A conscious orientation to ongoing pain, whether physical or emotional, means the “ongoingness” of the condition doesn’t hold your attention. What’s attended is this moment, whatever the moment consists of — however bad it may feel, however likely the condition may appear (via the mind) to be unending or uncertain. This being-with-the-now occurs without resistance, without regard for anything the mind could introduce into the picture. The now is not experienced as a moment in a succession of moments. It is simply the only thing that feels real.
Conscious awareness has access to immediate experience — that is, to life itself. Only the ordinary mind appears to have access to something that isn’t here right now. This impression of concurrent reality is, of course, an illusion.
To be with the now is to allow awareness to flood sense-able present-moment reality: any sensation in the body (physical or “in the heart”), an activity being engaged in, anything the senses can detect in the immediate scene.
To recognize the gulf between aliveness itself and anything generated by the mind is the liberating discovery.
Everything else — that is, anything having to do with ongoingness or the possible future — is accessible only when the mind is engaged. Indulging the apparent reality of the mental stream only compounds the momentary physical pain, adding emotional discomfort to what’s already felt in the body, because then it’s as though you’re “experiencing” the future, or a distant situation, right now. The pain, then, looks truly unendurable. But of course the future, like something happening in another location, cannot be experienced; it can only be thought about. And thinking, as everyone knows, is a potent causer of emotional anguish.
Being in the present, without resistance or mental handling, gives you the experience of aliveness. (This is true even if it hurts, right now, to be alive.) To be conscious is to sense the always-underlying aliveness, whatever momentary form it takes.
You do not experience chronic pain. You experience this moment’s sensation. To recall that this momentary experience is part of an ongoing condition, it’s necessary to withdraw attention from the now and to engage the mind. To do this is to think (to remember); it is not to experience. Seeing the difference between the two — even in the presence of severe pain — is the beginning of freedom.
Similarly, you do not actually experience that you are in a relationship. What’s experienced is the moment’s spoken and heard words, the expression or tone of voice of the other person, the love (or loathing) presently moving like a current through your veins. It is necessary to go into the mind to say this is a relationship, this is my mate, we are in trouble, we are madly in love. But these conceptual things are not felt, the way a physical sensation or movement is.
If you are a teacher, you do not experience being a teacher. Being a teacher is an idea. What you actually experience is the feel of chalk gripped in the fingers, the face of a student whose expression is registering comprehension, the movement of your eyes over the lines of a paper you’re grading, the processing of the student’s words.
How radically liberating it is to see this, in life as you’re actually living — the difference between life itself and how the mind gets applied. How transformative it is to observe the power we give the mind. How the mind constantly puts us at a distance from momentary life. How we become lost in mental content, and don’t actually live at all.
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Being dis-identified from the familiar sense of a self, from one’s history, from all mental content, puts a person so thoroughly in this very moment that all that’s felt to be real (ever) is the now. To be fully conscious is to allow, to feel, whatever the present moment stirs in the body, in the inner space of awareness. Any mental commentary, any reference to another time or place, is recognized as being simply the activity of the mind and is not confused with reality.
Reality, being momentary, is constantly in flux. There is the recognition that this now is fleeting, even while right now it is real. It is neither pushed away nor held on to. There is no distance between “you” and the now, no interpretive mental filters. You feel yourself to actually be the moment, and nothing else: not your memories or desires or fears, not your beliefs or familiar identities.
Living consciously invites a close look at the difference between life itself and anything in the mind. To put this moment’s experience into any kind of context — to label it unbearable, to explore its underlying cause, to recall it’s part of an ongoing condition, to wonder how much longer it’s going to last, or how much worse it could get — it’s necessary to go into the mind. The mind is used to “frame” the condition (including looking through a spiritual lens) — to declare it karma, or one’s teacher; to generate a “reason to go on living”; to label self a fighter, survivor, victim; to assume an identity as person-with-condition.
The mind’s attempt to put this moment’s physical reality into some story takes you out of the moment, which is the only “place” peace is possible. The mind will try and try to come up with a consoling story, some escape, or resolution, some justifiable reason to be consumed by fear, all in the name of the search for meaning or comfort. The irony is that the only possible comfort comes from complete surrender to what-is, right now.
Even when the pain of the moment is terrible (whether it’s physical or emotional), the form “comfort” takes — when surrender is complete, when the mind is allowed to be quiet — is the peace that comes with the spaciousness of allowing what-is to be as it is. The pain is still there. But the alternative — to resist or otherwise mentally handle it — only intensifies the discomfort.
