Staying Present and Open to Life

Woman on beach with outstretched armsHow do you react to painful and challenging situations in life? Do you start become reactive, or are you able to respond in a way that helps you heal and stay connected to life?

 Staying open in the face of pain is an essential part of the healing process. Life is a combination of joy and pain. As humans, our tendency is to avoid pain and move towards pleasure. The truth is that we can’t choose one over the other. Pain isn’t the problem; it’s our tendency to react to and resist the pain that creates prolonged and intense suffering.

Our instinctual reaction to pain is to fix it and move on. Sometimes when unpleasantness, hurt, or trauma happens to us or loved ones, our immediate response is to jump into “fix-it” mode. After all, we live in a society that offers solutions to all of life’s problems. We’re constantly bombarded by ads telling us that the answer to our problems is just a phone call away. There are ads for medicines, exercises, and varied approaches to improve your love life, memory, energy, and more. If you are depressed, you’re advised to take the latest drugs to help reverse the tide. If you’re a smoker, you can wear a patch that helps you kick the habit.

I’m not dismissing the usefulness and need for these medicines and approaches. Rather, I’ve come to realize that the challenges we face in life can’t be approached with a quick fix or a Band-Aid solution. Instead, what helps us heal and stay connected to life is our ability to approach pain with presence, openness, compassion, and acceptance. It’s when we open our heart to ourselves and each other that we create space for healing and growth to happen.

In order to heal we truly need to be present, to accept what is happening, and to keep our minds and hearts open to what is happening in the moment.

In life things don’t always go according to plan. This happened to me recently. About three months ago, my husband and I were planning a double celebration. It was our 23rd year wedding anniversary as well as his birthday. We had it all planned out; we were going to dine at a favorite restaurant, enjoy each other’s company, and share appreciation for all the ways in which our relationship had grown and blossomed over the years. Our plans were set for the next day. I remember feeling excited and looking forward to this celebration. Well, you know the saying about how the best-laid plans often go astray? Our plans went out the window and it really rocked my world.

What happened next was the most challenging experience we’ve faced in our 23 years of marriage. My husband woke me up at 5:30 a.m. complaining of intense pain in his chest, arm, shoulder, and neck. While I’m not a medical doctor, I know that these signs are serious and can be symptoms of a heart attack. This was unexpected and shocking, as my husband is a healthy 49-year-old man with no history of heart disease. Initially, he didn’t want to go to the hospital and wanted to wait to see if the pain abated, but I knew that getting him to the hospital as soon as possible was critical; this could be a life and death situation. As I was going through this I could feel a sensation of numbness flood through my body and emotions. It was like my body, mind, and heart went into survival mode.

Once we got to the hospital, the staff rushed him into the ER and treated him as a heart attack victim. Witnessing all this was heartbreaking, as it was difficult to stand by and watch as the staff administered different medicines to try and stabilize his condition and reduce the pain. While I could stay close by, I was asked to keep the area around him clear so that they could attend to him. It was really painful to watch him suffer without being able to comfort him. He was in and out of consciousness and I remember feeling dizzy as I faced the unknown. Worry, anxiety, and terror filled my mind, body, and heart. I was no longer in survival mode, I was in reaction mode.

Shifting from reaction to response requires awareness, acceptance, and a loving presence. Initially, I was caught up in thoughts, emotions, and stories about a future without my husband. My surroundings faded into the background as I got trapped in reactivity. I was stuck there for quite some time. Then I had a moment of awareness. I recognized that I was getting swept up in a swirling tornado of feelings, thoughts, and stories. I became aware that what I was doing—judging, predicting, and catastrophizing—was just escalating my anxiety. This moment of awareness, this recognition and conscious shift from reactivity to response, is called mindfulness.

“ Mindfulness is the aware, balanced acceptance of the present experience. It is opening to or receiving the present moment, pleasant or unpleasant, just as it is, without either clinging to it or rejecting it.”

