“The Anticipation of Suffering is the Thief of This Moment”
I was sitting in a gray, canvas camping chair with aluminum legs just a few feet away from the shore of Lake Champlain. The sun was low on the horizon and would be setting in less than an hour. I looked out over a post card scene at Kingsland Bay, one of the most beautiful state parks in Vermont. There were a few sailboats quietly rocking in the gentle current against a backdrop of the Adirondack Mountains across the lake. It was a peaceful setting and a mismatch with my anxious and turbulent mind.
My mind was turbulent with the anticipation that soon I would be jumping off a large concrete dock into the cold water of the lake. I had done this five days ago with my 19 year old daughter, Chani. The moment I hit the water, head first, completely submerged, I felt a surge of arctic tension in my body as every muscle tightened up against the cold water. The water temperature was 61 degrees, not icy or frigid and certainly not dangerous. But as soon as my head rose above the water’s surface I turned and swam as fast as I could back to the dock. I swam as if I was being chased by a shark. After I climbed onto the dock it took me five minutes to stop shivering. This was not a pleasant experience. And now, five days later, I was about to do it again.
Why? Why not just stay in my comfortable chair with my shirt on and read my book, watch the sunset and go home to join my family for a nice dinner of Indian curry?
Because I have a rule. It’s a short season for swimming in the lake. It lasts about 90 days starting June 15th. Once the season begins, I never go to Kingsland Bay State Park without going in the water. It may be my last opportunity – so I don’t allow myself to pass it up out of fear. I jump in – even when the water is 61 degrees. And now, I was sitting there staring at the lake knowing that moment had arrived.
You learn a lot about anxiety when you anticipate the discomfort of the future. You learn a lot about the way in which the anticipation of suffering steals the present moment from you. In that moment, in that present moment, I was sitting comfortably in a chair with a book on Eastern Philosophy. The air temperature was 75 degrees and I was looking out at one of the loveliest scenes I could imagine in one of the most beautiful places in the state of Vermont. I wasn’t hungry. I wasn’t sick. I wasn’t in pain. But instead of being happy, joyful and relaxed, I was anxious and stressed. Instead of looking at the shapes of the clouds against the blue sky, I was having thoughts about how unpleasant my experience was going to be in a few minutes.
A few minutes from now and a year from now have something in common – they’re not now.
Most of us do this regularly. We give up the relative comfort or peace of the present moment for the anticipation of the unpleasant experience we will have later that day. Or that week. Or even months from now. We do this in the morning when we wake up in bed and the gears of our mind begin to turn. We do this in the shower. We do it on the way to work. We do it in the evenings and on the weekends. For our mind, it’s a full time job. If there’s a better way to keep ourselves stuck in fear, anxiety and discomfort, I don’t know what it is.
Mindfulness is the practice of gently pulling ourselves back into the present moment of our life – the only real moment that is available. Sometimes the present moment is unpleasant – a headache, the angry words of your spouse, the thumpety-thump of a flat tire, or a toothache. But much of the time the present moment is a relatively nice place to live: chewing a crunchy apple, a blue sky, a comfortable chair to sit in, music coming from speakers, or something interesting to read. For many of us who live above the poverty line, our life is often more comfortable than our experience of it.
With reluctance and trepidation, I walked out to the edge of the concrete dock until I was surrounded on three sides by the lake. On a hot summer day in August the water would have looked inviting. But at this moment, my mind was simply consumed by my expectation of the cold piercing every muscle and nerve in my body. As I stood with my toes on the edge of the concrete, I had the thought, “This is a stupid rule. I don’t really need to do this.”
Before the next thought could take shape, I dove into the water. As my body disappeared below the surface, the next thought I had was,
“It’s not that cold.”
And it wasn’t. Of course, it was cold. But it didn’t feel nearly as cold as the other day. My head broke above the surface. I took a deep life-giving breath, but I didn’t instinctively rush back to the dock. I looked around at the endless ripples of gentle waves. I looked up at the wispy clouds in the blue sky. I could feel my body adjusting to the temperature of the water. I began to float on my back. Then I swam further out into the lake. I felt exhilarated. I felt alive. Most importantly, I was present. There was nothing going on in my mind beyond the water, the waves, the sunlight, my breath and my head going in and out of the water as I swam.
I’m not sure how long I stayed in the water. Maybe 5-10 minutes, maybe more. Eventually I made my way up the ladder and onto the hard concrete dock. I wrapped a large, blue cotton bath towel around my dripping body and walked back to my canvas chair. That was the chair where I lost a few minutes of my life. I lost those minutes worrying about something that never happened. I laughed. I scanned the ground beneath the chair to see if I could find those lost minutes, but they were gone. I’ll never have them back.
I looked up just in time to see the sun disappearing behind the Adirondack Mountains in the distance. I lowered my gaze and saw the expansive waters of the lake where I had been swimming. The gentle, lovely, soft blue waters which, at that moment, looked back at me and smiled, as if to say, “Come back any time.”