The following story is adapted from Pema Chödrön, “The Wisdom of No Escape”.
Once upon a time there was a woman who was arrogant and proud. She decided she wanted to attain enlightenment, so she asked all the experts how to do that. Finally one told her, “Well, if you climb to the top of this very high mountain, you’ll find a cave there. Sitting inside that cave is a very wise old woman, and she will tell you.”
“Very well,” thought the woman, “I’ll do that. After all, nothing but the best.”
So off she went.
She endured great hardships getting up the mountain, but finally she found the cave. And sure enough, sitting there was this very gentle, spiritual-looking old woman in white clothes who smiled at her beatifically.
Overwhelmed with awe and respect, the arrogant proud woman prostrated herself at the feet of the sagely-looking woman and said, “I want to attain enlightenment. Show me how.”
The wise woman looked at her with her beatific smile and asked, “Are you sure you want to attain enlightenment? This may not be as easy as you think. It likely will be much more difficult, incredibly stressful really. Do you think you are up for this? Are you really sure you want enlightenment?”
The woman said, “Of course I’m sure.”
Suddenly the gentle old hunched woman stopped smiling, straightened up, and turned into a hideous demon brandishing a big stick and started chasing the woman all around the cave, saying “Now! Now! Now!”
And for the rest of her life, that woman could never get away from the demon who was always saying, “Now!”
But yet that’s just what we’re trying to do when whenever we give in to the auto-pilot of acting out on our fearful emotions and stressful feelings or just going along with our resentful, ornery, petty moods and impulses—we’re just running away from our inner demon of fear, embarrassment, shame, pride, inadequacy. And whenever we automatically react in this way and run from ourselves and from stress and fear, we’re not living mindfully; we’re asleep.
Now, now, now. We always have a fundamental choice available to us to make, even in times of stress and anxiety. Perhaps even especially in times of stress and anxiety. Any intense and frightening moment can be a defining moment. Or not. Meaning, we can do what we’ve always done—we can even redouble our efforts doing what we’ve always done—and repeat the past in the present and try to make our present and future just like our past, choosing yet again to run and hide, give into our stress and the anxiety demon that chases us, and empower it even more. Or we can make a different choice, define ourselves differently, set a different trajectory for ourselves, courageously and heroically go against the grain of our habits and the stress and uncertainty we’re feeling and the normal way we react to it; we can be honest with ourselves and others, drop the narcissistic and vain proud and arrogant act, become much more tender and vulnerable and open and frank about what we’re experiencing.
That’s the real power of now. Choice. Recognizing that we have a choice. And that we can choose differently, that we can make a different choice. That our conditioning and fear doesn’t have to be our destiny. That while horrific and crazy things may have happened to us or been done to us in our past, we don’t have to react and act out in destructive, fearful ways and take our fear and stress out on those around us—especially those we claim to love and care about.
To refuse to give into acting out on stress and fear and trying to run from these is nothing less than to create a seminal defining moment for ourselves. It is to finally take a stand. It is for our budding strengths to finally stir and emerge and become active. And it is to focus ourselves forward on our possible strengths and building on these, instead of focusing on the past and pandering to our weaknesses yet again. (Because whenever we do that and do what we’ve always done and run from stress and fear, we reinforce our fears and weaknesses, empowering them, making them even stronger and more likely to fire even more quickly and more fervently the next time.)
We always have the choice. Whether we are aware of it or not, whether we are willing to admit it or not, we always have a choice:
We can react mindlessly to stress and let it overrun us, and in doing so feed the beast and make the stress demon stronger.
Or we can go against the grain of what we’re feeling and respond more mindfully, more courageously, with greater tenderness and open-heartedness and vulnerability.
Whatever we’re given in life can either wake us up or put us more to sleep.
That is the real power of now. Making a choice. Making a very conscious, deliberate, strategic, mindful, eyes- and heart- and mind-wide-open choice. Deciding whether to wake up or go more to sleep.
To choose not to decide or to pretend that we don’t have a choice is to go to sleep.
Whenever we run away and avoid and diffuse responsibility, we go to sleep.
When we stay and remain open and present and curious and investigate more mindfully what we’re experiencing as well as our thoughts and feelings about it, we are beginning to sow seeds of wakefulness.
