“They can be like a sun, words. They can do for the heart what light can for a field.”
—St. John of the Cross
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The Power of Being Present

© 2014 by Jennifer Read Hawthorne

This place where you are right now
God circled on a map for you.

Sometimes we get so involved thinking about the past or the future that we simply forget what’s going on right in front of us. At times like these, I find it valuable to remember the advice of my friend Stacy, whose life was turned upside down when her husband left her with their three sons. She couldn’t figure out what was going to happen down the road, but she knew her children would be home from school for lunch. So she put a sign on her refrigerator that said, “Just make lunch.” She calls it training for living in the moment and adds, “There’s no knowing what the crystal ball holds, but every outcome starts with ‘making lunch.’”

Being present to what’s going on at the moment is a great way to relieve fears and worries. It keeps us out of an overactive mind by focusing our attention on the task at hand. It’s not always easy, but there are ways to foster “presence,” as I discovered years ago when I was going through one of the darkest periods of my life.

The man I thought I was going to marry—my soul mate—had just ended our relationship. I was devastated. My picture of the future was shattered. I could hardly breathe at moments, my heart felt so crushed.

Then a friend reminded of two things that changed my life and provided me with tools I’ve used ever since. The first may surprise you: Go to bed earlier! Anyone who’s ever gotten up in the morning without having had enough sleep knows how hard life can be when we’re tired. When challenges are accompanied by fatigue, we can feel hopeless. Try going to bed earlier than usual, and if possible, before 10:00. Research has found that every hour of sleep we get before midnight is worth two hours after that time, and every minute before 10:00 p.m. is equally powerful, making this one of the most effective ways to deal with stress.  A rested mind is far more capable of being present than a tired one.

Gratitude is the second tool. In my case, every night before falling asleep, I started writing down at least five good things that had happened to me that day. This allowed me to see that there actually were good things happening, despite the cloud of pain that colored everything. And it pulled my attention into the reality of the present, which was actually far less painful than my broken future pictures. The principle is simple: When we focus on darkness, we usually allow ourselves to be taken deeper and deeper into darkness. When we focus on light—all the good that’s in our lives—we attract more and more light.

It is a powerful truth: Whatever you put your attention on grows stronger in your life. My friend Ellen had a profound experience of this. A classics professor who reads ancient Greek, she has had a long-standing love affair with Greece. So it seemed  a natural place to seek healing after her divorce. But instead of finding solace in the beautiful visual images and poetry of this ancient land, as she had hoped, all she could see were happy couples, walking hand in hand, arm in arm. Her feelings of loneliness became so intense that all she wanted to do was get out of there as quickly as possible.

In desperation, she reached into her bag for a book by one of her favorite Greek poets, C.P. Cavafy. Immediately she came upon his poem Ithaca, which describes life as a journey full of adventure, if we are open to it, and exhorts the reader to enjoy the journey, rather than focus exclusively on the destination. Suddenly it hit her: there she was, longing for the future and blinded by the past, when her life was happening right in front of her.  As she became more present, she began to re-perceive her circumstances, transforming a miserable reality into a glorious one. A magical “journey” began to unfold.

It’s a great reminder, that wonderful saying: It’s the journey, not the destination. When we open ourselves to its truth, any situation can be transformed. As one of my favorite Japanese poems says: “My barn having burned to the ground, I can now see the moon.”