Mindfulness is rapidly being adopted by the medical community as an effective way of combatting stress. It involves noticing what is going on – in the external world, and inside us, in our bodies and in the world of emotions. Mindfulness can be practised through meditation or by moving through tasks in a self-aware manner. In this way we live life fully, rather than constantly projecting into the past or the future. This is the meaning of living a true present. But what happens when the present moment is truly awful?
Nina, a primary school teacher in her forties from Aberdeen, found herself in just such a moment when during an argument on holiday her partner became physically and verbally aggressive. He bundled her into a car and, shouting insults at her, drove onto the motorway. He said he would be dumping her in a rest area and would choose one with no shops or phone. She did not know where he was taking her. She asked him not to be cruel, and he shouted that if she opened her mouth one more time, he would leave her on the hard shoulder. She fell into silence, while the car was being driven at top speed. This terrifying journey continued for seven hours.
Nina used mindfulness techniques to cope, which she had practised all her life. First of all she sank into her emotions. “I am afraid. My neck and back are tense. I am cold. My legs and arms are rigid. I am terrified he will drive off leaving me with no money and no coat. It is raining and windy outside. I am afraid I will have to ask strangers for help and I will feel shame. I am enraged at the mistreatment I am enduring. I am angry with myself I chose a man capable of treating me with contempt. I am wondering how far he will go, is my life in danger? Will his rage make us crash? I am confused at how he could be so loving before. These are my emotions.”
Then, she focused on a raindrop on the window. She glanced at his body, fixed, hands gripping the steering wheel, and noticed the power he was enjoying over her. She realised this power could not last forever.
Heraclitus of Ephesus was a Greek philosopher known for stating that change was central to the universe: “Everything is flux”. This moment, although it seems endless, is also in flux, she told herself.
The circumstances were external. The emotions temporary. Nina knew she was an immortal being, and that the moment could not touch her soul. Eckhart Tolle in his famous book, The Power of Now says of such moments: accept then act. Nina accepted her circumstances, then took action. There was no physical action she could take, but there was plenty that she could do in the privacy of her mind. He has taken my body captive, she thought, he is trying to frighten me. But my mind is still free.
In such moments we need to become alchemists, transforming the base metal of dark moments into the gold of the soul, into conscious awareness and detachment. When she realised she was indestructible, the resistance to the moment relented.
Having located the trauma in her emotions, she set about allowing it to dissolve, imagining the tension crackling and dispersing. The earth was still holding her, the air still nourishing her body. Much of her suffering was due to what she imagined others would think of her circumstances, the outrage other women would express at being called a whore and disgusting by her partner, the ‘received opinion’ of what constituted abuse in a relationship. This caused her shame. Accepting what is without judgment is central to sensing the true present when the moment seems unacceptable. I will make this moment my ally, she said to herself, and allowed a private smile to form behind her lips. He is gripped by rage and feelings of revenge, but I am just sitting in this moment, and watching.
Nina then acted by choosing not to suffer. For seven hours she focused on joy, filling her mind with the good things in her life. Periodically the fear returned. She observed it, dived into it, and emerged once again.
Marianne Williamson talks of the law of divine compensation. She says even when we experience diminishment there is more than enough for the universe to compensate for any lack. In a car if you take the wrong turn, the GPS automatically corrects the course. Even if there is material ‘lack’ in this moment, there are ways through our energy, attitudes, perspective and behaviour to invoke peace, a peace that cannot disappear. If you stop giving a problem energy, the moment is transformed. Nina clung to this concept as the hours ticked by. She found her sense of time dissolving.
Then she recognised the signs of their home town Aberdeen. They hit heavy traffic. She felt his power waning. She noticed his body language changing. He was screaming at the traffic, blaming her for the congestion, for the situation she had got them both into, in his words. He began to berate her for not speaking to him to try and ‘make things all right’. ‘You told me not to speak,’ she said. He denied this.
And then he stopped the car near her flat and she got out. He got out too and stood her opposite her, his face conciliatory. “Make me a cup of coffee and we’ll talk,” he said, sighing.
“No,” she said, and walked out of his life.
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