I find it really difficult to stay present. As someone who ruminates and reminisces about the past, or despairs and daydreams about the future, I have very little headspace for being in the moment. People speak of mindfulness and I pretend to know what they’re talking about. People talk about meditation and I tell them about that one time I took yoga in college.
There are some exceptions, though, times when the moment is all there is. One is when I’m writing and have returned to my zone, a meditative safe space in which I can exist for hours, until I finally look up and realize that it’s almost sunrise and I’ve been writing all through the night. Another is that small gift that happens too infrequently, every other year maybe, when I finally get to the beach, plant my feet into the wet sand, and let my breath rise and fall with the tide as I slowly inhale and exhale the ocean.
And then there’s what happened while I was on a mother-daughter bat mitzvah trip in Israel a few years ago—the time I experienced the tranquility and oneness of a single moment amidst an adventure that was anything but serene.
What happened was that we were supposed to go to the Salt Caves by the Dead Sea one afternoon, but since it was going to rain in Jerusalem that morning and would become too dangerous due to flooding, the location was changed last minute to the Tekoa caves. It was a choice that, while certainly exciting for a teen tour in 1995, should’ve been given more thought for our group of tween girls and 30- and 40-something-year-old moms. But it was invigorating all the same, especially the hike along the side of a cliff to get to the cave.
My daughter was nervous going into the cave, so I sucked up my mild claustrophobia and exclaimed how awesome the adventure was (!!!) and how awesome she was (!!!!) and how she was doing awesomely (!!!!!) and all that awesome stuff. Even as we wiggled one after the other, like human-sized earthworms, through human-sized earthworm passageways, I talked her through with thoughts of rainbows and unicorns and the huge chocolate milkshakes we would get later on that evening. So we went on our merry way, wearing our hard hats with those cute little lights attached to the front to make sure that we didn’t smack our heads into a wall or slide down into some abyss, never to be heard from again. And it was all dwarves marching through tunnels under the Misty Mountains of Middle-Earth until we got to a point where you had to pull yourself up/push yourself off a slippery wall while contorting your body sideways to get through what the Israeli guides aptly dubbed “the birth canal.”
One of the guides, laughing to himself out loud, helped each person along, one by one. That was one of those points where you now understand why any other civilized country would make you sign a waiver. My daughter, no longer anxious, got through just fine.
Me, not so much.
As I struggled to get traction off my 10-years-past-expiration-date ratty old sneakers, while simultaneously clawing my fingers into handholds that didn’t exist using upper body strength that also didn’t exist, I decided that spelunking was not for me. After a little while struggling, I kind of stopped to rest and appreciate my surroundings. The way I figured it, the guide would get me out of my predicament eventually. I mean, other people were behind me and I was the bottleneck, so he kind of had to.
I didn’t panic those two minutes I was trapped inside that birth canal. I was pretty calm, actually, frozen in time, stuck inside myself in the moment thinking, “Hmm, so here I am.”
And I didn’t analyze the fact that I was being present. I simply was.
It was only after I managed to get free (once the guide stopped laughing at me) and was sitting in the large cavern with half of the group waiting for the other slowpokes to catch up that the delayed reaction of nausea and feeling faintish set in. It’s happened to me many times before and is called a vasovagal reaction (though my husband likes to call it a pizza-bagel reaction). After telling the other guide, who’s also a medic, that I wasn’t feeling too good, only to have him wave it off with a, “Ah, you’re ok, you’re ok,” he finally took me seriously when I staggered off to the side and started to “get sick” for like, probably, the same amount of time I was stuck.
I sat down for a few minutes while the medic checked my pulse and told me absurd jokes to get the color back into my face. Eventually we got out of the cave, scaled back along the edge of the cliff, and reached the point where we had originally been given our hard hats. The guides drove me up to the tour bus at the top of the hill, while those other losers had to walk it themselves.
As amusing as it is to tell that story after the fact, when I think about it part of me actually wants to be back there in that cave, in that “birth canal,” feeling that brief moment of serenity when I stopped struggling and simply was. That spot in between worlds, that moment of metamorphosis from being a fetus in the womb to a baby brought to life — a moment that you can’t even anticipate because you have no idea what comes next. You have no idea what you’re in for on the other side.
It makes me wonder if what I really mean to achieve by staying present is to recreate that same sense of suspended time, that moment before life picks up again. A strange thought, maybe. But to me, having gone through that experience of comfortable “stuckness,” I came out of that cave feeling like a different person. Reborn, if you will.
And so back to being an adult: zoning out while writing in a meditative state, hearing the sound of waves crashing against the shore, feeling the water and sand swishing between my toes, being stuck inside a crevice in the middle of a cave during a spelunking trip for which I did not sign a waiver.
Maybe all these experiences are soothing because they are moments of serenity that exist in their own realm of time or place, where the future is full of possibilities but also beside the point. A state of being where a person simply “is.” Maybe that’s what it means to be present.
Dena Croog is a writer and editor in Teaneck and the founder of Refa’enu, a nonprofit organization dedicated to mood disorder awareness and support. Learn about the organization and its support groups at www.refaenu.org, or email email@example.com with questions or comments.