September 27, 2011

Broken on the Mountainside. ~ Kate Bartolotta

Nailed to the present moment.

It’s so easy to be present, isn’t it? Sitting on the beach, making love, laughing with friends–of course it’s easy. I could stay present in those snuggling a puppy, hugging my kids, chocolate chip cookie, first kiss, blue-sky moments eternally. Who wouldn’t? Who wouldn’t give anything to stay in the present?

But what about when it’s hard? Are you able to sit with the present moment when it hurts like hell, and you don’t know how long that moment will last?

Nothing is what we thought. I can say that with great confidence. Emptinessis not what we thought. Neither is mindfulness or fear. Compassion—not what we thought. Love, buddha nature, courage—these are code words for things we don’t know in our minds, but any of us could experience them. These are words that point to what life really is when we let things fall apart and let ourselves be nailed to the present moment.  ~ Pema Chödrön Things Fall Apart

A few years ago, I broke my leg halfway through a hike in Colorado Springs. Ironically, it was one of the tamest hikes I’ve ever done. I was with a group of newish friends, a bunch of young moms eager to get out of the house and have some conversation about something other than cloth diapers and extended breastfeeding. We were about halfway to the summit when I hit on a little patch of loose gravel. I tried to right myself. My foot planted in one spot and the rest of me went the other way.

Isn’t that always the way, though? So many times it’s not the big things you are worried about that derail you. It’s the unexpected blindsiding that really guts us and leaves us at the side of the path, broken.

It was like when time slows down in a car crash. I saw myself, falling. I heard the snap and crack in my leg. I felt lightening hot pain in my leg. I smelled the hot piney air and the dirt as my head hit the ground. I lost my breath for what seemed like an hour. Then I screamed. I felt the urge to vomit, but took a few breaths and tried to get it together. My instinct was to move away from it. Go somewhere else in my mind. Go to my happy place. But for some reason—I didn’t.

I should also mention that I was carrying my 15-month-old daughter in my arms when I fell. She had been fussing in her sling, so I took her out and held her, moments before the accident. Had she been in the sling, she might have been badly hurt when I hit the ground, rather than just getting a scrape on her chin. My fear for her safety ––physically and emotionally––just added to the pain of that moment.

So, I took a breath. Stood up. And I started back down the mountain and for the first time in my life I stayed present with the pain. My fellow hikers helped me back down, and I stayed with my pain for all of it. Later, at the hospital, the nurse offered me painkillers before the doctor set my leg. (Things had shifted around pretty badly from my trying to walk on it). But I decided that wasn’t for me. I don’t remember having a “why” in mind, just that I didn’t want to try and escape it.

I would rather feel pain, than feel nothing.

I would rather be engulfed in the fear of how bad it was going to hurt and do it anyway than not be present.

It’s human nature–maybe the nature of all living things–to avoid pain. It is a survival instinct. We move away from it. We run away. We push all sorts of stuff on top of it so we don’t have to feel it. We bury it under work. Or sarcasm. Or alcohol. Or food. Or sex. Or whatever escape allows us to pretend it isn’t there.

But, being present in the painful moment is not only possible, it’s necessary. Being present when the present is painful is rich, raw, deep, dark, fragile, ragged, visceral, and (most of all) necessary.

It isn’t the blissful beautiful moments that teach us the most. It’s the ones where we realize we are never not broken. It’s the ones where we are stuck in the middle of our path, broken on the mountainside, and let it all go.

Recently, I was derailed by some emotional gravel in my path, ended up feeling broken and not sure which way I was headed. It reminded me of that day. When we are broken, when we find ourselves in the places we fear—it isn’t time to turn away; it is time to press forward. It is that act of being “nailed to the present moment” that unites us and widens our circle of compassion. We all find pleasure in different things, but pain—pain is universal. When we stay present in our painful moments, we are able to have true compassion for the pain of others rather than just an abstract wishing others well.


If we begin to get in touch with whatever we feel with some kind of kindness, our protective shells will melt, and we’ll find that more areas of our lives are workable. As we learn to have compassion for ourselves, the circle of compassion for others ­­— what and whom we can work with, and how—becomes wider. ~ Pema Chödrön Things Fall Apart

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