Notes From The Present Moment

Here I sit, in front of my digital typewriter. It is a Saturday morning and the sun is hanging bright in the blue sky. I just finished watering my garden. I wanted to drench the plants, trees, flowers and grass in water before the afternoon summer heat consumes them. As I was watering I noticed a snap of Autumn in the air but as quickly as a snap comes, it went away.

There were butterflies, dragonflies and hummingbirds that I presume showed up in my garden to grab a drink of water from the hose. They flew through and around the water like children at play in a park. I noticed the warm sensation of my feet making contact with the grass and the rays from the sun soaking themselves into my skin. My breathing was slow and shallow and I noticed that my mind would continually wander off thinking about a hundred different things and I would continually bring my mind back to the awareness of just being present in the garden.

I feel grateful for mindfulness practice because without the skill of being able to be present more than I am not, I imagine my life would be filled with anxiety and dread. I don’t care much for thinking about the future nor do I really tend to the past. But my mind will travel to these foreign places without my say so and I am grateful that I have the awareness, trust and the ability to bring my mind back into the present moment.

Make no mistake about it, a person needs a lot of trust to be present. Most people are too filled with anxiety to be present. They feel like if they are present their lives will somehow fall apart or not be worth living. They will not get done what they need to or maybe they feel like they will have nothing to do. This is a myth that is simply not true. The opposite is actually true- the more present we are the better we tend to things. I am grateful that I know this to be a fact through my years of practice. I never thought about the possibility of having a beautiful garden at some point in my future. I don’t think about if I will continue to have this garden. All I know and care about is that it is here now.

It is only this moment which is real, everything else is just a fiction created by our minds. A fiction only because it is not what is happening now. Most tend to live a life in fictional places. Maybe this is why so many people do not like reading fiction- because they already spend so much of their lives in fiction. I don’t know. But I do know that if we spend too much time in fictions, we neglect things now. If I can be present while watering my garden, I will do a much more thorough job. Over time, my garden will be much healthier because I tended to it with presence rather than rushing through and possibly not giving the plants, flowers, grass and trees the water and attention they need.

The sound of an ambulance siren just raced past my house. Whenever I hear an ambulance or fire engine siren, I always think that there is someone in great need out there who is probably very relieved to be hearing that sound. I used to be aggravated by the loud sound of sirens but that was selfish of me to be frustrated by a sound that is bringing with it the help that someone needs.

For me, the sound of a siren is a continual reminder of the fragility of all life. It helps me not take things so seriously. At any moment, at any time the siren could be coming for one of us. After being ill for the past month, I became very aware of that fine line between being able to be independent and suddenly needing help. Whenever I hear a siren, I am not only grateful that it is not coming for me, but I am reminded of the importance of living in the present moment because who knows when it will be.

In meditation retreat centers, singing bowls are used throughout the day to remind a person to gently guide their attention back into the present moment. Since I live close to a busy street where ambulances and fire engines often pass through, I use the sound of the sirens in the same way I would use the sound of singing bowls when on meditation retreat. I gently bring my attention back into the present moment. I notice my breathing moving in and out. I become aware of sensations in my body. I notice smells and sounds that I am hearing. I lean into the present moment. And then I am just here, present in my life without trying to gain anything. No future, no past, no need to get something more. Just this moment.

This is how you earn a life.


Pleasing Other People

We all do it to a certain extent. Some more than others. People pleasing is more often than not, not a fun way to live. Another term for people pleasing is caring way too much.

It is actually impossible to please everyone, even though we try so hard. It’s just not going to happen no matter how hard you try. At some point, someone will get upset with you. Humans are very difficult to please and they are not known for being clear and open when upset with you. We keep it in and try and avoid conflict.

The difficult thing about people pleasing is the overthinking that comes along with it. “Did I do something to upset that person?” “Why is that person acting odd towards me?” “Is that person angry with me?” How many of us have stayed awake at night with thoughts similar to this?

Generally speaking, overthinking is the futile act of trying to figure out if or if not everyone is pleased with you. Overthinking takes up a lot of time and mental space.

