I’m going to start by flat-out challenging you. Here’s the challenge: if you can’t spare at least 15 minutes to read this right now – don’t read it. Bookmark it for later when you do have a bit more time. I believe it is so important that I want you to have time to both read it and devote a little time to thinking about what you’ve read, even if that is only a few minutes.
As I begin here, I’m realizing that today’s post will create a bit of a paradox. For in order to be successful, I will need to tell you about something I am choosing not to think about. Moreover, telling you will require thinking. And so, in essence, I’ll be thinking about something I am not thinking about. I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to manage it somehow, without tearing asunder the very fabric of the space-time continuum and whatnot. Wish me luck.
Today, I want to talk about being fully present.
I’m aware that the concept of “being fully present” may sound high-minded and transcendental to some (or as my close friends say, “woo-woo”).
To others, it will sound quite the opposite – cliché and trendy, a mere pop catch phrase for the self-help crowd.
For still others, it will evoke sensory images of plinky massage parlor music or a smiling Buddhist monk, walking silently by a Koi pond while the echo of some distant gong reverberates in the air.
I’d like to simply tell you what it means to me. I hope that, in doing so, it might also help you to decide what, if anything, it might mean to you.
I am still here in Florida, enjoying three whole weeks in a beautiful home in Naples, graciously gifted to me by friends. Time passes in the same way here as when I was a kid during summer vacations from school, every day somehow stretched into three.
Meanwhile, I’ve also had recent discussions with friends who have expressed that life feels as if it is blazing by, and all the faster as they get older. I couldn’t help but notice that these same friends spoke in equal proportion about feeling like they are always racing, distracted or frantic about future decisions or worries, perpetually tired, and never able to do the things that refill them or give them real joy. Spending time with their kids. Cooking in, instead of ordering out or eating in the car while whizzing between unmemorable heres and theres. Fostering their creative side. Baking cookies for a friend.
However, the fact is that time is moving along at a constant rate for each of us – from that kid on summer vacation, to me during my wonderful and carefree stay in Naples, to those who feel as if their clocks are ticking away triple-time. So what is the difference?
The difference doesn’t seem to be about having enough money. Kids don’t have money. (In fact, most don’t even consider that having it should make them any happier.) But they seem to have figured out how to slow down time.
It also doesn’t appear to be based on how many orbits a person has completed around our central star. I know some sage old souls for whom time seems to be passing at quite a leisurely pace, much like it did for them during those summers eight decades ago.
So maybe it’s work that’s the trouble, then. Kids don’t work, nor do the elderly. I’m not working during my vacation. And yet, I honestly do know people who work the same number of hours as everyone else (sometimes more) and yet who have no complaint about the rate at which time is passing.
Simple logic would seem to say that if time is constant, any discrepancies in the passage of time are wholly perceptual. And if it is a matter of perception, then the possibility lies within each of us to alter that perception. And that means that, by and large, it comes down to one thing …
It comes down to choice.
In fact, I myself will testify that, while I’ve most definitely been caught in “time traps” where weeks or months have seemed to blur by at head-spinning speed, I’ve also learned to live in such a way during “regular life” that moments tick and tock gently like that old Kit-Cat clock, its eyes and tail wandering lazily back and forth, smiling all the while.
Strangely (and I swear to you that I didn’t plan this at the outset), this brings us back around to that space-time continuum.
Here’s what I think.
Regardless of how you feel, you are in the now. That is, you exist in the present (and for all of my philosophical and religious friends, I’m begging you just this once to embrace your childlike selves and resist debating this assertion).
At the time you are reading this, you are where you are. You are nowhere else. You are no-when else. You are living this moment … and this one … at the same time and speed at which every other person on the planet is living it. The problem comes when we try to jump through space and time and be two places or times at once. Or three. Or ten.
We’re just not designed to be multiple places or times simultaneously; and so, in attempting to do the impossible, it stands to reason that we stress our system. We overload it. Steam builds up. Gears grind. It gets wonky. And before you know it – * SPROING * – our perception of time is all out of whack.
You see, when I report that I am “frantic,” what I mean is that I am attempting to send my mind ahead of me to “where else I should be” at this moment or “how much time is left” before I have to do X, rather than simply allowing my mind to join my body where it is. And that is right here. Right now.
When I let myself to be overwhelmed with busyness (and it is a choice), I am trying to control that uncontrollable space-time thingy by trying to stretch one hour to fit the activity that would require two.
When I nurse resentment, anger and regret, I’m yet again attempting to send my mind away from my body to somehow revisit decisions and hurts long past. I’m making the choice to burn up my mental machinery in vain attempts to rewrite history. Or I haunt old memories like a petulant poltergeist, looking on like Scrooge at phantoms of my own creation who are neither aware of nor interested in my lingering presence there. Before I know it, the hands on the wall clock have once more inexplicably jumped hours ahead.
