The gift of presence
The phrase “Physician, heal thyself” has been coming to mind a lot lately. And not because I’m a doctor. I am, however, a person who advocates being present and living in the moment. As someone who weighed over 450 pounds when graduating from college and who eventually took off the excess weight through healthy eating and exercise (no fad diets, pills or surgery required), I learned that being present (mentally) was key to any life goal—physical or otherwise.
Yet recently, I’ve developed a tic that’s come to symbolize my newish pesky habit of mentally replaying things from the past (as if I had a time machine and could somehow “go back” and undo what’s already transpired) or fretting about the future (imagining scenarios that might never take place, but worrying about them anyway).
This tic (AKA idiosyncratic habit) is hitting the “next track” button when virtually any song starts to play while in the car or when I’m exercising on the treadmill. It seems I only need to hear the first couple notes of a tune to know I don’t want to hear the entire thing and, therefore, choose to skip ahead to the next track (even though it turns out I don’t really want to hear that particular ditty either).
Here’s where I must admit that I’m old enough to remember buying “albums” on cassette tape and having no choice but to listen to an entire “side” of the cassette in order to reach and listen to a favorite song. Sure, they eventually came out with tape players that could skip ahead. But that technology usually resulted in a warped tape and often would skip several songs at a time. Ironically, having to sit through an entire side of a tape was, in a way, helping me to be present (while patiently waiting for a favorite song on an album).
But cut to several years later—now—when technology allows us to skip over songs with reckless abandon and I don’t seem to possess the capability of listening to any song with patience. At first I didn’t realize how often I was reaching over to hit the “next track” button (or asking Siri—or whomever—to do it for me). But recently while tooling around town with a friend, she pointed out that just when she was ready to sing along with a song, I’d hit “skip” and the tune would be over in an instant (thereby usurping what was about to be her big number).
Upon realizing that I do this as often as I do, I soon recognized what it symbolized. Mainly my penchant for not being present. Not being here, in the now—always wanting to get to “What’s next.” Even though I recognize that there are a lot of good reasons to stay mentally present in our lives.
Again, as someone who worked hard to achieve wellness (in all its definitions), presence is always something I’d relied on for inner peace. Yet here I was, thinking about the past or future—even sometimes while actively meditating. And outside of meditation, this lack of mental presence was now being symbolized by not having the presence of mind to listen to an entire 3- or 4-minute song.
For others—perhaps even some of you reading this, this non-present mind might be symbolized by always looking at your smartphone, turning to social media during any downtime (or even during social times), seeking out a show on some cable news network in order to become “outraged” or simply getting so caught up in thought that you’re missing out on the here and now—the only time and space we really have the opportunity to live and interact in.
These days, while doing my best to listen to any music track that starts playing from any my playlists, I do my best to recall the quote attributed to Tao Te Ching author Lao Tzu: “If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.”
The good news is that we can exercise our mental muscle for staying present simply by focusing on our breath. Whenever you find yourself stuck in the past or the future (mentally), bring yourself back to the present moment by taking three deep breaths (and yes, you should put down your smartphone or turn off the cable news first). As you breathe in, think “In.” As you breathe out, think “Out.” Do this slowly and methodically for at least three intervals. In other words, stop yourself from going back to the past or jumping into the future—two places we don’t need to be. These three simple breaths offer the potential to bring our minds and bodies back into sync—and our overall awareness back to the present moment.
Advanced students might want to try walking into an elevator and watching most everyone else turn to their phones, while you stand there proudly aware of the elevator itself, the people you’re riding with and perhaps even the muzak playing over the loudspeaker (no skipping those tracks after all). For extra credit, next time you arrive early when meeting someone at a restaurant, just sit at the table without turning to your phone. Try the 3-breaths exercise. Or simply offer a smile to a passing server. Sure, you’ll likely freak everyone out (“Why did that person just make eye contact with me and smile? Don’t they have a smartphone?!”). But you’ll be there in your fullest capacity. And by turning this all into a game, you’ll reap the rewards by living a more present, and, hopefully, more satisfying life.
As for me, along with recommitting to staying mentally present as often as possible, I’ve also taken a vow to not skip tracks when in the car or working out. No matter what song comes my way, I’m determined to listen to it and enjoy it fully—even if it’s a random remix that goes on and on and on. Much like life goes on and on (if we’re lucky enough). And why not be as mindful of this life—and these present moments—as we possibly can be?
Image source: The Graphic Recorder