24 October 2010

Living in the Present, We Create Our Future

The title of this post is a quote from a book I am reading by Thubten Chodron, Open Heart, Clear Mind.  I love the idea and spirit of it so much that I decided to make it the subject of a post or two, and to explore what it means when the present includes - at least in one of its aspects - being in pain.

The sentence occurs on page 95, in the chapter on Karma.  Here is the sentence that follows it:

"We have the ability to determine who we will be and what happens to us and to ensure happiness for ourselves and others."

I am not writing this post as a debate about karma vs. predestination vs. original sin vs. the resurrection of the body, or any other doctrine that seem close in spirit.  I'll simply say that I find it fascinating how many similarities I can find just between Buddhist and Christian beliefs and how, as I read this book, Biblical scriptures often come to mind as apt illustrations of what Thubten Chodron is saying about Buddhism. 

But for today: what does it mean that living in the present creates my future when my present seems mainly to be about pain?

First - it means that the choices I make in reaction and relation to a migraine affect my next moment in a way that I experience immediately, and also affect my spirit in ways that may not be apparent now or in the future.  Obviously, if I choose to moan and complain, tensing my mind and my body around the pain, the next moments and hours will be a lot less bearable than if I choose to breathe slowly, practice deep muscle relaxation and accept the pain without judgment or analysis.  Not so obvious is the potential for this practice to open my spirit and my heart to wisdom and compassion, attributes that are a long time in their development, yet which rely on small moments of wise choices for their blossoming.

Second - it means that, having practised wise choices in a present that includes pain, I am more able to make wise choices in a present that includes other sorts of discomforts.  In this way, practicing wisdom and compassion during a migraine helps me to almost automatically practice wisdom and compassion during a difficult conversation with a friend, if I choose to connect to that wisdom in the moment.  And what is really noticeable and beneficial is that making these choices in hard times can mean that such quiet and centeredness gradually becomes a part of me without much effort.  It's almost as though the practice in pain makes the practice in non-pain a piece of cake.  Who wouldn't be able to breathe in and quiet the body and mind during a long walk on a lovely fall day, if the usual practice is to do so during debilitating pain?

Lest I sound like I am approaching Buddha-hood, let me honestly state that these changes are manifest mostly in the realm of inclination.  I am not constantly centered and calm and at peace with the moment - just ask my husband.  But the change toward greater peace and inner stillness is marked enough that I notice two things about it:
(1) that it becomes gradually easier to choose this inner state at any particular moment, and;
(2) that when I am in a less settled state, I am not only more readily aware of it, but less and less comfortable with remaining there.

That degree of un-comfortability with what used to be my normal, unaware state (a certain level of anxiety accompanied by random, running and constant thinking) has become a strong motivation for change.  And that will be the subject of the next post.

I would love to hear from you.  Please use the Comment box, below, or contact me at carold.marsh@gmail.com


  1. Carol, I love this. Dealing with my knee injury (which now looks like it is more of a chronic pain type situation for me) for the past year, I have very much found these things to be true. As a mindfulness practitioner, in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, and a devout reader of Pema Chodron, I have inundated myself with these ideas throughout the year. At first they just seemed like really good ideas that couldn't possibly ever be realized fully in one's life--unless you are a Buddha, how could you possibly accomplish these things? But, over time, you are so right--the intention and motivation just naturally changes in your life. Baby steps accumulate and gain strength...and your habit energy begins to change. So much of what we do is habitual, and so are our reactions! What you say here: "And what is really noticeable and beneficial is that making these choices in hard times can mean that such quiet and centeredness gradually becomes a part of me without much effort." That's it. That's the key for me! My pain has been a great gift because it has been my greatest teacher and guru. I am learning how to live the rest of my life through my acceptance and reaction to the constantly changing and impermanent nature of my body. I am a "happy sufferer".

    This all reminds me a lot of the Buddha's famous "second arrow" teaching. Do you know it? Here's a short synopsis for you:

    "You may be in real physical pain. Mindfulness will tell you that it is only a physical pain. The Buddha spoke about the second arrow. He tells the story of a person struck by an arrow who is in a lot of pain. Suppose a second arrow hit the man in exactly at the same spot. The pain would be a hundred times more intense because he was already wounded. Worry, fear, exaggeration, and anger about an injury act as a second arrow, aggravating a part of the body that is already wounded. So if you are struck by one arrow, you can practice mindfulness so that another arrow of fear or worry doesn't hit you in that same spot."

    I always check myself--am I hitting myself with a second arrow? And if I feel guilty that I am, that is a THIRD arrow!!! Feeling guilty about my human imperfection is really silly and doesn't help. :)

    Well, that's my piece--you obviously struck a huge chord with me! I love this post!!!


  2. Cristina - I am so glad you left this comment, given that it comes from your own experience with pain and it takes my thoughts several steps further. I love the phrase, "happy sufferer," and the story about the second (and third) arrow. Thank you for being my teacher.