“The way that it is at any moment can be explained by the way it was the previous moment.” –The Principle Of Sufficient Reason
“Emancipating yourself from mental slavery.” –Bob Marley
Back in the day (I once had a creative writing professor who told me to never begin anything with those four words), I struggled with the ENTIRE notion of being present. Why would I want to be present? That sounded like no fun. It even sounded painful to me. No way- just give me the carrot and the stick!
I worked as a bartender at a neighborhood pub in Oakland, which enabled me to drink delicious beer on a daily basis. At this pub there was a carrot attached to a long stick out back by the dumpster, which was always loaded up with fluorescent green, fresh Northern California marijuana. Whenever we wanted, employees were encouraged by the owners to take a brief break, go out back, hold on to the long stick and take a puff from the carrot. It was the perfect job for me since I had already established the habit of daily drinking and smoking. Maybe that is why I stayed at this job throughout a good chunk of my twenties.
I was not really practicing mindfulness much at this point in my life even though I was reading about it and going to various groups. I knew enough about mindfulness that I was able to keep myself from panicking at work after taking a few too many puffs from the carrot and having to contend with a very busy bar. Being too high in a public place is never a good idea for someone like me- especially when I am the center of attention (One time mindfulness did not work at all. I got way too high and in a panic ended up abandoning my post at the busy bar and running outside and down the street. Problem was that I was the only bartender on duty. This became the long running, “Where the hell is the bartender?” joke).
Back in the day, the problem for me with mindfulness was that I did not want to be present. I was young- an aspiring writer and painter. I had big dreams for future fame and as far as I was concerned my ability to live fully and have interesting experiences (which, would translate into good stories) was dependent on my ability to not be fully present. I saw the present moment as a threat to who I wanted to become.
So I thought. You see, this is the fundamental problem with thinking. It will often talk you out of learning to deal with your life as it is in the present moment (which, is actually what makes for the most interesting stories). Before you know it a good chunk of your life is in the past because you have been so busy thinking your way out of or in front of or behind your life. That is what I call a not so good habit. The greatest difference between me in my twenties and me in the now is that in my twenties I was my thoughts. Now, thinking is just one small part of my identity. This is what sustained mindfulness practice does- it wakes us up to the realization that there is so much more going on than just the carrot and the stick.
Back in the day (I can see my creative writing teacher cringing now), I did not want to be present for my life. I wanted to have fun instead of experiencing the drudgery that was my life. I wanted to cool the flames of hatred that I felt towards my parents. I wanted to be high instead of face the lowness that was always just over my shoulder. I wanted to open the doors of perception and have interesting experiences. I wanted to numb my mind so I did not have to feel so uncomfortable, angry and afraid. My body was young and strong enough to handle the excess, so I chose intoxication over presence. I did it because I could.
I surrounded myself with a cast of characters who had also chosen the intoxicated path (writers, a community college professor, a neurosurgeon, a geologist, students, musicians, painters, poets, readers, a hot tub store owner, an internal affairs officer and occasionally- the mayor of Oakland) and together we all spent the latter part of our weekdays and a good chunk of our weekends talking, laughing, drinking beer, getting high and chasing self awareness away. I must confess, as I remember it now, those were good times. But there was a price to pay. That price was my health and the present moment.
Now that a good amount of time has passed and I am (mostly) sober, I am fascinated by this idea of not wanting to be present for life. Yesterday, I was talking with a musician friend of mine who talked about being on tour and not wanting to be present for her life as she travels through various airports, cities and hotels. She told me that she often drinks white wine in the afternoon (and for the rest of the evening) so that she does not have to be present for all of the not so fun parts of being a successful musician. I certainly could relate to the urge to flee and not be present for what does not feel like fun. What was it that Kurt Vonnegut said? “If we are not having fun, well then we are just not trying hard enough.”
I still have a voice in my head that always seems to be saying: “Just smoke a joint, go have a drink, man getting intoxicated right now would be great!” I notice that this voice shows up at various times throughout the day. It shows up when I am bored or stressed out. It shows up when I want a different kind of experience. It shows up after a long day at work (especially on Mondays). It can really show up at anytime. This voice is that part of me that does not want to be present as I go through the various cities, hotels and airports of my life. Instead I just want to relax, loosen up, take it easy and not be present for what does not feel so good. The voice in my head wants me to open up the quickest gateway to a more desirable state of being. It’s the gateway away from the present moment and it is a well-established habit of mine to walk through this gate. It’s the carrot and the stick.
Mindfulness is the gateway into the present moment. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as the awareness that arises, when you are paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. As much as I tried to convince myself that I could practice being mindful while high or intoxicated- it was almost impossible for me to pay attention, on purpose, in the present moment. Over time I came to realize that awareness is the complete opposite of intoxication. It is mathematically and chemically impossible to have both at the same time.
Granted staying aware in the present moment is often not as immediately enjoyable and relaxing as getting out of the present moment through weed, booze, over thinking and other vices. There is something relaxing, more romantic and comfortable about living a more intoxicated life (for me at least). So why chose the present moment instead of getting high?
Here is my answer as I have come to it: Because if we want to be happier (for those of you who have issues with that word it can be supplemented with the word functional), it is so essential that we are able to learn how to meet life on life’s terms. It is crucial that we are able to remain present (observant) with all the pleasure, displeasure, boredom, anxiety, pain, anger, unhappiness, depression, joy, discomfort, frustration, irritation, hopelessness and on and on, which is continually moving through our lives if we want to feel more present, calm, clear, fulfilled and most importantly- alive (short term pain for long term gain kind of thing).
The evidence-based research has pretty much established as fundamental the fact that the amount of lasting happiness and contentment that a person experiences is directly dependent upon the amount of time that they are able to stay present for their life. This implies, like the philosopher Jim Holt writes about, that our happiness is self-caused. If this is true, this means that whenever we look towards things outside ourselves to make us happy, we are actually making ourselves less happy.
So now rather than using substances, I make an effort to practice mindfulness. I breathe in and out and in a kind of non-attached way I am continually learning how to stay present (aware) for whatever emotional or psychological state is showing up and passing through my present moment experience. It is often really hard. Really hard and not as fun as holding the stick and smoking from the carrot but the reward has been a sense of contentment, purpose, awareness and a deeper, more fulfilling relationship with this thing called life (It often baffles me how much energy and money I once put into ways that I could get away from life as it is).
Now if I can just be fully present with the lethargy, tiredness, moodiness and heaviness that I feel in the mornings maybe I will be able to get off of my favorite of all the vices- coffee. No….I don’t think I am willing to take this mindfulness stuff that far. Yet.