People pleasers tend to want to fix things if they feel like they have done wrong. But the problem is that people pleasers ALWAYS feel like they have done wrong even when everything is just fine. So they continually end up stressing themselves out over nothing. But sometimes they are right, however there is nothing they can do about it anyways. You can never know for certain if someone is pleased with you. No matter how hard you try, it is impossible to know for certain- so why bother?

A fundamental aspect of mindfulness practice is being able to be comfortable with uncertainty. Uncertainty is the one thing that most of us tend to really not like. Uncertainty has been known to drive more people crazy than anything else.

We want certainty and a lot of us kill ourselves emotionally to get it. But in many ways uncertainty is much more logical than certainty is since in reality there are few things we can no for sure. When it comes to trying to please everyone, keep in mind that this is an impossible goal. It is not going to happen. Instead, see if you can practice becoming comfortable with not knowing and accepting that this is just how it is. In the end, this is a much more pleasant way to live.

The Hurry Habit

“Life moves fast enough. Do we really have to hurry it along?” -An anonymous person who lived over 4,000 years ago.

Maybe Monday’s should be renamed Hurry Day? Maybe once a year Mondays could be celebrated as National Hurry Day to bring attention to just how much in a hurry most people are?

It is interesting that Mondays (otherwise known as the first day of the Hurry Week) are proceeded by Sundays. Sundays are a day where most people take it slow. The great thing about Sundays is people seem to be able to just be themselves. They can live in a more relaxed and authentic way, as long as they are not in a hurry.

Mondays involve not only the beginning of The Hurry Week but also is the beginning of the compartmentalization week. All week people embrace a different personality when they are at work than when they are at home. There is a distinct division between who one is at work and who one is at home. This compartmentalized or fractured sense of self not only creates more anxiety and internal discord but can cause us to be in a hurry.

I could be wrong but when we are really being our authentic selves we don’t hurry around much. At least I don’t. The reason is because I am fully content right were I am. Therefore why hurry? It is only when we have to be someone else (compartmentalize) and become unfulfilled in the moment that we end up in a hurry. It is easy for hurrying to become a habit in a society which demands compartmentalization and unfulfillment in the moment. We are continually in a hurry to often catch up with the person we need to be.

Mindfulness is a continual practice of seeing life in terms of moments to be lived rather than tasks to be accomplished. When we live more in the moment the result is that there is less of a fractured sense of self (less of a self that is being pulled towards some future self). When practicing mindfulness we are fully grounded in this moment. This groundedness helps prevent too strong of a pulling towards some future self.

When we are pulled towards a future self all the time (meaning somewhere else that we are in a hurry to get to) we are pulled away from the person we are in the present moment. We are not grounded within ourselves. As long as we are in a hurry, we are like half selves running wild through the hurried world. Our full self is not present and this is often why we feel so stressed out, ungrounded, anxious, reactive, unfulfilled and worn down. When our full self is not present in each moment, stress and exhaustion is what often fills in the empty space.

In order to break the hurry habit it is crucial to be aware of when you are being pulled away from yourself, fractured from yourself because of a need to get to some future self fast (the self that needs to be at an appointment or work). If we are continually hurrying through the day, we are continually sending ourselves a message that right now is not good enough. How do we ever expect to feel good enough if we are continually sending ourselves this message from moment to moment? It is like continually trying to grow a flower out of cement. If anything you might reach a place where you feel so worn out that then you kind of feel good enough. But this is short lived. If you want to break the hurry habit, be willing to know when you are being pulled towards the future and then pull back.

Everyone gets to where they need to be. Sometimes we are late, sometimes we are not but in the larger scheme of things does it really matter that much? Is it really worth hurrying through your life so much that you end up at an older age feeling like you squandered much time because you were always in a hurry to get someplace else?

Trust that you will get to wherever you need to be next when you get there. Everything will work out. And if it doesn’t, that is ok also. Such is life. It is not worth squandering this moment of your life for the next. No way. Be here now even if you have someplace to be next. Notice that you are breathing. Notice that you are hearing sounds. Notice that you are alive now and this realization of being alive in this moment is really as good as it gets.

