I slipped into the booth ready to enjoy a meal and a much needed catching up with some dear friends. It wasn’t long before one friend turned to me and said, “ I sure hope you write something happy next time.” My face must have conveyed a flicker of dismay, because she quickly exclaimed that my writing was “great!” However, my recent essays were “just so sad.” I know my friend’s comment came from her affection for me. Like any good friend, she simply wants me to be happy.
Yet, the comment has stuck with me. I wonder why we want to turn from sadness, especially a sadness that we cannot fix or remedy in some way. Are we really turning away or just chasing an illusive happiness that we think should be ours all the time? There are a myriad of books that seem to promise happiness “The Happiness Project,” “Stumbling on Happiness,” “The Art of Happiness,” and oh my goodness even just “10% Happier.” Clearly there is a market for the happiness seekers, but I wonder are they missing out on the gifts that sorrow can bring?
Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, Persian poet and mystic, asks much the same in in this poem,
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Yet, welcoming each moment and being present to what comes is hard. Distractions are readily available in our modern world and never more so then when our fingers are poised above a keyboard. In the space of writing these few paragraphs, I have peeked at Facebook once, no honestly twice. I have sent and received a few text messages and checked an incoming email. Like an addict, I get a dopamine rush from any sort of social interaction be it in person or online. I should turn off the text alerts or go cold turkey and turn the wifi off when I am writing. Yet honestly, I lack the self control. I am not sure if it is the fear of missing something or just the rush I get from interacting with people instantaneously.
There are other distractions that can lure me away as well. Between the end of the last paragraph and the beginning of this one, I followed my nose to the kitchen where my husband recently made popcorn. Of course, that led to my lecture on the importance of adding melted butter and salt as I wolfed down a heaping bowl of his slightly burned popcorn. Now that I am fortified and back at the computer, I am once again faced with the task of explaining why it is important to be present and avoid distractions. The irony is not lost on me.
So how does one avoid the distractions and accept what comes? Clearly it begins with an awareness. It takes a fierce determination for me to stay in the present moment. I am not one to dwell in the past. I do not long for the “good old days” nor do I rue my past missteps or find glory in previous achievements. Yet, I regularly find myself peering into the future. I am a planner and find that my brain often leaps ahead to the next task, next week’s schedule, or even the following year. I believe with a committed list-maker’s fervency that with enough plotting and planning, I can forestall any impending disaster. I plan under the illusion that I have a modicum of control over my future and my family’s.
Recognizing my tendencies to dwell in the future, I long ago saw the need to quiet my busy plan-ahead-brain. Each morning I attempt to do so by meditating for 20 minutes. However, I am never completely successful. Inevitably I stop “watching” my breath or repeating a mantra to race ahead to thoughts of my day. Yet, every once in a while I find a quiet space in-between those thoughts to just be. I have gathered enough of those moments to keep practicing most mornings.
However, the best way I know to find presence is to go outside. A walk, puttering in the yard, or just trotting out to the mailbox sans phone seems to give me some breathing room. Noting what I see, hear, feel, and smell attunes my senses to what is. Hiking on our Tennessee trails increases my awareness of the present all the more. Watching my footing, stopping at serene vistas, and taking in the beauty around me draws me into the present. It is often in those outside moments that I feel God’s presence. I am suddenly aware of my own smallness and yet my interconnectedness with the natural world. Such moments give me a great sense of peace and presence.
Of course when standing in a forest or sitting quietly in my study, it is easier to find presence if things are going well, but it is much more challenging when I am filled with sorrow. Sad books, sad movies, and sad songs are easy to turn away from, but the death of a loved one, an illness, pain, or suffering cannot be shoved aside with the click of a remote. Sometimes you just have to sit with such sorrow. It is not fun nor is it easy. Finding presence with sorrow is often my place of last resort. Yet, when I am present with my sorrows in my writing, in prayer, or in a conversations with John, my sisters, or a close friend, I often find the lessons and gifts that sorrow can bring, Perhaps that is what Rumi meant when he wrote of a “clearing out.” Often, it is in sharing my sorrow that I let go and am able to receive the gifts that are offered compassion, understanding, and even forgiveness.
Our lives are a basket full of joys & sorrows, triumphs & disasters, excitement & boredom, health & illness, birth & death. There is no dodging sorrow as much as we would like. Yet, I believe if we find presence in all of our moments eventually, we will find the gifts that each one brings. All we have to do is pay attention to what comes. It truly is just that simple. ~c.h.