When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Let Go

When you can abandon your pain—or joy—you’re ready for what the next moment will bring, says Sylvia Boorstein. 

Illustration by Missy Chimovitz

My friend Susan was standing knee-high in the ocean in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. The surf seemed calm enough when a wave suddenly picked her up and dropped her over onto her ankle, which broke in several places.

Susan knew she was in trouble; the pain was severe. She was swimming alone and no one was nearby. She sat up, legs stretched out toward the sea, and let the next few waves carry her back to shore. Then she waved and shouted until people noticed her. They carried her out of the water and onto a chaise lounge in the shade of a beach umbrella. Someone called the paramedics.

It was the fifth day of a seven-day yoga and meditation retreat, a day when participants had been invited to spend the time outside of structured meetings in silence and solitude. Moments after Susan’s rescue, though, word of her accident spread down the beach, and other retreatants, some of them her professional colleagues, others new friends, rushed to her aid. Someone put a wet cloth on her brow. Someone else improvised an ice pack with a plastic bag and ice cubes from the cold drink concession. Someone said, “Take a deep breath. Now another breath. You’ll be fine. Help is on the way.”

Susan said, “I’m so sorry to cause all this fuss. This was supposed to be a quiet day.”

“Don’t even think about that,” people replied.

“It’s fine.”

“The important thing is for you to get taken care of.”

“I’ll get you water to sip.”

“I’ll cover you with a towel.”

The paramedics arrived. They had to strap Susan on a stretcher and carry her up several flights of narrow stone steps from the beach to the ambulance, one person in front and one in back. Several of us followed close behind and watched the stretcher being maneuvered up the twisting steps. I sat with Susan in the ambulance as the paramedics prepared to leave with her. The topic of that morning’s meditation class had been how to frame difficult experiences in a context large enough to maintain equanimity in the mind. Susan looked over at me and smiled.

“This is the best first experience I have ever had of needing to be rescued by a paramedic,” she said. We both laughed.

“I’ll tell the group you said that when I am teaching tonight,” I said. “They’ll like that.”

The group did like it. They applauded. It buoys up everyone’s courage to be reminded that there is a redemptive perspective, a wider “frame” that the mind can put around an event to make it, at least temporarily, more manageable.

In truth, although the moment in the ambulance was lightened, there were many difficult times for Susan over the months it took for her to recuperate from surgery. The fact that redeemed moments are temporary—well, everything is temporary! The fact that they can happen—in a moment of gratitude or appreciation—is what matters. Such moments give the mind a respite from the confusing immediate drama and allow for a wiser perspective. That includes the specific wisdom that this situation, although difficult, is time-limited.

Along with the truth that “This hurts a lot” and the view that “Tomorrow’s trip back to New York City is going to be tough,” there are other clearly apparent truths present: People are kind. Even strangers are roused by the distress of others and try to help. And unexpected things happen. You never, ever know for sure what the next moment will bring. Life is mysteriously both surprising and precarious. It’s a lucky thing to be alive.

A summary of all those truths, “Life is difficult, but we have the heart to do it gracefully,” is another way to say what the Buddha taught.