Mindfulness is a way of pulling back against the habit of hurrying away from yourself towards some future self. Being a fractured self is not a fun way to live. Trust me, I know. Hurrying does become a habit when we are regularly living like fractured people. If you want to live your life with more ease and presence, if you want to be more grounded within your authentic and full self, I recommend pulling back when you notice you are in a hurry. Even if it is Monday.

How To Live With Substance, Moment by Moment.

I am here now. The sun is out. It is early morning. I am breathing in and out. Everything is fine. I return my attention to the simplest aspects of what is here now. There are all kinds of thoughts whirling around in my mind. Things that I need to do that I have not yet done. Memories of the past. Thoughts about my parents. Things that I would like to accomplish but have yet to do. Emails that I need to return. Texts that I need to respond to. Things that I want to check out on-line. The thoughts go on and on and on and on. Endless. If I indulge all these thoughts, it will only be a matter of time before I am no longer present and am all stressed out. No thanks. Been there, done that.

The symphony of thoughts that fills my head can get loud. But I am thankfully aware of what is going on upstairs. As a result of noticing all the mental activity in my head I am able to make a choice. Do I want to get on that bus and get caught in all of that or do I want to just wave at the bus and let it go by? It is up to me. It is a choice. Fortunately, I am continually choosing to let the bus go by. I bring my awareness back into the present moment. I notice breathing in and out. I see and hear what is around me and I turn the volume way down.

For numerous reasons, human beings have a very difficult time living in this moment (staying off the bus). A lot of this has to do with past trauma and/or unskillful mental habits that we have indulged and put into daily practice over the course of a lifetime. Every other species (that I am aware of) on earth lives fully in the moment, but because of this sense of a self trying to keep up with mechanical time and because of our brains ability to time travel, living in the moment is a difficult skill for humans to master.

A fundamental aspect of mindfulness practice is making the choice to live moment by moment. As Jon Kabat-Zinn often says, we see life as moments to be lived rather than as tasks to be accomplished. Through the awareness we develop in mindfulness practice we see more and more how it is our habitual negative thinking that causes the vast majority of unhappiness and stress in our lives (not the people, situations or things in our lives). This gives new meaning to the idea that it really is all in our heads. Mindfulness meditation helps us see this and gives us a method or technique to stop doing it when we want to.

In the novel Walking by the great European novelist Thomas Bernhard, as the main protagonist is on a walk he says to his walking partner, “This is an observation that science can always make with regards to people. That they suddenly, at the height of their thinking, and thus at the height of their intellectual capacity, become mad.” Over-thinking or thinking too much is the cause of madness. It is what drives us insane. (Many “insane” people in today’s society are actually seen as high functioning!)

Thought is an inaccurate way to measure the actual substance of our lives. Isn’t it the substance of things that matters most when determining quality? Most of what thought tells us about our future and our past is incorrect but we listen anyways. Most people use thought to get more of what is not here now. We want more money, more security, more status, more power, more justice, more fun, more peace, more freedom, more of whatever we seem to be lacking right now. I am certainly guilty of this. I tend to get caught up in this pursuit of more too much of the time. But I am also aware that the substance of life has nothing to do with money or power or prestige or greatness or any of the things I am in pursuit of. The substance is always right here in this moment. Even though I forget this sometimes, the more I am able to pause throughout my day, the more I am able to remember (I also feel fortunate because I have a friend and teachers who are continually showing me the benefit of this through the way they live their lives).

When we chose to live moment by moment we are prioritizing being alive in this moment over everything else. We are choosing to care more about this breath, these sounds, these sensations, these feelings, this experience of being alive right now over how pissed off we are at someone or ourselves, how many problems we have, how much we have to get done, all of our future plans. Happiness or contentment or non-anxiety is only ever to be found right where you are at in the moment. Keep indulging your troubles, your problems, your difficulties- but please don’t expect to find contentment, relief from anxiety, resolution or happiness there. If you are expecting relief or contentment through indulging in negative thought, that is what is meant by unskillful action. As the character in Thomas Bernhard’s novel suggests, the only place thought ultimately leads us is towards more madness. We must be willing to put it down.

