Argh! I’m going to be so late! I was on the 5 train at Union Square, south bound to Wall Street on my way to a session with a client. It was post-work rush hour: not a pretty picture. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are experiencing delays due to train traffic ahead. Please be patient. We will be moving shortly.” I looked at my watch and bumped the person next to me in the turning of my arm. We were body to body and the train was damp and heavy with frustration. I looked around and met other disgruntled faces, rolling eyes, and tapping feet. “Please be patient. We will be moving shortly.” The computerized voice repeated overhead, as though it could feel the crawling skin of its passengers.
Everyone on that train had somewhere else to be and I was no exception. I could feel my heart rate increasing, my blood pressure rising at the thought of being late. I looked at my watch again. Three minutes had passed. I started to get a little mad at the train conductor, at the people on the train, the situation in general. I started to picture walking in late into my session, disappointing my client. Then I went backwards in time, I knew I should have left ten minutes early! Why didn’t I leave ten minutes early? re-running in my mind images of leaving home and attempting to re-write the script.
The train shook like a mini-earthquake. We were moving. In the end, I was a few minutes late to my client’s home, but as he opened the door he greeted me with a smile, his usual warm and welcoming hug, said he was happy to see me. As it turns out, nothing was lost; no major catastrophe ensued. And yet, where had my mind gone while I was on the train? My body? I retraced my mental steps and noticed the pattern, the quick jump to frustration, the internal blame, external projection, stress signals like fourth of July fire crackers.
What is it like when we don’t want to be somewhere? When we are reaching, overextending ourselves into another space (mental, physical or emotional) than the one we currently inhabit?
Furthermore, what are the physical sensations that accompany impatience? On the train, my skin was crawling; I was frustrated, sinking into future projections or self-judgment based on my past actions. Because I was in my head, I was unaware of my present physical surroundings–I bumped into the person next to me as I checked the time without even noticing they were there. My body displayed clear stress signals, as my mind jumped around, bouncing off the walls like the ball in the pinball machine.
This is how we tend to live our lives–on the express 5 train stuck in traffic. The Buddhist sages call it dukkah, a basic sense of dissatisfaction or an unsettling feeling that something is missing or not quite right. So we try to fill the gap, to run towards or away from what is in front of us thinking this will make the uneasiness go away. We do it automatically, without thinking. We are conditioned into the unsettling movement, never truly arriving.
Presence is the opposite. Think of the times that you are completely immersed in something you love; times when you look at the clock by accident and all of a sudden three hours have passed and you have no idea how that happened. Maybe its dancing, maybe it’s painting, maybe it’s in a conversation with a friend. In those moments we are deeply present and aware, open and receptive to life in front of us, fully content with what is. We don’t even question it; no analysis is happening. We simply are. We have settled into being, arrived into ourselves and the moment at once. This is yoga. Yoga is pure arrival into presence–not a destination or goal, but a fluid state of being, a state of consciousness that is profoundly at one with life as it is at any given moment. And it feels magical.
That begs the question–how do we go from frustration to magic? From the icky unsettledness of impatience to the arrival into presence? Waking up from our patterns of conditioning and willingly creating change within our consciousness and daily lives is something that requires practice and hence patience. The good news is that, as the sutras say, any effort is effort that counts.
Where do we begin? With a simple pause. In a moment of frustration, of stress or impatience (or at any other moment, really), stop. Breathe. Check in with your body. What is firing? What are the sensations? Can you point to them and name them? When the train started back up again, it shook me awake; I noticed what had happened. I can write about my heart rate increasing because I noticed that it had. Noticing is possible only within a clearing of experience, within a pause that allows us to step out of the mind’s rush and into the seat of the observer, and like a sports broadcaster, we can start calling the plays as we see them instead of being entrenched in them, caught up in their movement.
Our physical body is the primary indicator of experience and a good one, because the body simply does not lie. Unlike the mind (a skilled magician, playing tricks like disappearing into the past or future), the body is squarely situated within the present moment. Tapping into bodily sensations is an anchor to presence, to reality as it is. Watching the body is a subtle technique and just like any other skill, it takes time and practice to hone. Think of learning to walk: the child first learns to sit up and crawl before it can walk. There is a lot of falling along the way. But the child does not give up; instead, it gets up and tries again. With time and practice the child can grow to not only walk, but run, skip and dance. Just like a child learns to walk by falling, we learn to come into presence by falling into impatience (into the trance of past and future) over and over, then persevering and trying again and again until it gets easier. Slowly but surely the process becomes natural and effortless. Eventually, we learn the graceful dance of arrival, of settling into presence, even at rush hour on the express train.