Are You Present?
You’re driving on the freeway, sipping your Starbucks mocha latte with a shot of espresso, half listening to a podcast or Coldplay on Pandora, while your mind is racing endlessly at the tasks ahead of you. It’s 8:23 a.m. A car cuts you off and you honk, loudly declaring how angry you are at the asshole that had the audacity to cut into your lane. It’s more of an “anger declaration” to yourself because the other driver can’t hear you. Of course, you’re all huffy and puffy now because you’ve declared how angry you are and now you “have to be” angry.
You arrive at work or school, immediately whip out your phone and start scrolling through Facebook and Instagram, and then start reading the news, while walking through an intersection of people, somehow not walking into a pole or another phone-addicted-walker whose head is glued downward, glaring at their own smartphone. You arrive at your office, meeting or class, where you sit for an hour hearing words, but not really “listening,” or staring at words on your computer, but not really “seeing them.” It is quite likely you are thinking about your next meeting or class, Prince’s legacy, your road incident coming to work, or the other gazillion conceivable thoughts that could be swaying through your mind — and distracting you from the present moment.
The details change, but the game remains the same. Our lives are hectic, and the mind processes a million different thoughts, constantly changing from past memories to future plans. The problem is that if we are unable to control our thoughts in a coherent manner, this way of “thinking” can become counterproductive and interfere with our ability to move forward on activities we truly deem important and worthy. With so much “stuff” on our multiple plates, we can become stressed and overwhelmed. We each have a personal threshold of how many plates we can juggle simultaneously and how much stress we can effectively manage — like a “threshold balloon.” When we become overly stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed, our balloon pops. The degree of dysfunction we then experience can vary from mild (e.g., getting assignments in late) to severe (being unable to function at all).
To prevent this accumulation of stress build up, what do you do? There are numerous techniques that exist to help people cope with stress, including widely known and accepted practices that incorporate meditation and exercise. But for those who don’t practice meditation or workout daily, (or for those who do and are still constantly stressed,) what do you do?
Nothing…do nothing. Well, let me explain.
The other day, I was feeling overwhelmed. It was the afternoon, and I had about 30 minutes before I needed to leave for work. I was trying to figure out how to maximize this half hour window and be productive. But I was mentally tired. I was drained from thinking about all the tasks I needed to get done in the next week. One option I considered to distract myself from all the thoughts whirling around in my head was to check my phone and refresh social media — and the itch to do this was strong. But I decided against it, as the stimulation it would produce was actually the opposite of what I was searching for.
My mind didn’t need to be inundated with more pictures, posts and videos. I caught a glimpse of a tree outside my window and I just sat there and stared at it. I examined its branches, it’s leaves and it’s color. Oddly, this was soothing in a way difficult to explain in words. It felt as if my mind let loose of its tight grip on — I’m not sure exactly what, just a firm grip on nothing. It was a release, like being out of breath underwater and surging toward the top and having that relief as you break through the surface and gulp fresh oxygen.
This feeling, which stemmed from observing a tree and it’s features, brought me back to the days when I practiced meditation every morning in an ashram in Nicaragua. Most of us, however, can’t just escape in a flash to some peaceful ashram and “just be.” The real question that remains is how can one find peace and stay present in the hustle and bustle of everyday life? Focus on an object in front of you. By doing so,your mind isn’t entertained by past or future events. When I do this, I feel a sense of calm sweep over me. I’m untroubled. The circumstances in my life are no different than when I was metaphorically driving on the freeway. Yet, my focusing in on something right in front of me helped calm me and bring me back to the present in a soothing fashion. This practice fits under the umbrella of mindfulness — and yet, it doesn’t involve sitting in the lotus position for hours on end in the mountains in the Himalayas. You can do this wherever you are.
In Western society, it’s pretty unrealistic to be “present” all hours of the day. But rarely, in our fast paced society, do we take the time to stop and do nothing. We’ve all heard it before: Just breathe. Just be. This advice is cliché, but truly beneficial. You don’t necessarily have to meditate or exercise to feel peace of mind. But just notice your surroundings and examine how you feel. I’ve found that even during the most chaotic and hectic days, if I take a few minutes to “focus and just be,” I can generate feelings of joy and tranquility, and these moments can have a lasting effect as I then go on with my day. And there are also times when I’ll find the need to repeat this “focus and just be” more than once a day — but it need only take a couple of minutes. These calming and restful moments occur when I stop thinking and just observe what’s in front of me. Whether it’s the features of a tree, the wind on my face, the ripple in a pond, it doesn’t matter. But give yourself the gift of being present every now and then. When you feel the wind of “presence” sweep over you, let it. Embrace it and ride it out. It is in these every day moments where we find peace.