The Star Malaysia - Star2

Be present in the hard times

When all we see is the problem, we blind ourselves to possibilit­y.


WHEN I was first introduced to meditation I thought I had found a magic key that would allow me to immerse myself in peace and calm whenever I chose.

How wrong I was.

One of the talks about it that remains vivid in my mind came from a Buddhist monk called Ajahn Siripanyo. He was speaking about the life of Ajahn Chah – a revered Thai Buddhist master – and offered a stark reflection. He said, “All that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will become otherwise, will become separated from me”. It was quite a contrast to the happy image Buddhism tends to enjoy.

But the reflection wasn’t intended to be dark and disturbing. It’s a reminder of a truth most of us tend to avoid, and the consequenc­es of that avoidance.

The approach to the therapy I practice – acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) – describes “experienti­al avoidance” as a common reason why we get stressed and suffer. It refers to the unwillingn­ess we have to be present for difficult thoughts, feelings, sensations and events.

You might ask, “Why would I want to be present for difficult experience­s?” None of us wants to feel anxiety, suffer loss, get ill, or deal with life changes we wish weren’t happening. It’s understand­able to try to avoid life’s troubles, but the more we try to control what’s outside our control, the more pain we feel.

Recently, the creator of ACT, Prof Steven C. Hayes from the University of Nevada in the United States, described his struggles with the reality that his youngest child is transition­ing into adulthood and the changes to their relationsh­ip this will bring. He talked about the pain of listening to Neil Young’s Sugar Mountain, a coming of age song reflecting on the bitterswee­t reality of change: “Now you say you’re leaving home / because you want to be alone.

/ Ain’t it funny how you feel / when you’re findin’ out it’s real?”

Prof Hayes was hit with the realisatio­n that his young son, beloved and pleasing, was becoming otherwise: a young man who’ll soon spend more time with his friends than his parents; who’ll drive instead of being driven; a young man shaping and living his own life.

On listening to the song several times, Prof Hayes said, “I wept on the first listening and on the fifth. I tried to tell my wife about it and could barely make words come out of my mouth. She patted me kindly. “Then I listened a few more times and noticed feelings I hadn’t noticed before. Appreciati­on. Purpose. Pride about my son’s growth. Love.

“I started singing it in the car. I later played it for my wife, and we talked about our beautiful boy and his challenges and how we can be better parents to our son in this phase of his life.”

Ajahn Siripanyo’s reflection points to a truth we all have to face at times: Life is uncertain, everchangi­ng in big ways and small. Change and loss can be painful. It’s helpful to be mindful and present for that pain, because it can give important lessons and show us the meaning behind what hurts. Being present for pleasant expeus riences allows to savour and cherish the moments that make life joyful and rich. We learn to appreciate what we have while we have it. Being present for unpleasant things in life doesn’t feel good but it allows us to accept that life is sometimes hard, and helps us develop insights and the resilience needed to deal with tough times.

When we avoid the things we can’t control, we suffer much more than necessary. Prof Hayes could have resisted his boy’s growing up. He could pretend the young man will be forever 16, that he’ll be around forever to steer his son’s life for him.

Instead, Prof Hayes decided to be present for the pain of his son growing into a man and accept the inevitable changes to their relationsh­ip. In processing that pain, he was able to realise that although the relationsh­ip is changing, there’s still plenty of meaning and connection to be enjoyed. There’s a new chapter to be written.

Suffering is to ask from life what it can’t give us. If we wish for life to be how we want it to be rather than make room for how it is, we lose sight of what could be because of our denial of how things are. When all we see is the problem, we blind ourselves to possibilit­y.

The opposite of avoidance is acceptance. That doesn’t mean we want or like or desire whatever shows up, only that we stop denying what has shown up. As the psychother­apist Jon Fredericks­on puts it, our pain doesn’t come from what’s real – it comes when our denial and illusions begin to fall apart.

It’s not easy to face up to change, but it gets easier with practice. Instead of re-reading old stories in the hope they’ll magically change, we get to see what comes next, appreciati­ng what’s been and gone, and stepping into a new chapter of meaningful possibilit­y.

Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulnes­s and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, email The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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