“I’m still working on this, and I’m not there yet ….”
The words bolted out of my mouth almost involuntarily, and as I heard myself uttering them, I momentarily stopped short in mid-sentence – as futile a gesture as the proverbial closing the barn door after the horse has already escaped. Recovering from this jolt to my self-awareness, I continued the conversation I was having with my friend in the neighborhood sandwich shop where we had run into each other at noon one day recently.
We were speaking about our sons – who are good friends and 12th-grade classmates at the local high school. One of their mutual friends has recently moved on to a different social crowd at the school, and has apparently broken off all ties with his two former friends. This unwelcome change was registering in a particularly strong way with my friend’s son, as it seems very possible that both he and the estranged friend might be going to the same college next fall.
So my friend and I were discussing the challenges of being in close quarters with a person with whom you have some tensions. By way of showing empathy for her son’s predicament, I was relating an experience I had some years ago. I had traveled across country to attend a three-day experiential learning workshop, and was unpleasantly surprised – to put it mildly – to discover on the first day that also in attendance was an ex-colleague whose professional competence and demeanor I had some serious issues with.
As I explained to my friend how challenging this was for me, and how the experience ultimately taught me something useful about guarding against my judgments and expanding my capacity for tolerance, out came the unbidden phrase, “I’m still working on this, and I’m not there yet.”
I’m sure I meant it as a phrase of encouragement, that it takes a lot of time and effort for any of us to develop the habits of acceptance and compassion that allow us to make room for people whom we find particularly challenging, and that of course her son will find his own way of being with this potentially uncomfortable social situation. I certainly hope that my friend took that encouragement from my words.
But after she left the shop with her lunch in hand, I was left with facing the deeper meaning that underlie those words – especially the last four, “I’m not there yet”.
At one time in my life, I was incapable of having a discussion about my personal goals and aspirations without tacking that phrase onto the end of practically every sentence I spoke. “I need to be more assertive, but I’m not there yet“. “I’m trying to be more tolerant of people I disagree with, but I’m not there yet.” “I should exercise more, but I’m not there yet.” And so on, and so on.
Then, about ten years ago, I had the good fortune to be working with an exceptionally gifted personal coach, David Silberkleit. We used to have our coaching sessions sitting in the back yard of the house he was renting, looking out into the thick woods of his southern Connecticut surroundings. And one day I was going on about changes I intended to make in my life and in my career, and of course I said, without even thinking of it, “I’m not there yet, but when I get there …. ” I had to stop, because David skillfully interrupted me with the simple question, “Hey, Tom, where is there?” Then, to underscore his point, he tossed a pebble out toward the trees across the yard, and asked further, “Is it somewhere out there, in those trees? Is that where there is?”
It was a moment of startling clarity, and even now, ten years later, I remember it as vividly as if it were yesterday. In that moment, it was as though the trees actually parted their branches to let some sunlight shine through for me. I would never again utter that phrase “I’m not there yet” without hearing David’s brilliant questions, and without realizing that “I’m not there yet” is just a convenient way of avoiding the really important, and sometimes really painful, observation that “HERE is where I am right now”, and the question that flows naturally from that observation – “Given that I’m right here right now, what action is most appropriate for me to take right here right now?”
In that moment, I began to let go of my attachment to some idealistic future place I might get to someday, and I began to engage in a more realistic way with the actual place I was in today.
In the ensuing years, my involvement with the practice meditation and with the habits of mindfulness has helped me keep on the path that David pointed me toward on that long-ago afternoon. Understanding that there really is no such thing as “getting there”, that in fact we are always “not there yet”, has helped me realize that achieving any goal we have for the future depends entirely on how carefully we attend to whatever is happening right here, right now.
We’ll never get anywhere if we’re too focused on “getting there”. And paradoxically, when we stay focused on being here, we actually do move forward, and perhaps get a tiny bit closer to “there”.
But, only just a tiny bit closer. We will still, and will always, be “not there yet’.
And that’s exactly where we should be – right here, right now.
PS – If you would like to know more about David’s coaching programs, you can visit his website, http://www.empowercoach.com.