The KEY Questions: What does it mean to be present?

I had never had an anxiety attack.

Naturally enough I’d coached plenty of clients who had, and I’m reasonably sure I’d helped them through their various emotional crises, nearly always managing to find a way to reconnect them with their innate wellbeing. I know because they told me so. As for myself, if I thought about it at all I guess I assumed it couldn’t happen to me. So when the pain in my chest showed up, out of the blue and most definitely uninvited, I immediately came to the conclusion, as I presume most people do, that my heart was about to give up the ghost.

I was driving at the time, so had to pull over. Too late to ‘take back’ the thought that I might be suffering a heart attack, my physiology duly obeyed my psychology by manifesting a pain in my left arm. That of course confirmed the diagnosis, leading to the firm belief that I had only moments to live. I called my wife on the pretext that I needed a lift to get to the hospital, but really to tell her that I loved her and to kiss the kids for me. She came at once and we raced to A and E. I sat in the passenger seat sweating profusely as the pain increased, wondering if I was going to make it to the hospital alive.

You already know how the story ends. The doctor who checked me over told me I had the heart of an ox. There was no trauma there, and if my blood pressure was a little raised that was only the result of my imagination running away with me like a galloping horse. What I had suffered was simply a panic attack, scary and unpleasant but ultimately harmless. It was a sobering moment. I realised that all those years I had spent helping people in the aftermath of their own attacks (many times described in great detail) had somehow not prepared me for having the exact same experience.

I could tell you about some of the things that had been weighing heavily on my mind that morning, outward circumstances that could arguably have triggered the attack, but it wouldn’t mean a thing. Life is a contact sport and reading this you will have your own set of personal trials that it has thrown your way. Take your pick. It happened, and as with all experience, I am a little wiser.

In the course of my work as a transformational coach I talk a lot about being present, about the value of living our lives in the moment, unencumbered by a past that never existed and a future that never arrives. Embracing this eternal ‘now’ is the most productive as well as the most spiritually nourishing way to live. And, a little paradoxically, nothing makes you feel more in touch with the present moment than thinking you’re about to die, (which incidentally explains why many people embark on a spiritual journey after a brush with their own mortality).

So how am I wiser? Like the majority of us, I struggle to maintain this sense of the ‘here and now’, even as I teach the understanding to others. It’s called being human. But I know that Mind has a foolproof way of pointing us in the right direction, whatever the circumstances of our lives, and I have no doubt that this little episode in my life was one of those signposts. A worry is an unattached thought after all, with no foundation, like a bubble or a helium balloon we are hanging onto. We can let go the string anytime and watch it float away.

Coming away from the hospital I realised that I don’t want to be searching anymore. In the past I was always on a mission to improve myself, to ‘find myself’ so that I could help others. And I think that for a few brief moments leading up to my panic attack I had slipped back there. I was striving for something out of reach, when in fact it was right there with me all along, and always had been. On that morning I was ‘holding onto the string’.

Here’s a final metaphor that I have used in my teaching. Did you know that if you make a cut with a knife or razor blade in a chrysalis just as a butterfly is beginning to emerge it will never fly? A misguided attempt to help the process along actually ends it, because the insect’s struggle for freedom is not an inconvenience but a requirement, building the strength necessary for flight.

Now I see that the ‘struggle’ of my anxiety attack was actually a requirement of my need to stay present.