Being Present to Both Beauty and Terror
Embracing the "Full Catastrophe"
by Patricia Adams Farmer
“The biggest gift you can give is to be absolutely present, and when you’re worrying about whether you’re hopeful or hopeless or pessimistic or optimistic, who cares? The main thing is that you’re showing up, that you’re here and that you’re finding ever more capacity to love this world because it will not be healed without that.”
— Joanna Macy, On Being interview
Not as Easy as It Sounds
Being present, the most basic attitude for the spiritual pilgrim, is not an easy practice. For being present means not only letting the bright gladness of summer daisies seep into our souls; it also means a face-to-face encounter with the fears that haunt our days.
Let everything happen to you
beauty and terror.
Just keep going,
No feeling is final.
Being present means being present with all of it — the beauty and the terror. Of course, terror is the hard part, but sometimes even beauty terrifies us. We cast a suspicious eye on anything too wonderful, too beautiful; it won’t last — it will go away and leave us bereft. The cynical, the fearful, and the calcified parts of our souls often block our ability to be fully present.
To be fully present, we need to learn how to embrace the whole of life, as did Kazantzakis’ famous character in Zorba the Greek. When asked about his domestic life, Zorba responds, “Am I not a man? Of course I’ve been married. Wife, house, kids, everything . . . the full catastrophe!” Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Full Catastrophe Living, interprets Zorba’s words this way: “‘Catastrophe’ here does not mean disaster. Rather it means the poignant enormity of our life experience.”
A Little Lesson from Ecuador
I learned Zorba’s secret while living in Ecuador, an experience of intense beauty and unprecedented terror. The moment my husband and I got off the plane, both extremes greeted us in equal measure. It was as if this strange land was suffering from bipolar disorder, and it forced me to think of reality in an entirely new way.
We built a house. It was tiny, simple, and beautiful to our eyes. Looking out onto a wild, unspoiled beach, and surrounded by a tropical forest, our little casa basked happily under the equatorial sunshine. We lived with iguanas and wild goats and green parrots and palm trees and salty sand filled with blue rocks and clay remnants from cultures long past. There were frequent deprivations, too, which naturally come with the wildness: things like electricity and water and chocolate chips.
But none of this defeated me. Rather, it was the terror that brought me to a point of spiritual crisis. It was the kind of terror born of being a stranger in a foreign land, prey to muggers and scammers and the shadowy side of this unpredictable and exotic place.
What my spirit needed to survive was not so much toughness, but largeness — the ability to be fully present with the “whole" of my strange and exotic experience, the beauty and the terror. And so, at the middle of the world, I learned the art of being present with the whole of life — the full catastrophe. Sometimes it meant taking a few minutes each day to write down my fears and angers, and then to breathe with them compassionately, like soothing a screaming child. Only then could I gather enough courage to move on to the beauty.
Being Absolutely Present
Eco-philosopher and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy says that we need to be “absolutely present” with the world. It means facing the “full catastrophe” with courage and love. It means vowing to love ourselves, our loved ones, and the earth itself "in sickness and in health". Being present with the world means showing up and listening, not only to the good and uplifting news around us, but also to the cosmic groans of an iceberg twice the size of Luxembourg breaking off the Antarctic ice shelf.
When a loved one is sick or dying, what do we do? We sit beside them. We don’t have to say anything. Simply being present is the poetry of love.
I believe God is like this: unconditionally present, feeling “the poignant enormity” of the world — the beauty and the terror — because that is what love does.
We Each Need Two Journals
If you want to mirror divine love — wide and deep and unconditional — allow yourself a little time today to sit and breathe with the world as it is. Be present with the fullness of yourself, too, the light and the shadow. Be present with your friends, even when they are not at their best. Be present not only with the enchantment of the earth, but with its sorrows and its anguish and its slow destruction by our recklessness and greed. Inside this gift of presence resides the seeds for transformation and healing.
And when the terror comes, we can sit with it, care for it, and not be overcome.
We each need two journals — one is a gratitude journal, which strengthens the beauty of our souls. The other is a gripe journal, which dares to name what irritates us, what enrages us, and what we fear. Instead of strengthening our pain, it oddly diffuses pain’s power over us. We can finally move on to the beauty, and there is much beauty to be had.
Perhaps, if enough of us practice being fully present with both the beauty and the terror, we will wake up one day to find ourselves whole, our relationships restored, and our planet on the mend. It all starts with the courage to be fully, stubbornly — absolutely — present.
An earlier version of this article was published September 12, 2017 by Spirituality & Practice with the title “B is for Being Present.”
Header Photo: pxhere, CCO