I was at TRX class the other day and I noticed that one of the women in class, Kathy, has transformed herself. She has lost some weight and is looking incredibly fit. After class I told her how great she looked.
Her first response was, “Oh, I’m getting there.”
When I reiterated that she was looking super fit and toned, she said,
“I’m trying. I’ve lost about 20 pounds.”
And then she repeated,
“I’m getting there.”
Where is “there” I wonder?
From my perspective, she is THERE. She looks amazing.
But in her mind, she’s not yet there.
I notice this with people everywhere.
No matter what, we are never satisfied.
We have blinders on our achievements. We become so focused on a goal, we can’t see when we actually accomplish it. Or if we stop long enough to recognize a success we immediately set a new goal so we wind up in a fruitless search of happiness that is always just around the corner.
Then there’s the other side of the coin when we’re trying to get BACK to a place we used to be in the past. Currently, I am experiencing this form of discontentment. After being diagnosed with mercury poisoning this past December, I have been battling to get my health back. After years of triathlon training and forming good nutrition habits, I watched my body regress back to it’s softer, plumper days in what felt like the blink of an eye.
It seems so unfair that months and years of dedicated training and deliberate nutrition practices can be derailed in just a fraction of the time. Now every piece of clothing I put on is a constant reminder of where I used to be and the disatisfaction of where I am now. My mind turns everything around me into a cue of what I once was.
I think to myself, maybe if I can recall exactly what I was eating, how I was training, sleeping and feeling at my peak, I can get back to that place.
We’re either living two steps in the future or two steps in the past.
In either case, we are missing out on the present moment…the only moment we can count on.
The truth is, whether we’re striving for some better place to get to or reaching for some idealized memory of the past, we have no guarantee that attaining either of those goals (if that was actually possible) would even bring us happiness.
Life is constantly changing and we are changing with it, whether we are aware or unaware of it. We are changing whether we like it or dislike it.
In my flawed pursuit of trying to get back to a place I was two years ago when I felt fit and strong, I have overlooked the fact that I am different now. Even if I were to replicate the diet and training that I did back then, both my internal and external environments have changed since then so, as the saying goes, results may vary.
Life is an ebb and flow of ever changing variables. The harder we work at trying to control those variables the more discontented we become. The more we wish to go back to the past or wait for some future result, the more we miss out on the present. This wishing or waiting breeds further discontentment. It is only in the present moment that we can find true joy.
How do we stay in the present?
Staying in the present is attained through practicing mindfulness daily in everything we do. The simplicity of mindfulness makes it easy to practice at any time. It doesn’t have to mean spending hours meditating. It can be as simple as pausing and noticing what you are doing.
Take one deep breath in and one deep breath out. Notice how it feels. It has an immediate calming effect.
If you didn’t already do it, please do it now. If you did it the first time, do it again.
Doesn’t it feel nice?
Knowing what you are doing. Paying attention, non- judgmentally.
The breath is a nice one to call upon because it’s always available. We just have to remember to pay attention.
Mindfulness can be applied to anything we do throughout the day.
Before you take a bite of food, stop and look at it before you put it in your mouth. Notice the texture, color, smell, shape of the food. When you chew, notice what it is that lines the food up exactly where you need it to in order for your teeth to bite it.
When you step outside of your house in the morning, take a moment to notice the temperature. Is there a breeze in the air? How do you know if it’s raining outside? Do you hear it first or see it, or feel it on your skin?
If you’re feeling sad or anxious or stressed, rather than getting caught up in the story of those feelings, ask yourself what those emotions feel like in your body. Where do you feel them? How do you distinguish sadness from anxiety from excitement or happiness? Once you separate them from the stories, you can see them for what they are…just a temporary, passing feeling, thought or emotion that only has power if you feed it.
Staying in the present does not mean we become complacent or unmotivated. It is possible to want to change our situation while still staying in the present. In my own example of working to get my health back, I am trying to reframe my story.
Rather than wanting to return to a past state, I am learning to work towards a new state of well being while appreciating the place I am residing. When I catch my mind wandering back to “healthier days”, I gently guide it back to the present moment. I focus on the breath, or the sounds I’m hearing, or sights I’m seeing. The idea is to guide the mind away from the stories and into the here and now of the sensory experience.
Some days I feel like all I’m doing is guiding myself back to present. I am constantly being yanked to thoughts of the past, but in the moment that I notice I have gone back, I have cultivated a stronger pull back to the present. This is the practice. Over and over again.
Habits of the Mind
Going deeper into the Pema Chodron quote that I began with, she writes the following in her book Comfortable with Uncertainty: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion,
One of the deepest habitual patterns that we have is the feeling that the present moment is not good enough. We frequently think back to the past, which maybe was better than now, or perhaps worse. We also think ahead quite a bit to the future, always holding out hope that it will be a little bit better than now. Even if things are going really well now, we usually don’t give ourselves full credit for who we are in the present.
Practicing mindfulness corrects these habitual patterns and cultivates an appreciation for the present moment. So while having goals and wanting to improve ourselves is a valid venture, we have to be careful not to get caught up in the perpetuating cycle of wanting. Whether we long for the past or strive for a better future that is always just around the corner, they are both stealing from the present.
Jay Winner, M.D., writes in the article, The Challenge of Living in the Present in Psychology Today, why mindfulness is an effective tool in breaking our patterns.
Each time you mindfully let go of thoughts about how life should be, and enjoy life as it is, you change your brain. You strengthen nerve pathways that make the habit of mindfulness easier and easier.
This is encouraging because the practice is cumulative and we have endless moments throughout the day to return to the practice. Life is constantly moving and if we get stuck in the past or fixated on the future we aren’t moving with life.
When we surrender to the full experience that life is handing us, whether it is good or bad, we are living fully.
This is what it means to live a mindful life and this is how we stay grounded in the present.
One breath. One moment at at time.