On Being Present: an Endurance Exercise

Right here, right now.

Right here, right now.

“It hurts to be present.”

This line comes from the poet Marie Howe, in a conversation with Kirsta Tippett, the host of the brilliant “On Being.” Howe is talking about how the modern world makes it increasingly more difficult to be present with an immediate experience. She supports her claim with details of a writing exercise she gives her students at Sarah Lawrence College.

“I ask my students every week to write 10 observations of the actual  world. It’s very hard for them,” Howe says in the interview.

Sounds simple enough, right? All she asks is that her students write two lines of something they see each day, without metaphor. Her students struggled with this assignment. “To resist metaphor is very difficult because you have to endure the thing itself, which hurts for some reason,” Howe said.

At first I scratched my head over this statement, but I get it. I metaphor the hell out of my experiences, using comparisons to make meaning of things, experiences and feelings. I am filled with sentence precursors that go, “This is just like…”; “This reminds me of …”, “I felt like …”.

Years ago, I was with friends on the island of Kauai, blown away by the lushness, the tropical fantasy of my surroundings: dense jungle, thick palm leaves, crashing waves, humid salt air. “This reminds me of ‘South Pacific’ I’d cry out from time to time, followed with a softer, “even though I’ve never seen the goddamn movie.”

The funny thing is, my friends agreed—and they hadn’t seen the movie either!

We are a culture that wants to compare. We want to say something is like that, a process that demands that we look away from what is in front of us. Why is that, even when the thing before us is beautiful? Is it too much? Have we lost the ability, or the focus, to endure a deep feeling for exactly what this is, and nothing else? Are we losing the ability to focus on the exactitude of something, like the deep blue of this water bottle, or the indescribable turmoil of a broken heart? Is it a sign that we don't know how to bear witness without making a judgment?

I recently travelled to the British Virgin Islands, where I swam over an underwater world that blew my mind: endless coral gardens, fish of all shapes, sizes and colors. Turtles. Shades of turquoises. I trotted out all my “It reminds me of …” and “This is like’s …”.  The comparisons included the Dr. Seuss book “Go Dog Go” to futurist cities in sci-fi movies. 

I saw coral catching the sunlight, small fish, rock gardens.

I saw coral catching the sunlight, small fish, rock gardens.

The 10 observations Marie Howe asked of her students were simple--two-line sentences. “I saw the single geranium in the blue pot. The blooms were pink, the leaves had a circle of red at the edges.” Or, using Howe’s example, “I saw a water glass on a brown tablecloth. The light came through in three places.”

At first, Howe says, it was difficult. Her students struggled without their metaphors. After a few weeks, however, they were into it! Howe asked them to return to using metaphor and they refused.  

Does metaphor-making lead to comparing?

Could it be that being a rabid metaphor-er sends you in the direction of comparing? I’ll throw myself in this ring. I don’t just compare the sea life of the Caribbean to a children’s book; I also compare myself to others; I compare what I'm doing with my life to what other people are doing; I compare the story I'm writing right now to the story I think I should be writing. I compare my swimming to my friends' swimming; my eating speed to others'. I know I’m not alone here, but I’ve been especially aware of this habit, and working to detach myself from the effects.

Do I compare more these days because I can’t endure facing myself while I go through transition? What does this say about how I turn up for myself and support myself? What if I just witnessed my experience and the object around me, without reaching for metaphor or comparison? What if I just saw the open laptop, an open word document filled with sentences; the email with the words “doesn’t fit our needs”; the curly sunhat on a ripped notebook on the kitchen table. In that last sentence I almost added “…where we never eat.” But that’s a judgment—and reminds me how unnatural it is to write JUST WHAT I OBSERVE.

Let me be clear: I will never give up my metaphor-ing. Or comparing and contrasting. But the practice of being present to the everyday objects around me as I endure uncertainty, beauty, loss, joy, transition, chaos--without metaphor; free of comparison--that is a practice I'll sign up for.

This morning I sat in a red chair. I saw trees, a lake and three eagles flying fast and low over our house. I saw their white heads then just the blue of the sky.