This past weekend I went to the lake. During the time leading up to it and our short car ride there, I was excitedly looking forward to laughing with friends, relaxing in the sun, and languidly dipping into a large body of water. Water on my skin is one of the most luxurious and refreshing sensations that I know.
But, then, we were there. And each step I took towards that incredibly large lake created an equally sized feeling of dread. My old fear of water was raising its head. Standing on the dock as we waited to be picked up, I looked at out the water and wondered, “Will I be able to find joy in this experience?” This thought roughly translates to, “Will I ever be able to shed myself of my fear so that I can finally relax and play in the water?”
Yoga is an incisive tool. If you let it, it can sharpen edges that otherwise blur, it can call you out on your bluffs and your stammerings and your ego, and it can nurture your ability to relax and to be present. Now I know that being in the water now is easier than before I began my yoga practice. I can breathe and soften into the water and, with the help of some handy swimming fins and a wonderful instructor, I can start to experience buoyancy and even play. But I still struggle with my old fears, and it’s a conflict that suggests just how complicated this “being present” thing is.
When it comes to water, I want nothing more than to be present. What happens, however, is that my past begins to massage my present and then my future comes along and muddies up the whole situation with desires. I greet glimpses of my pre-fear past with joy because there I find an exuberant, delighted, and curious me who loved the water. I feel the tightness of my fear as I gaze at the greenish-blue water, trying to fathom its depths and wondering what will happen if I fall in unprepared, e.g. without something securely keeping me afloat. I long for the day when I can retrieve my exuberant self and just dive into water with reckless and unabashed celebration. How or where is the present in this moment?
For Thich Nhat Hanh one way to be present is to mindfully attend to the task at hand. Honestly, I feel like this kind of mindfulness is easier when the task isn’t clouded with fears, insecurities, desires, or other conflicts. Sitting on the mat and mindfully meditating or shelling peas mindfully doesn’t create the same sensation as standing on a dock, readying to dive into the water. What I want to know more about is this transitory stage: How do I get into the water? I can calm myself down beforehand, I can try not to attach specific negative emotions to the plunge, and I can gather my wits after I’m bobbing in the water. But my fear lies in those cracks between the moments…in the transitions.
I suppose that all of this mental floundering and this search for “being present” has lead me to this conclusion: I need to mind those transitions, and I need to welcome them with patience and compassion. Time and practice will abate my fears. Until then all I can do is try to be mindful.