Even when the stress is the greatest and the temptation to fly of the handle and lose it is most alluring and familiar, we can still go against our pride and habits and self-protectiveness, and let ourselves soften and breakdown and not be so fearful of appearing weak, needy, vulnerable, insufficient, hurt, and in need of a little (or a lot of) tenderness, compassion, kindness, soothing.
After all, that’s usually the real fear behind the stress whenever we act out harshly and self-protectively on it—the fear of appearing inadequate, the fear of facing up to and admitting our own powerlessness and inadequacy, the fear of hitting rock bottom and admitting that we’re helpless and much less than what we thought, the fear of being rejected and pushed away by another in a moment of weakness and frazzledness if we were to reach out to another and ask for compassion, tenderness, mercy, kindness. That’s the real fear.
To run away and avoid difficulty, is to try to go to back to sleep—it is to try to avoid ourselves, to set our life in such away that we avoid facing ourselves, that we avoid taking responsibility for ourselves, that we avoid dealing with our pride and having to feel inadequate, not together, uncertain.
In a moment of stress and fear, this fundamental choice is always there for us. The choice is always there to choose love or give into fear. To give into our reptile or to lead with our spirit and what’s best in us. We can either reject ourselves and others and lash around and act out like an alligator or a demon-like reptile, or we can make friends with ourselves and our unpleasant feelings and not reactively or automatically run from them whenever they frighten us with their intensity or heat, and we can lead from our spirit, what’s best in us, our potential strengths.
That is the real power of now, realizing that whatever we’re presented with in life can either wake us up or put us more to sleep. That we can always choose love over fear. That we can choose to sow love, or we can just react, go with our amygdala, act out of fear, cave and give into and empower stress. We can either maintain perspective or lose it. We can either go crazy or we can go sane. “When we find ourselves in a mess, instead of feeling guilty or stressed, we can reflect on the fact that how we relate to this mess now will be sowing the seeds of how we relate to whatever happens next. We hold the power to make ourselves miserable or make ourselves strong. The amount of effort required will be about the same. Right now we are creating our state of mind for tomorrow, not to mention this afternoon, next week, next year, and all the years of our lives.” ( — Pema Chödrön)
Now, now, now! Whenever the going gets difficult and stressful, we’re also simultaneously presented with another incredible opportunity yet again—the opportunity of yet another potentially life-altering “defining moment,” depending on how we decide to respond. The Chinese character for crisis is also the same symbol or character for opportunity. And that’s the reality of what any moment of stress and anxiety might mean for us. Because these moments of crisis are also our greatest potential moments to define ourselves differently, to make our future different from our past, if—if—we can heroically take the leap and make a different choice. We can always run; we always have that choice available to us to avoid or to wall up. But we can also choose strength, choose what’s potentially best in us, and try to stay and remain open and break our habitual ingrained self-sabotaging, self-protective, maladaptive, unproductive patterns and reactions by trying something new and making a different choice . . . the choice not to run and hide and annihilate and act impulsively without considering the consequences of what we’re doing, the seeds we’re sowing, the precedent we’re setting or reinforcing yet again (more fear, more bad karma, more fear and negative consequences, less strength and capacity and willingness to deal with stress head-on).
We can either stay and learn to deal with ourselves and deal with the consequences of what all of our past choices and past avoidances have done to us; or we can run from ourselves some more and make others deal with the consequences of our craziness and our shortfalls in courage and goodness. We can either bravely, humbly, even desperately learn to deal with ourselves, including what’s weakest and worst and not so savory in us; or we can run from those situations and persons and relationships that bring out the worst in us and expose all the crud and dross in us and mindlessly fantasize about a future that will be different from our past not because we’ve changed who we are but simply because we’ve changed where we are and who and what’s around us. Because the real power of now comes from acknowledging that we must be the change we wish to see. The real power of now comes from admitting that the geographic cure is not a cure at all, not even close, that it’s not a part of the solution, and that it’s actually just another fundamental part of our basic problem—that we don’t deal well (if at all) with ourselves and our fears and stress, that we just don’t fundamentally relate well to ourselves, we are not a good steward and friend to ourselves.
