An old friend who is in town recently shared with me, “I look back on life and can’t believe the amount of time and energy I’ve put into events that never even happened.” His observation, which I think more of us identify with than we’d care to admit, was testament to the massive power of self-talk and the endless tributaries it sweeps us down. “What about this?” “How would that work?” “What if x, y or z happen?” The infamous tides of when, where, how, and if drag us through the currents of hypothetical conversations, speculative planning, strategizing retorts and other means of conjectured insanity – most of which lead to total dead ends, blatant non-occurrences. Over time, many of us realize, as my friend did, that we’ve spent enormous amounts of effort and anguish living for these non-starters. Likewise, it may be the external obsessions as much as the emotional rabbit holes that snatch us away – the lure of gadgets and overworking among many others. In a culture where the mundane is viewed as undesirable, we’re convinced we need all manner of distractions just to tolerate much of everyday life, and so we absorb and increasingly apply the practice of checking out. Whatever the source of our diversion, what are the real implications of this mental absence? On the flip side, what’s possible when we can operate more fully in the moment?
Distraction of various sorts can be a self-sabotaging undercurrent for all of our endeavors. In fact, it’s entirely possible to live an entire life that almost continuously hovers in some parallel plane, directed by the same old narratives, typical roles and emotional agenda regardless of what’s in front of our faces. We take up residence in this plane when we decide what’s in our heads is more real than what’s happening in the moment. The more distraction we identify with, the more we come to inhabit the deliberately imposed or internally playing static – and the less we take in of the actual events, people and settings around us. There’s the real tragedy, I think, (and the rather obvious evolutionary cautionary tale). We can lament the effort wasted on our inner shadow boxing or useless habits, but the sadder part is what we’ve missed as a result – all that’s been and gone while we were wrestling with the conditional and trivial.
To imagine an opposite scenario, I’ve heard it said that being present for all the tasks of our lives allows us to make a meditation of everything. Folding laundry can simply be folding laundry. (Wow – there’s a concept.) Apply the idea to the broader, (arguably) more significant dimensions of life and well-being, and we’re looking at some interesting possibilities. What can being more present in your workouts offer? What are the results of being fully in the moment while eating? What about being more present for your sleep routine (a seeming contradiction, I know)? What can “being there” mean for personal relationships?
In extreme endeavors, such as serious surfing or competitive sports, presence is obviously crucial. It’s part of the discipline, in fact. When we have our “heads in the game” we’re really moving with the flow, that time bending force of pure, enjoyable focus. How many of us get this on a regular basis? How often are we one of the grim, sweaty faces slogging it out on a piece of gym equipment? I fully get that some days it’s enough to just get the job done, but how often do we honestly end up bringing this mindset to our physical activity? There’s a difference between “working out” to put in your time and participating with full mental engagement. (Which would you rather do and keep up over a lifetime?) If we have to put ourselves in zone out mode to fulfill our workout goals, are we shortchanging ourselves?
Endurance athletes who obviously do the same activity for extended periods collect their mental tricks – homing in on the aspects of their environments, gauging progress by the details of the route, etc. Yet, it’s not an out of body experience either. There’s even a new area of exercise science research that affirms the importance of mindfulness and acceptance (PDF), suggesting the practices can take us farther (literally and figuratively) than denial and distraction. Being fully conscious of the body’s sensations (however unpleasant) and emotionally assimilating the stress, burn or even pain can boost resilience and performance. Even if we’re not operating in the athletic arena but just trying to build personal Grok-worthy fitness, what can we do to get into the “heart” of our activity and fully back in our bodies. Trust me, replaying the day’s stress to get your mind off your exertion won’t get you far. The same goes for using anger as fuel. Instead of using a workout to “process,” we’re better off being with the immediate process (activity) itself. Reaching for music, I think, can be a unique exception and is often less a true distraction than an added layer or additional energy source playing parallel to the rhythm of physical motion.
Eating is unfortunately one of the most mindless things we do in our culture. Mindless snacking fodder inhabits whole rows of grocery stores. We’re often expected (or believe we’re expected) to scarf down lunch at our desks. We eat while we’re driving, while we’re watching T.V., while we’re holding meetings, while we’re doing laundry, loading the dishwasher. None of these scenarios hold much comparison to the simple or celebratory social practices that traditional peoples are known to apply to eating.
The discrepancy suggests an issue with time and attention as well as our relationship with food itself. Yes, it’s ultimately fuel to burn, and not every day can be a Norman Rockwell moment. That said, how we think about food impacts how our bodies processes it. How we enjoy it influences the satiety we experience. How healthy can our relationship to food be when the majority of eating happens while we have our nose in a phone or our mind on making the next exit? (No wonder we make the eating choices we do.) There’s something to stopping the car and sitting at the park to enjoy your lunch even if it’s just a hard-boiled egg and some cut vegetables. Go off automaton mode long enough to look at that tea you’re drinking. Ask yourself if the tiff with your spouse earlier in the day is at work in how much or what you reach for throughout the day. When you slow down and differentiate hunger from emotion, you can better appreciate the food you eat. Yet, it’s also about valuing yourself and the act of your own nourishment.
Experts frequently bemoan the lack of communication and emotional skills in the younger, tech-dependent generation. Yet, how many of us would recognize our own behavior let alone feel good about it if we were flies on our own walls? How much do we let external distractions and personal moods influence our exchanges (or lack thereof) with those we love? Do our partners or children give up trying to get our attention as we respond to one more work email? Do we really hear what a friend is trying to tell us about her day as we decide a phone conversation is the perfect time to multitask as many household chores as we can? Do we stay in touch with what our physical bodies and emotional intuitions need from us at a given moment, or are we too hell-bent on powering through our days that we end up suffering the effects of chronic stress? Do we approach bedtime with a similar “zone out” mentality of consuming entertainment until our brains give out?
Being more present and fully accounted for to ourselves and others lends a different rhythm to life – one much more natural to the human operating system. My experience is that it unexpectedly slows down time. Less gets lost in the shuffle. There’s an intricate link between mindfulness and compassion for good reason. In fact, it can be rather shocking what we attune ourselves to and wonder how we got along without it – how our kids or other loved ones could’ve gotten along without it. We get to re-familiarize ourselves with the softness of our toddler’s hair, the contours of our partners face, the subtle hints our teenager drops about his/her interests and life questions these days as well as the shifts in ourselves – our own needs and evolving interests. (Ever feel the need to just catch up with yourself?) In being present, we stop simply responding. We turn off the auto-pilot. Instead, we open up space for interaction and observation that too often gets closed down in the thick of modern hubbub and mental chatter. It’s the space where intuition operates and intimacy flourishes – two of the most essential human instincts. Being present, in fact, puts us squarely in the immediate moment but accesses something of ourselves that’s evolutionarily fundamental. When we think about living with ancestral wisdom, being with the immediate moment taps us into one our most powerful Primal patterns.
Thanks for reading today, everyone. What does being present mean for your Primal journey? When/where have you noticed it working most in your life? Have a great end to the week.