Living in the moment is just another way of saying to ourselves, “This is enough now. I am good with where I am at now. I am ok in this moment. I am breathing and I am alive now, everything else is secondary.” We still get done whatever we need to do but not at the expense of being present with our lives in this moment (in fact it has been shown that we are more productive when we can live more in the moment). We will get to what we need to get to, when we do. Worrying about it or being upset about it won’t help anyone now. When we make our morning breakfast we are just present with doing that. When we get dressed or exercise we are present with doing that. When we make future plans we are present with doing that. When we drive or work we are present with doing that. When we eat, do the dishes, brush our teeth or read we are present with doing that. Moment by moment we continually remind ourselves to be here, that this is enough. Breathe. Just fucking breathe.

As a result, we choose to live more fully (mindfulness is always a choice not a steady state) right now. We experience more freedom from the things that ordinarily weigh us down. We are less angry and worried. Our lives become much more tolerable. Even enjoyable when sitting in traffic or waiting in line. We are more fully alive (and satisfied) in this moment. It is no longer about getting here or there or judging this and that. It is just about experiencing substance (quality) now. Moment by moment.

Mindfulness: Breaking The Habit By CHOOSING To Shift Your Perspective.

I was waiting to turn at a corner when car after car kept coming by. A minute passed and then five minutes passed. “What the hell?” I thought. I couldn’t back up since there were cars behind me. It was a long funeral procession driving very slowly down the long street. I had somewhere I need to be! This was ridiculous! I noticed my heart rate go up and my chest constrict. I became restless and felt stuck. I did not want to be in this situation and noticed that I was pissed off about it. Then I laughed at myself.
I think this is a normal human reaction (minus the laughing at yourself) when stuck in traffic. But in this situation, there is a distinctive difference between someone who practices mindfulness and everyone else. Most people in this situation would become really frustrated. Their thoughts, heart rate, blood pressure would all speed up, they would take the situation VERY seriously and then they would react. They might mumble curse words under their breath. They might feel frantic and anxious. “I have to be somewhere!” they might scream out. They might feel an intense amount of anger and honk their horn at the traffic slowly rolling by. This is the “normal” (which is really abnormal since being stuck in traffic is hardly a threat to someones survival) stress functioning state of our collective world right now. Maybe this is why so many people are on medications and dependent on doctors to help deal with the ravaging effects of chronic stress?
The mindfulness practitioner becomes aware that they are getting pissed off. They notice their raised blood pressure and heart rate. They notice the flood of judgmental thoughts flooding their brain and they say to themselves, “Wow look at all these judgments about the situation that I am. Wow.” Just becoming aware of all the judgmental thoughts (which are really just an unwillingness to accept what is) (“I don’t like this,” “This sucks,” “This is taking way too long,” “I need to be somewhere else,” “This is terrible!”) immediately begins to calm down the nervous system. The mindfulness practitioner then becomes aware of their breathing, notices the sounds that they are hearing, becomes aware of the sensation of their palms on the steering wheel and relaxes into the situation rather than reacting against it. Within a minute or so the stress is gone, they have accepted what is (“So I am stuck in traffic, such is life. I can still be present with what is right now.”) and as a result avoids the detrimental psychological and physical effects of habitual reactivity and chronic stress. All they needed to do was be willing to become aware of all the judgements in their head.
Mindfulness is really just a shift in perspective. When practicing mindfulness we are shifting out of a perspective that is closed, automatic (habitual), judgmental, unaware and as a result reactive into a perspective that is open, curious and accepting of what is. More so than any other creature on the planet, human beings really struggle to accept what is. We continually judge what is, resist it and want things to be different. As a result we suffer the life depleting effects of continual and poorly managed judgments. Our judgmental minds are mostly conditioned. Chances are, from a developmental perspective, if you had a parent or parents who were very judgmental this is why you have a difficult time accepting what is (I have experienced this first hand since my wife has parents who are not judgmental of much and as a result she doesn’t judge nearly as much as I do!).
Next time you find yourself at a corner unable to turn or in any other undesirable situation, see if you can become aware of the flood of judgments rushing through your brain. It is only through becoming aware (waking up!) that you can then CHOOSE to shift your perspective towards a more mindful one. As a result you will begin to break judgmental/reactive habits that may have been undermining your health, well-being, relationships and quality of life all along.