Being present is possible right where you are, not just for the modern-day Thoreau who can stroll beside Walden Pond. It requires no climb to Machu Picchu. It costs nothing. And it is by no means “woo-woo.” It’s a simple choice.
Notice that I said simple – not necessarily easy. It takes practice. It takes discipline. It takes consistency. But it is totally obtainable. And, if you ask me, it is totally worth it.
Here’s how I stay present.
First, I try always to be mindful and intentional about letting go of bitterness and regret. (If these things tend to eat at you, I recommend reading those posts and devoting some time to the process.)
Next, I developed a system to banish worry, and I use it consistently. (If worry is your downfall, I likewise highly recommend that you read this post, if you have not done so already. I and many others have found real value in the approach discussed there.)
However you do it, do let go of bitterness, regret and worry. They are notorious time wasters.
Let me briefly add here that being present doesn’t mean we never look forward or back. I’ll simply say that there is a vast difference between wisdom and worry. One leads to planning, while the other leads to … just more worry. The chasm is equally wide between reflection and regret. Whenever the past or future begin to produce anxiety, they are working against you and not for you.
Next, in order to be fully present, I try to be diligent in regularly asking myself “check-in” questions like these:
What have I taken on that I need to consider dropping?
Where am I squandering my emotional energy on petty things I need to release?
What decision could I make right now to restore a sense of peace and balance?
I’m not kidding. I really do ask myself these things, and then I clear some space for stillness, so that I can hear my own answers clearly.
When I know what needs to change, I remind myself of the central truth in everything I write: “You always have a choice.”
I also remind myself that, if I were to suddenly die tomorrow, all the things I thought I needed to be doing – would still get done. Or they wouldn’t. But one thing is for certain, and that is the world would continue on without my having done them. This humbling realization works wonders in helping me to see that I really can cut things from my life – or say no to other things looming overhead like the Sword of Damocles. Might that upset some people or make for some awkward moments? Sure. Will it matter in a year? Most likely not. And even if it did, that would be a decision on the part of others, not me. I can only control my own choices and reactions, no one else’s.
Then, there are times when nothing particular is urgently pulling at me, but I still find myself woozy with that feeling that I’m somehow slipping from the present to … some-when else. If I’m being honest, that has happened a few times as I’ve entered the second half of my wonderful vacation time here. I’ve found my mind trying to wander outside my “now” – counting how many (or few) days I have left, thinking about tasks that await back home, from something as seemingly simple as wading through three weeks of mail, to bigger undertakings like the inevitability of having to move.
But the reality of this moment is that I am here. I am now. And today is wonderful. This nineteenth day of my vacation is, for all intents and purposes, exactly the same as the day I arrived. It is full of moments and possibilities, alternate realities of my own choosing. And tomorrow, when it arrives, will hold the same potential.
I’ll leave you with one last thought: a mental exercise I use often to stay in the present and keep that perception of the passage of time in alignment with reality. But before I even tell you, I know that some of you, however much you long for time to “slow down” and for things to be simple, will roll your eyes at it. You’ll think it’s silly. That it’s “woo-woo.” I have only this to say: if something works, it works. So don’t be a naysayer. Decide now to take yourself a little less seriously and give it a try.
That said, here is the mental exercise I use whenever the past or future begin to encroach in unwelcome ways: I put words to the present, whatever shape that is taking at the moment. For example, I’ll actually say to myself something like this:
I am here. I am in this chair right now. I have a big comfy pillow propped up behind my back and another across my lap. I am on page 237 of a book I’m really enjoying. I am wondering how this character will get out of his current predicament. I am chewing on a delicious cherry I took from the bowlful beside me. I ‘m enjoying myself right now. I am living this beautiful moment. I am here.
It’s very important that you only put into words what is true at this moment, and that you don’t include what isn’t. For instance, adding in My bills are not due right now defeats the purpose. I’m sure you can guess where the focus would immediately shift.
For you, it may sound like this:
I am here. I am driving. My hands are comfortably around the steering wheel. I can hear and feel the road passing underneath. I can smell the vanilla air freshener. I’m taking a deep breath and feeling it go out. I am here.
I challenge you to put it to the test, to experience once again what time felt like for that summertime you of yesteryear: listening from your tree house as the breeze rustled the leaves; or being suspended on air as your swing reached its full height, the exhilaration of it tickling your stomach as you began another descent.
Let me be clear: I don’t have this down pat. There are times when I catch myself missing present moments in trying to control future ones. And there are days when I must revisit my “I am here” dialog twenty times to make it through. But as I continue to practice being present, that misperception that time is racing by happens far less often than it used to.
Time is neither your enemy nor your friend. Time simply is. How you spend it is a matter of choice.