…cont’d from pt. 2
So, what does all of this mean? It means that we all have a tremendous amount to overcome in our day to day lives before we even get out the door. Our pre-programmed, but outdated, survival behavior is interfering with our ultimate desire for “happiness” and “peace.” Throw in modern stressors that our evolutionary mechanisms are not equipped to address, and we begin to work at full capacity just to make it to the end of the day. It’s as if we’re being asked to program a computer with a hatchet. A hatchet is a useful tool that served our ancestors for thousands of years. But it isn’t useful for programming computers.
When I was struggling to get sober in the early 2000s, people kept telling me that if I could learn to live in the “now” as often as possible, most of my problems would begin to take care of themselves…including my drinking. I genuinely didn’t know what that meant. Most of the time I was obsessively worrying about what was going to happen, or regretting what had already happened. If there was a “now,” it was, “Now I’m drinking.”
Over time, it became clear that I couldn’t think my way out of the problem. A neuroscientist or psychologist can probably explain this more articulately than I can, but our very existence is defined by paradoxes. If we try to stop thinking about something, we will only think about it more. If we “try” to sleep when we’re having trouble falling asleep, we are doomed to stay awake. Broccoli doesn’t taste like doughnuts. Sitting on the couch feels better than exercise.
Another paradox that I find truly baffling: With most things in life we instinctively know exactly what to do. We know it intellectually, but there’s a little monster inside that keeps steering us in the wrong direction. I knew that a 12 step program could help me get sober, but instead I switched from vodka to beer. I knew that if I changed my eating habits I could probably win the battle with chronic acid reflux, but instead I just took more medication. Again, this is probably something on which a psychologist could enlighten me, but for now it’s merely a puzzling observation. I do, however, believe it is somehow tied into the conflict between modernity and our outmoded survival mechanisms.
We know from experience that if we actively focus on spending our conscious time in the moment we are actually in, rather than in some moment in the past or future, things generally go more smoothly. Much less anxiety or pangs of regret. But it feels so tempting to nurse an old resentment or drive the possibilities for disaster right off of a cliff. Those thought patterns are always harmful. Yet we persist.
How exactly do we go about staying in the now? It is pretty simple really. Despite the immense complications associated with human evolution, and the aspects of our minds that we do not yet understand, it is possible to override the discordant noise that constantly hums in the background (or foreground depending on the kind of day you’re having). There is nothing new or groundbreaking here. But as our lives are dominated by paradoxes, most of us do not take advantage of these tools. We don’t make time for them because we are overwhelmed by everything else that we know we must do. But here’s another paradox…the more time we spend using these tools, the more time they produce. It becomes self generating.
Time is in many ways an illusion. Many theoretical physicists have debated the concept of time as a purely human construct. I’m not going to delve into this debate here, but there is no question that our perception of time is impacted by our quality of mind in any given situation. “Time flies when you’re having fun!” Conversely, many of my personal training clients insist that I am lying to them when I say that they’ve been holding a plank for only 30 seconds.
Twenty four hours is twenty four hours. But the rate at which those hours seem to pass are largely determined by how present we are throughout the day. If we spend our time at work dreading a difficult conversation at home, it will feel like we can’t get anything done. If we spend time with our kids dreading all of the work we have to do on Monday, it will feel like we aren’t in our children’s lives. However, with a few simple tools we can shift our perception in such a way that time seems to expand. But we have to make time for these things first. If we only get to them once we’ve worn ourselves out with all of the other “stuff” we have to do, we will never get to them, and we’re right back to where we started — out of time.
There is no shortage of scientific information available that explains the “how” and “why” pertaining to these tools. I am just going to share my own personal experience with them. These tools help me stay sober all the time, and at peace most of the time:
1 — Daily meditation using the Headspace app. I am fairly new to this. Maybe 3 months in. Focus has sharpened. General demeanor has softened. I find that I am able to apply the principles while driving and literally experience nothing but the act of driving. It is a very new and foreign feeling. Traffic frustration has just about vanished.
2 — Martial arts, or any other complex high-skill sport. It is nearly impossible to get lost in distracting thoughts while performing a highly technical movement. Exercise alone is certainly beneficial to the mind as well as the body, but it is the intense concentration associated with a highly technical physical activity that brings the perception of time into “right now.”
3 — A skilled hobby. Like exercise, hobbies of any kind are terrific on any level. But I’m referring to hobbies that take a great deal of practice in order to master the activity. Woodworking or learning a musical instrument are good examples. Again, we’re trying to bring the mind down into the thing we are doing, rather than letting it carry us up into the clouds. The more technical the hobby, the more anchored the mind becomes.
4 — Keeping a journal. This can be about anything. There is something liberating about writing thoughts down. Things that spin in our minds throughout the day tend to stop spinning once written down. It’s as if we’ve moved them from our mind into a separate storage facility.
5 — Once per day, take contrary action. It can be completely random. If you order coffee every day, pick tea one day. If you turn on the news first thing in the morning, turn on some music one day. This may seem silly and arbitrary at first. But I find that when I get into the habit of mixing up mundane things for no reason, it feels much more natural to find another option when it really matters. For instance, when I’m having a bad day and I want to take it out on my family. Or someone cut me off on the freeway and I want to pay them back. This is a “wax on, wax off” approach that works when our instincts are getting pushed around by stress.
This is not an exhaustive list, and I’d love to hear any tools that you use to keep you “in the present.”