CHAOS and Why You Keep Creating It

Chaos abounds. It is everywhere. Just walk out your front door and you will find it (unless you live in the woods). If you are like most people in our complex and “civilized” society, you probably experience an equal or greater amount of chaos in your own head and relationships, as the chaos that you notice in the outside world. The macrocosm is just a reflection of the microcosm, so the ancient saying goes.

So what can we do about all this chronic chaos in our lives? Can we live chaos free? Why not? After all, the chaos is more threatening to our health and longevity than most of what we eat, drink and breathe on a daily basis. The chaos is equally as addictive as alcohol but like excessive alcohol use, it also creates disease. So it is in our best interest to learn to live without out chaos before we are forced to learn this lesson through tragedy or illness. Those who are already ill, might want to consider listening to what shamans have been saying for thousands of years and devote themselves to a steady course of chaos-free-living, since ultimately this is where healing grows from.

Just like our skin color, our hair, our toes and our height, we are genetically predisposed to chaos. Chaos (behavioral patterns) is passed down through families, just like money and possessions are. Behavioral patterns are partly genetic, but they are also a learned behavior. If chaos was all genetic, it would be impossible to stop creating it. But since creating chaos is also a learned behavior (we learn it in our childhoods from those who are our primary care givers and we learn it from the world we perceive around us), there are alternatives.

First, it is important to realize that 98% of the chaos in your life is self-created. Chaos is what you create because you do not know how not to. At a neurobiological level, your limbic brain is running the show. The limbic brain (lower brain functioning) is focused on survival, and when we are in its grip we see threats and danger everywhere. Childhood traumas (physical and emotional) often activate our limbic brains, causing us to spend a lifetime under threat. When our limbic brain is running the show we are often responding to life like a trapped animal. Raw emotion overtakes us and we become paralyzed with fear, anxiety, worry, anger and rage. Thinking straight becomes impossible. As a result, we continually create chaos.

I could go on and on about this but I often grow bored when reading about neurobiology, so I do not want to bore you. I will say that when we practice mindfulness we are stimulating the neocortex (higher brain functioning). The neocortex is often referred to as “the new brain” because it is that part of our brain which allows us to become more aware, present, creative, focused, curious and open to new learning experiences. When the limbic brain is in charge, it shuts down the neocortex. When we practice mindfulness we might feel good for a bit but the moment that the limbic brain kicks back in, our more aware, present and focused experience flies out the door. This is why it is important to practice mindfulness daily in order to combat a chronically hyperactive and easily stimulated limbic brain.

Chaos is to our limbic brain what peanut butter is to jelly. They go together perfectly. When we practice being mindful, we are strengthen the neocortical regions of our brain, which in turn overrides our more chaos making behaviors. Aggression, emotional withdraw, excessive worry, problem making and other destructive behaviors are quieted down when we are engaging our neocortex brain through mindfulness practice.

Mindfulness practice makes it much easier for us to slip into present moment awareness whenever we notice that we are about to create chaos or are creating chaos. When we are able to experience life through present moment awareness, we are then able to become aware of the numerous resources that are available for us to create a healthier, more creative and chaos free life. It is possible to live a life free of chaos, to live in a world surrounded by chaos but to be free from it (this is what practicle enlightenment is). We just have to make the choice to stop living our life on automatic pilot, to stop allowing learned, habitual and often unconscious behaviors to run the show. It is a choice. A chaos free life is a wonderful thing, but in order to live it we need to be able to cultivate more present moment awareness and less identification with ruminative and often destructive mental chatter. Mindfulness practice is the key.

Give it a try and see if you can spend just one day chaos free.