It’s all too common these days to hear people refer to some aspect of their behavior as “Oh, that’s my ADD” (attention deficit disorder). The reason? Basically, the new norm is for people to regularly feel scattered, to experience daily life as a hyper-busy rush of being behind on everything – all the while feeling stressed and frustrated.
In any given moment there are numerous things demanding our attention: respond to those e-mails, text that friend, call that new professional contact, update resume, organize those papers, respond to that Facebook message, fix that thing in the house, file those receipts, finish that proposal, talk to spouse about the relationship, send that thank you card, Skype that family member, set up that hotel reservation, bring those pants to the tailor, price those plane tickets, pay that overdue bill, research that vacation spot, talk to boss about a salary review, call the bank, shop at that mega-sale, schedule that dental appointment, buy that new bestseller, print out that NY Times article they mentioned at work, get to the gym, prepare for that meeting, e-mail the accountant, read the review of that new play, meet that person for lunch, and oh yeah, start eating better – and on and on.
Modern life is overwhelming: data deluge; information overload; unlimited choices; constant connectivity; never-ending responsibilities. Add to that the perennial human condition stuff: Who am I? What am I doing with my life? Is this the right career for me? Is my relationship stagnating? What is my purpose? Am I too fat?
Makes us want to crawl onto the couch, crack open the ice cream and disappear into reality TV.
Nothing against reality TV – if that’s your thing, go for it. But, participating wisely and effectively in the creation of OUR OWN reality needs to be high on our priority list as well.
Here’s a simple yet powerful tool to help us do this:
- Breathe deeply into your belly/diaphragm and say to yourself, “In this moment…”
- Exhale and say to yourself, “…I am here.”
There. You’ve done it. Now do it again.
Now do it 2 times, more quickly. Now do it 2 times very slowly, using different voice rhythms and intonations. Keep doing it for 15 seconds, while changing it up and making it your own. Be creative.
Are you breathing deeply into your diaphragm so that your belly (as opposed to your chest) fills with air? Good. When you say “I am here,” are you plugging yourself into your immediate surroundings and your immediate experience? Excellent.
Now – do this at least once every 2 minutes for the next year or so.
Yes, I am being sarcastic, but at the same time, I’m raising a serious issue which is this: Life is short, and failure to be present in our lives is the biggest failure of all. This is not to imply that we can be perfectly present, that’s not the point. But we CAN increase our engagement in the here and now and our conscious participation in our lives. In fact, we MUST, lest we live out that famous quote used by (but not created by) John Lennon: Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.
I see over and over again in my therapy practice, and in my own experience as well, that increasing our commitment to being present in the here and now has a radical impact on our moods, perceptions, relational skills and overall life experience.
centering practice: a tool that helps us live now
I refer to this simple two-step action as centering practice. And no, this is NOT about “finding time to meditate.” I think we’ve all shamed ourselves enough with repeated failures in that regard. This is about endeavoring to center ourselves at any moment in the flow of ordinary life; this is about taking small steps toward being that calm-in-the-storm we fantasize about. In essence, we use centering practice to shake ourselves out of the trance of ordinary consciousness and wake ourselves up to life. Centering ourselves in this way is not esoteric or otherworldly; it’s quite ordinary, but also extraordinary – both at the same time.
Step #1 re-connects you to your body, because you’re breathing consciously and deeply into your physical center. Step #2 re-connects you to your immediate experience, internally and externally. When we reconnect ourselves to the here and now, everything remains the same except that we are different.
Simple, right? Yes and no.
It is difficult to over-estimate the value of regularly re-connecting yourself to your body and to what’s going on in the here and now, internally and externally. The reason it is so priceless is that our default way of being in life is like being in a trance or playing out a script that someone else wrote. In this mode, our minds are usually focused on worrying/obsessing about the past and future, which cancels out the following:
- gratitude and appreciation for what we DO have
- smart and effective life planning
- connecting to others in the moment
- awe at the mystery of life
- taking creative action in the present – at work or in relationships
- having fun and experiencing pleasure
an epidemic of mental obsession
Maybe the biggest time (and life) waster known to humankind is the habit of mental obsession. Fortunately, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Steven Hayes and others are writing more and more about the importance of getting “out of our heads and into our lives.” Who among us has not lost countless hours of our lives to the activity of the racing and conflicted mind, obsessing over and over about:
- what others think of you
- your own appearance, weight and other physical attributes
- what you need to do in order to win approval from others
- how fabulous others’ lives are
- the endless dramas surrounding interpersonal relationships
Yes, modern life has its bells and whistles – its traditions and institutions – that fuel such destructive psychological habits. But this is not new. Twenty five hundred years ago the Buddha is said to have described the human mind as being like a bunch of drunken monkeys – bouncing, fighting, making lots of noise and generally causing chaos. Does this sound like how your mind works? Join the club.
A large part of my therapy practice involves helping people understand that the restless and chaotic nature of their minds is not so unusual. People are often astounded to find out that they are far from being alone in their habits of self-criticism, replaying conversations, arguing with others (who are not there!) and generally obsessing about matters of little importance. This is all very common. AND – it’s uncomfortable, unproductive and gets in the way of living a solid life.
This is why taming the monkey mind is so important. Notice the phrase is not to ‘control’ the monkey mind or ‘kill’ the monkey mind; those approaches just increase inner tension and conflict. To tame a wild animal, we need to be smart, consistent, subtle, assertive, gentle and persistent. As with many endeavors, we succeed more in this area when we maintain an attitude of love and compassion rather than aggression and hostility.
plugging into life – living now
Just as we physically plug an extension cord into a wall socket, centering practice is a practical tool we use to plug ourselves back into the present moment – into our bodies and into the here and now. It literally creates the experience of waking ourselves up rather than sleep-walking through life. We use it to plug ourselves back into a conversation, a phone call, a walk in the street, a business meeting, a sexual encounter, a moment of solitude, a therapy session, a project, a ride on the subway – or any other moment of life.
Being present in the moment is not something we do perfectly. It is something we ENDEAVOR to do as often as we can. As we practice, we become more skilled. As we become more skilled, this heightened state of mind/body awareness reconditions and retrains the brain, the nervous system, the emotions and our consciousness in general. In using centering practice regularly, we literally shift from a default way of being (locked in a trance, playing out scripts, being reactive and rigid) into a more awakened way of being (alive, creative, proactive, skillful, flexible).
Does this mean we become enlightened? Not really.
Does it mean we have a better chance of having more productive, constructive and satisfying moments – personally and professionally? Absolutely.