-Sylvia Boorstein

Awareness is when we stop living in our minds and connect to the present moment. I love the term Tara Brach uses. She calls it “coming home to ourselves.” Awareness is any time you realize that you have disconnected from your surroundings and are caught up in thoughts or reactions. You’ve come home in that moment when you recognize and reconnect with your body, mind, and heart. It’s a pivotal moment where you can choose a response.

For me that pivotal moment of awareness helped me shift from reacting to responding towards what was happening in the moment. I did the only thing I could: I recognized that I couldn’t control what was happening on the outside but I could respond to what was going on inside me. I started by accepting that what I was going through was painful, and that waves of fear and resistance were coming up for me. I needed to let go of trying to control feelings and just be present to my experience. It’s what’s called “being a compassionate witness”—allowing feelings, thoughts, and stories to flow through me without judging the experience. It isn’t easy to do! It’s much easier to get caught up in reactivity than it is to stay open, present, and willing to respond in the moment.

While this was happening I stayed by his side and offered comfort in the only way I could: by staying present, holding his hand, and offering love and compassion. As the days went on I fluctuated between reacting, getting swept up in feelings of powerless, helplessness, and stories, and recognizing that I could shift into mindfully approaching the pain I was feeling with acceptance, understanding, and compassion.

In the end we found out that he didn’t actually have a heart attack. What happened to him was an uncommon occurrence: he had contracted a virus that ended up infecting his heart. Thankfully, he’s recovered completely and is in good health. This experience has helped us to deepen our connection and appreciate each moment of life.

Pain is a natural part of life. While we can dull the pain and suppress it, we can’t avoid it. What we can do is to help ourselves by approaching pain with understanding and compassion. Freedom from suffering comes when we realize that we can choose how to respond to pain. One path leads to growth and healing, the other leads to intense suffering. In the end, it’s not about right or wrong, it’s about learning to make a conscious choice. When you’re caught up in reactivity and become aware that you’re reacting, you can choose to shift to a more healing and loving response.

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Cindy Ricardo, LMHC, CIRT, therapist in Coral Springs, Florida

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • iris

    August 16th, 2012 at 12:42 PM

    I am a person who always feels like I need to be in control of every situation, even whenlogically I know that to be happiest I have to learn to let some of these things go. Thanks for the reminder that ti live my life to the fullest, I actually have to give up some of that need for control and just let things be as they are meant to be.

  • Greta

    August 16th, 2012 at 3:05 PM

    It’s so frightening when something so unexpected like this happens to us in our lives! It’s not that you don’t think that it can happen, but I guess we never give a whole lot of thought that it could actually happen to us! Staying calm is a lot to ask of all of us, but it sure does help you manage the situation a whole lot better than you will if you just totally lose it.

  • L.Jones

    August 16th, 2012 at 6:56 PM

    Wonderful advice.It is so true that we get caught up with things that come as a ‘reaction’ instead of focusing on a possible ‘reaction’.Because a reaction is uncontrolled and spontaneous,we may end up harming ourselves instead of helping.But when it comes to a response,we can have control over it.

    Thank you for this article.This will be a good share because this is something that can help each and every person irrespective of any factor whatsoever.Its something many of us suffer from and this will indeed be of great help.Thank you.

  • nicole

    August 17th, 2012 at 12:00 AM

    my mind gets clouded and hands numb when i’m in such a situation.i tend to lose control if i can call it that.how do i ‘learn’ to do this?i have tried not to get overwhelmed in such a situation before but it doesn’t seem to work :|

  • Reid

    August 17th, 2012 at 4:19 AM

    I am so not good at this.

    I am the person who retreats inward when things are going badly for me

  • Paul

    August 17th, 2012 at 5:07 AM

    It’s really nice to read real life application from a therapist.

    I feel like the therapists I have visited in the past tend to not open up so much and it’s hard to “buy” what they are “selling” as a result.