It is possible for us even when the stress is the greatest and the urge to self-protect and flee is the most compelling to do something completely different, something completely unprecedented—it is possible for us to make a different choice—it is possible for us to not automatically shut down and self-protect and close our heart and mind, but to instead remain curious, daring, courageous, open, inquisitive, audacious, compassionate, and soothe our own frazzled emotions, not let them capture and blind us, but instead to remember what’s best in us and refocus our attention on it, and smile at fear, make friends with uncertainty and anxiety, not continue to relive the past in the present. Now is here. Now is the time. Now is all we have. Now is when we can make a different choice. Now. Now. Now. That’s all we have. Every now is sowing something in us, just as every now in the past has sown something in us and made us into the person we have become and are right now, including the way we react to stress and fear and deal with ourselves emotionally (or stubbornly refuse to deal with ourselves). If we want to legitimately feel good about ourselves by being braver and more centered in the future when the fearful stress demon comes again, we need to make different choice now than the ones we’ve been making in the past whenever we’ve gotten stressed out and obliterated situations, run from relationships and commitments when the going got tough, and taken out our stress on others.
Don’t surrender your loneliness
Let it cut more deep.
Let it ferment and season you
As few human
Or even divine ingredients can.
Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft,
My need of God
( — Hafiz)
It’s not just feelings of loneliness that we perhaps need to not run from so quickly when they visit us, perhaps it’s also those feelings of shame and embarrassment and even horror over who we are and what we’ve done (to others and ourselves) and what we’ve become that we also need to not surrender and not run from, but instead let cut us even more deeply, let ferment and season us, and let begin to finally transform us and awake us to some new sanity. . . . A sanity where we can make different choices. . . . More courageous choices. . . .
And if we’re going to grow and make our future different from our past we need to make different choices. More courageous choices. And Now. Now. Now. Because that’s all we have. If we’re idle and discursive and unfocused in our now, living haphazardly, dissipating our energy and our awareness, scattering ourselves, further fragmenting ourselves, not committing to anything other than homeostasis, the path of least resistance, and the comfort of moment, then we’re just seeding more future misery and unhappiness and instability for ourselves and others, and a future that will continue to look a lot like our past. We’re not sowing strength, bravery, attention, mindfulness.
But if in the moments of calm that we have now between moments of agitation we live more mindfully, take up meditation, yoga, writing, self-examination, self-analysis, reading decent books, studying and learning more and more about the dharma, the Tao, engage in more meaningful and wholesome and honest conversations (instead of discursive low-level ones that further scatter our attention), and we learn to begin sitting quietly with ourselves like a friend, like a best friend, like our a soul friend or anam cara, and patiently listen to ourselves, then we are planting different seeds, seeds of mindfulness, seeds of courage, seeds of bravery, seeds of better decision-making, seeds of more lasting happiness, seeds of honesty, seeds of friendliness, seeds of virtue, seeds of goodness, seeds of openness, seeds of wakefulness, seeds of transformation; —we are planting a future for ourselves that will be different than our past—a future that will be happier because we will be more eligible for happiness, because we will (finally!) be braver, happier, less afraid, more open-hearted, more inoculated to stress and anxiety.
But we can only do that if we are wise about our nows and make different choices now, now, now.
Because that’s the real power of now—it’s in the choices we make and the actions we take. Thinking and talking and daydreaming about it isn’t enough.
Because all of our nows, all of these moments of decision, taken as a whole, make up our lives and the sum quality of our lives, rendering us each either more and more eligible and fit for greater and greater happinesses, or less and less fit for life and thus leaving us weaker, more afraid, more miserable and isolated and alone, less able to be open and loving, and more and more ineligible for happiness and peace of mind and heart.
“Some day, in years to come, you will be wrestling with the great temptation, or trembling under the great sorrow of your life. But the real struggle is here, now. . . . Now it is being decided whether, in the day of your supreme sorrow or temptation, you shall miserably fail or gloriously conquer. Character cannot be made except by a steady, long-continued process.” — Phillips Brooks
[E]very time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself.
To be the one kind of creature is heaven: That is, it is joy, and peace, and knowledge, and power.
To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness.
Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.
— C. S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity,” pg. 87.