesting and in many ways I agree. However, I don’t think that one can say that suicide is the ultimate escape, or maybe one shouldn’t say it in that way. There are many people who have acute addictions in their lives that, in essence, destroy their lives. Many of those who commit suicide have tried considerably to ameliorate their symptoms with no luck. So yes the final death happens at that moment but I really wouldn’t call it an escape because many people have tried so hard to resist the impulse.

    Just my subjective feeling and maybe not that important. However, I know many people who have tried to commit suicide and some who succeeded. I would never want to hear them described in this manner.

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