“Realize deeply that the present moment is all you have.” ~Eckhart Tolle
Days after the initial divorce from my ex-partner, I wanted to meet two very close friends in the city. I knew they would be loving and supportive and that the experience would be good for me. But I was so grief stricken and overwhelmed with emotion that even leaving the house felt like a monumental effort.
Sitting on the edge of my bed, picturing all the steps it would take me from where I was now to where they were seemed insurmountable. Normally, I would have jumped in my car and traveled to them with ease. But I wasn’t at home; I was staying with my family and I didn’t have a car.
Being in unfamiliar territory, there was the challenge of working out the public transport timetable (not one of my strongest traits even at the best of times), the fear of breaking down on the bus, and a general air of vulnerability and shame.
Weeping silently, I considered simply staying at home. But the idea of being alone brought a fresh wave of pain. The thought of spending the morning by myself in an empty house was too much to bear.
I was caught between two painful ideas: stay at home alone with my grief or face the anxiety of traveling in a fragile state.
Thankfully, my years of meditation practice came to the rescue and I heard an inner voice say, “Focus on the very next step.”
A sigh of relief escaped my lips as I realized that I didn’t have to travel all the way to the city to meet my friends. I just needed to do the very next thing.
I gave myself permission to only focus on what was in front of me. I didn’t have to go anywhere I didn’t want to. I didn’t have to do anything I didn’t want.
All I had to take was the very next step, without thought for what came after or commitment to a particular outcome.
First up, get dressed. I didn’t think about the fashionable choice; I simply focused on the process of dressing. One leg in the pants, second leg in. Pop the t-shirt over my head. Breathing deeply each time and moving slowly but surely.
This simple act was enough to undo me. A fresh flood of tears ran down my face, as the pain and shame hit me. I couldn’t do this. I should be handling this better. Why couldn’t I just go and meet my friends like a “normal person”?!
Drawing deep on all my training, I put one hand over my heart and one on my belly. I felt my breath moving in and out, my belly rise and fall. Sinking into this feeling of presence, I practiced a little self-compassion.
Recognizing that I was experiencing a moment of suffering, just like a “normal person,” I was able to send some kindness to my tender heart. Just as I would have comforted a hurting friend, I soothed my nervous system with gentle thoughts and deep breaths.
Once again, I heard the voice: “Focus on the very next step.”
So I did. I walked to the bathroom to brush my teeth. Not so I could go and meet my friends all the way in the city, but simply to experience the sensation of brushing my teeth.
Next, I placed each object into a bag that I may need if I was leaving the house. Not that I was necessarily leaving the house. It was simply a task of placing objects, one by one, into a bag. Keys, wallet, phone…
Then, a short investigation. What bus would take me from the house to the city? A simple act of curiosity. Information gathering. Just a little research.
I repeated each task in this same fashion. Slow, deliberate, present. Without focusing on the reason or the end result of each exercise, I was able to complete each one with full attention. This presence helped me feel calm and secure throughout the entire journey.
Breathe, walk out the front door. Breathe, wait at the bus stop. Breathe, watch the suburbs roll past the window. Breathe, walk step by step to the meeting place.
I made it all the way to the city and fell into the arms of my friends. There were tears of relief as I realized I’d completed the “insurmountable journey” by taking it one step at a time. The time we spent together was nourishing and healing. The sense of quiet pride at making it this far was restorative.
When I focused on the very next step, I was able to overcome the devastating emotions and inertia. And in the weeks to come, although I faced many difficult days, this mantra went on to help me overcome overwhelm each time.
If you’re facing a challenging transition, it’s easy to feel swamped by a tidal wave of emotions and thoughts. So when you’re feeling overwhelmed, let go of the myriad of decisions and actions that you need to take. Simply focus on the step that’s right in front of you.
You may not know all the steps you need to take—and that’s okay. You don’t need to know the end before you start. You simply need to take the immediate action that is required right now and that will lead you further down the path.
If you focus on the very next step, you’ll be able to release overwhelm and get through any transition you face.
Woman hiding under pillow image via Shutterstock