    Like preachers who preach and it has nothing to do with how they themselves have used it or experienced it.

    Thanks again and nice job.

    Best,

    Paul

  • Cindy Ricardo

    August 17th, 2012 at 8:11 PM

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, experience and questions! I really appreciate the feedback and comments. The practice of staying present an open to life, especially when it’s challenging is not easy! There were times where I was caught up in worry, sadness and fear. I would get overwhelmed and caught up in the stories that I was running in my head about what could happen or if there was some way to prevent it. How the practice of mindfulness has helped me is in learning to become aware when I’m lost in thought or caught up in some emotion and feeding it with my thoughts. In that moment when I become aware there is an opportunity to notice that I’m creating a story that is not based on what is happening in the moment but more so based on fear, and wanting to know what is going to happen. It’s about not wanting to feel fear ad wanting to feel secure and safe. Life is not stagnant, things come and go and one thing that is guaranteed is that things will change. So changes, losses, joys, sorrows, etc. are all a part of life. The real question is how can we respond to what is happening in a way that helps us stay connected to life, to love, compassion and the things that help us move through our experiences, grow and heal. As I stated it’s a practice so not something that you will learn from reading one article. There are many free podcasts available that will teach you this skill. One that I recommend to clients is Tarabrach dot com She has a list of podcasts that teach you this skill. She is a mentor and a wonderful, compassionate teacher. There are also some wonderful books that you can purchase. If you are interested in learning more please feel free to contact me: http://www.goodtherapy.org/cindy-ricardo-therapist.php Again, thank you for all the comments!

  • Nan

    August 18th, 2012 at 9:36 AM

    @ Cindy Ricardo- I want to thank you so much for sharing this with all of us. I am an older female, and I think that a lot of this, as far as learning to stay open to life and be more compassionate , comes with age and experience. For me there have been times in life where I have wanted to shut out and shut down because that was how I felt safest, in my own little cocoon I suppose. I was afraid to let anyone in because that felt like the sure fire way to get hurt and fast! What I have come to accept as I have gotten older ( and we won’t say how old) is that the quickest way TO hurt is by shutting out others in our lives who do care for us. For all these years I had it all wrong, and I am hopeful that your words and maybe a little bit with ,mine that someone younger will read this and take this lesson to heart a whole lot sooner than I did.

  • riley haskell

    August 19th, 2012 at 5:27 AM

    I am that person who always has a list, always has a plan. If that changes and I don’t have advanced warning, then everyone around me has to watch out because I become this little bundle of stress!

    But I can appreciate the truth behind this piece because it is unavoidable that there will be times and instances where I have no control over things that happen that are not on my list or in my plans. That doesn’t make it easier for me to manage, but I have to realize that that is life and there is little that I can do to change it. I try very hard not to sweat the small stuff, but admittedly I am not always much of a success at that.

  • Coleman y

    August 20th, 2012 at 10:59 AM

    very difficult to stay grounded and centered when it feels like the rug has been pulled out from under you

  • Cindy Ricardo

    August 20th, 2012 at 2:41 PM

    Again, I love that all of you are sharing your experiences! I really appreciate the opportunity to reflect and respond on this topic of presence. I agree that it’s not easy! Far from it! It really takes becoming conscious and being able to recognize that once again you’ve left this moment by getting caught up in an emotion or thoughts. It’s not that we are able to stay connected to the present moment all the time, it’s that when we become aware that we’ve disconnected from life, we can choose to come back to our body, mind, heart. When I was going through this there were definitely moments where I was overwhelmed, caught up in stories of a catastrophic ending, and it was in the moment that I became aware how I was predicting and feeding my fears that I could come back and connect with what was most important (being with my husband and family, being compassionate towards my self and others). Again it is a practice, this coming back and leaving is natural and a part of life. To me what’s most important is to remember that we can have these profound moments presence and in those moments we can respond to what is happening, to life with understanding, love and compassion.

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