Each weekday last week, I was busy sunup to sundown. Cleaning up messes, preparing food, driving kids around to all their activities, exercising, keeping tabs on the landscaping work in the backyard, laundry, diapers, Email, that sort of thing. All while listening to audiobooks or giving an ear to my children’s constant chattering. I was trying to pack as much into a day as I possibly could. Even though I thought I was getting a lot done, still I can’t point to any one thing that now feels like an accomplishment. I know I had grateful and happy thoughts, but I can’t recall a joyful moment, and not once did I truly feel alive. Being totally in my head, I hadn’t really felt much at all. My brain is always going a mile a minute–planning, analyzing, reviewing, reflecting, rehashing, evaluating, and on and on. Does anyone else get stuck in this mental mode, or am I the only one?
It wasn’t until the weekend that I realized that I hadn’t really been living life. Instead of the joy ride that life is supposed to be, I had been sitting there spinning my wheels, for who knows how long.
But Saturday was refreshingly different. In the morning we traveled to beautiful Paradise, Utah, where we attended my nephew’s baptism. He had the unique opportunity of being baptized outdoors in a river instead of a font inside a church meetinghouse. It was sunny, secluded, green, and so beautiful. The sound of the birds, the river, and the breeze through the trees added to the tranquil scene. The peace of that morning was greatly soul-soothing. And I was filled with joy for the wonderful event that was transpiring in my only nephew’s life, and which my only daughter is also soon to experience next month.
Later that same day, my husband and I had the opportunity to attend the Utah Blues Festival. Before I got married, I had been a head-banging, hard-rocking chick, but my husband has helped me branch out and appreciate other genres of music, one of them being blues. Anyone who thinks it’s “depressing” hasn’t really ever listened to it. The blues is all about deep and soulful expression, carried through the guitar, and the lyrics are usually not much more than an afterthought. In my opinion, blues, more than other genres, is music you have to feel, rather than think about, to appreciate.
When we first arrived at the venue, I saw that there were still five bands to go–more than seven hours of music. I found myself planning things to do during that time: returning email, typing in my journal, reading Kindle books, etc. But soon I switched out of “get stuff done mode” and just wanted nothing more than to be present with my husband, my baby boy, and the music. Oh yes, and the delicious food truck food. 🙂 By the end, when the best bands were performing, I was deeply enthralled. Live music is one of my favorite experiences, because you can feel the beat through your whole body, not just your ears. And you feel kind of at one with the crowd, since everyone is experiencing the same thing at the same time. (Well, maybe except for the girl in front of us who did nothing but photograph her own face the entire time!) And there is little that inspires quite as much awe in me as a great drum solo!
The thing about live music is that if your mind wanders away from the present moment, even for just a moment, you miss something that is now gone forever. And even if you are paying attention and being present in it, you can’t hold on to it. You can only surrender to the sensations of that moment and then let it pass on.
And isn’t this really how it is with everything meaningful in life? You can hold on to the memories of experiences and feelings that come and go, but the memory is only a fragile shadow of what you had experienced. While you can hold onto physical objects, they can never, in and of themselves, bring you that feeling of being alive. And although we may have people in our lives, we don’t really “have” them. People, and relationships themselves, are in a constant state of flux. If we aren’t present in our relationships with others, those chances for connection are gone forever. (More about this in a future post.)
Anyway, yes, it is easier for me to be fully engaged in the present moment in unique experiences, while away from home and other distractions. But what about everyday life? Doesn’t stuff have to get done? This is the part that’s difficult for me. You can live in the present moment while in your regular routine; you just have to choose to, and continue to do so at every opportunity. And you can still get a lot done; you just have to let go of a lot of your unproductive thoughts about the past and future that take you out of the present. I suspect that men find this easier, as their brains tend to be more compartmentalized than women, allowing them to focus more deeply on one thing at a time, but this can be challenging for anyone in this modern era, as distractions surround us constantly.
Here are some suggestions for engaging more fully in the present moment:
- When someone is talking to you, stop what you’re doing and physically turn toward him or her. If it’s a child, get down on his or her level. Maintain eye contact. This isn’t possible every time someone talks to you, (otherwise, as a mom, I’d spend all day down on one knee!) but remember to do it when you can.
- Try to be present whenever you eat food or enjoy a drink. Slow down and really let yourself savor what you’re smelling and tasting, and feel the textures and the sensation of chewing and swallowing. Feel gratitude in your heart that you are able to enjoy this food and be filled by it. A new rule I’ve set for myself is to only eat sitting down, although it’s been hard to break the snacking-in-the-pantry habit! (While in Japan, I was impressed by the cultural expectation that you always sit to eat. That shows that they honor food and the experience of nourishing the body. If there was no place to sit, they would stand there and eat. When I licked my green tea ice cream cone while walking down the street, I got some weird looks until I realized what I was doing!)
- Find time each day to be outdoors and just be. Working and playing outside are great, but stop and take time to notice what you see, hear, smell, and feel, especially out in nature. This morning before 6 am, when my baby woke me up, I caught the most vibrant, colorful sunrise, already starting to fade, and it changed to muted and dull in just a matter of seconds. Yet that small moment has impacted my whole day.
- You don’t have to stop and be still to be fully engaged in the present moment. Instead of constantly being distracted by thoughts of what you’re going to do next, think about what you’re doing now. For example, when house-cleaning, notice how much better it looks than it did before and feel gratitude that you have the energy to put in order and beautify your surroundings.
- Train yourself out of the Pavlovian response of jumping up and grabbing your phone every time it chimes. In most cases, text messages can wait a few minutes or even a couple hours. It may feel uncomfortable to sit there and keep doing what you were doing without checking your phone right away. But if you keep trying it, you will begin to feel a sense of liberation as you realize that you are the master of this tool and not the other way around. You can choose to act rather than being acted upon.
I’d love to hear from you, readers. What really makes you feel alive? In what ways do you bring more presence into your life? How do you reduce distractions that pull you out of the present moment?