Yes, it’s counter-intuitive to relax into something that hurts. (Indeed, the mind’s primary occupation is to rescue us from hurt.) Yet that’s the very thing consciousness compels a person to do. And it’s necessary to surrender without looking for relief as an outcome. True surrender is not “do-this-so-that.” It’s simply “be fully with, because this is what’s real right now.”
Being at a distance from life — this moment being all there is of life — subjects you to a heightened pain you could be spared. This constant, enforced distance from momentary life is the primary reason unconsciousness (and torment) persists.
This moment’s pain is “real,” and so must be allowed, felt. But that doesn’t mean chronic pain, or any “chronic” situation, has to become your identity. (Identity lives in the mind, not in momentary, bodied experience.) Nor is it necessary to locate experience in any mental framework (though of course the mind will constantly try to draw you into doing that).
Yes, there may be the background knowing that this condition or situation is ongoing, perhaps with an open-ended or unknown future. Surely there will be times it’s useful, or necessary, to engage the mind — to see if something might be done to improve things, for instance. To enter into this kind of exploration consciously is to be aware it’s the mind being engaged. It’s to use the mind for this practical function but not for fretting or projecting into an unknowable future. Even while thought is occurring, the felt experience of embodied awareness, in the moment, feels most real. What the mind is doing is recognized to be potentially useful, while apart from immediate sensation. Mental activity isn’t used to generate a story — or if that starts to happen, conscious awareness recognizes it for what it is and does not indulge it, does not confuse it with reality.
If the circumstances of a condition suggest there is nothing to be done to improve it, the only sane thing to do is to surrender fully to your powerlessness, to rest there. Anything short of this will only compound the suffering. It’s crucial to be real about this — not to tell yourself you’re fully surrendered if you’re not.
This is the case whether what you’re dealing with is chronic physical discomfort or a loved one lost in addiction.
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In the case of chronic emotional pain due to an ongoing situation (your own or another’s), it’s possible to discover that anytime attention is on the immediate ordinary reality, where perhaps nothing of the larger situation is directly apparent, it’s likely the gut-wrenching worry will unwind. You realize that it’s necessary to engage the mind to remember the painful situation. When the mind is allowed (however briefly) to forget, and you’re simply doing what you’re doing right now, attuned to the immediate scene, you’re likely to find relief from the emotional burden inflicted by the constant reminder of the difficult circumstance.
Just because the mind recognizes a situation as ongoing doesn’t mean the emotional pain needs to be constant. The mind will try to convince you that to allow yourself to rest from ongoing vigilance (and the distress it causes) amounts to a kind of neglect or denial. It can seem almost irresistible for the mind to repeatedly revisit the painful thing, the way the tongue keeps touching a tender tooth.
Emotional pain occasioned by an ongoing situation need not be “chronic.”
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It’s hard to imagine a more potent teacher than a chronic painful condition. What could have more potential to underscore the difference between life itself and anything the mind can introduce? What could deliver more dramatic evidence about the power and persistance of the mind, about the liberating power of surrender?
With the prospect of an uncertain outcome, maybe the likelihood of no relief, doesn’t it become vivid that the future lives in the mind? That if the mind can be allowed to rest from its panicked picture of the future, then perhaps this moment can be borne?
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For most people, it’s rare to tune in exclusively to the radical immediacy — the present scene, the body’s sensations and motion. This is because the momentary content of the thought stream almost always pulls a person into its secondary impression of “reality,” either in the form of processing what’s happening right now, or in the form of generating (or revisiting) thoughts having nothing whatever to do with the now. Because the mind’s contents tend to hook attention more than the sensory, in-motion moment, a person likely isn’t at all aware of living most moments, as they occur.
Nevertheless, each present moment — whatever it may hold, however bad it may feel — is the single scrap of life that’s ever real, that’s actually experienced. All else is memory, concept, anticipation.
Experience doesn’t require mental engagement. What the mind does with experience is at a distance from life itself. It has never, all your life, been otherwise, and it never could be. It is only an impression that a person can actually live in the head. It’s an impression that holds most people in thrall all their lives, which end up (alas) passing them by.
To recognize the gulf between aliveness itself and anything generated by the mind (however “true” it appears to be) is the liberating discovery. It is how you come to know what you deeply are — what reality is. It’s how you come to dwell in the moment’s expression of being alive, rather than the illusory “living” in the mind’s story of life.
The now is what it is. You didn’t pick it. (It has never been otherwise, however much you may have wanted it to be.) What if that knowing became a part of you, like something in your bones, moving with you as you moved, moment to moment? What if that embodied knowing experienced what-is as simply what it is to be alive right now? This is what it is to be conscious — to be free.Jan Frazier