“Life is a succession of moments. To live each one is to succeed.”~Corita Kent
If you buy a raffle ticket, it may say “You must be present to win” meaning that if you’re not here, you don’t get the prize. It’s kind of like life. You’ve got to show up in order to get anything. Sounds simple enough, but in practice, being present is anything but easy.
Jack Kornfield is a Buddhist practitioner, storyteller, meditation teacher, and author of many practical books, which address issues about staying present when you have a mind that tends to wander. Jack tells a story that speaks directly to this very concern. The story is about training puppies to “stay”. If you’ve ever had a puppy and sought to train him to stay, you probably have noticed that the first time you give the puppy the command, you are unlikely to be successful. The puppy’s response to your command will be to act as though you’ve said nothing or that you’ve actually told him to jump up and down, run around in circles, bark loudly, and/or wag his tail vigorously. Should you repeat your command, it is likely that you will receive the same response from the puppy. Further efforts will probably generate similar reactions from the little guy. He just doesn’t get it.
Finally after about 300 tries, he might actually manage to stay a microsecond longer. You’re ecstatic! “Good puppy! Wonderful puppy!” You pat and caress him lovingly. Maybe you even kiss him. You tell him to stay again, and this time he might even stay a microsecond longer. Cut to the end of the story and this time (it could be several days or weeks or even months later), when you tell him to stay, the puppy instantly freezes. He doesn’t move a muscle, doesn’t blink, he barely even breathes. If you get up and walk away he stays perfectly still, rooted to his place on the ground. His little eyes follow but not his body. You smile and quietly speak the word, “Come” and instantly he is unfrozen and filled with wild exuberance. He runs towards you in a frenzy of pure puppy delight.
Success comes from love, safety and trust.
The outcome was successful because of your willingness to “stay” with your own impatience, frustration, and exasperation. Your refusal to get angry at the puppy and yell at him or call him a ‘bad dog’, or threaten, punish or hurt him in any way was a crucial factor in his training. The puppy didn’t learn to stay simply because you taught him correctly, but because you gave him love, and trusted his innate desire to please you and to learn. He felt safe and loved was free from the fear of punishment for having done anything wrong.
This is the attitude that we can learn to give to ourselves when we are confronted with an experience that is threatening or uncomfortable. Sometimes what we must learn to stay with is our limited ability to remain fully present with what is in our own experience. When we angrily tell ourselves that we should be able to do something that we haven’t yet mastered the ability to do, we might want to remember the puppy story. We might ask ourselves if we are any less deserving of the patience that we would give to a defenseless creature that really is doing the very best he can. Providing this kind of self-compassion can be both the most loving and sometimes the most difficult thing that we can do for ourselves.
Providing Compassion for Ourselves
As we, like the puppy, practice the art of stepping into our fears and repeatedly standing in the fire of challenges and opportunities that we might prefer to avoid, our capacity to face into the unfaceable grows. And when we can be a non-judgmental witness to our loved-ones as they traverse their own treacherous territory, we simultaneously empower them as well as ourselves in the process of growing courage, strength and wisdom. But don’t take my word for it; see for yourself. And if you get discouraged, try staying with it anyway. Who knows? You might be surprised by the outcome.
Linda Bloom L.C.S.W. has served as psychotherapist and seminar leader practicing relationship counseling almost forty years. Check out her OMTimes Bio.
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