“Never underestimate the desire to bolt.” ~ Pema Chodron
I have been trying this present moment awareness thing for a while now, about two years, and I have to say, it's not going quite like I expected.
Somehow I got it in to my silly little head that after a while I would stop bolting from reality and I would just be present all the time, with complete effortlessness. Wrong.
And if there was any lingering doubt as to the flaw in my plan, I then read a number of accounts by people who have been practitioners of present moment awareness for something like twenty or thirty years, and they said they still run away from the present moment sometimes. Damn.
So clearly my unreasonable expectations have got to be changed.
I also noticed that since I have been doing this for a while now, the why and how I flee the present moment has changed.
I used to flee in overt and rather extreme ways, and still do sometimes, like binge eating and excessive TV watching.
But now that the more extreme behaviors have lessened, bolting from reality happens in much more subtle ways, usually obsessive thought. Here are the three most common ways:
1. Lack of compassion.
People do things that tick me off. It's just a part of life. Anger is a naturally occurring emotion; there’s nothing wrong with that. Where it becomes a problem for me is when I get lost in that mental commentary of “what they did and how awful it was.”
This track of obsessive thoughts can go on for a long, long time. And when I am stuck in that story of “what they did and how awful it was” I am nowhere near the present moment.
I don't have to like everything everyone does. I need to be honest about my anger and feel it. But that story about how stupid and pathetic other people are keeps me in my unhappy mind and not in the present moment.
Solution? When I remember what I struggle with—my flaws that are most embarrassing to me, that I dearly wish would go away—then I can get in touch with the part of me that needs compassion. And I can feel how painful it is for others to stand in judgment of my flaws.
The secret is that the part of me that needs compassion is the same part that can give it to others. Remembering specifically how I'm not perfect helps me have compassion on others, and that works to break the spell of the “Unhappy story of what they did.”
2. Lack of gratitude.
I recently read that the brain, being a problem-solving machine, has a natural negativity bias for the purpose of identifying problems. That's great. What's not great is spending all of your time in your head instead of living in your immediate life experience.
When I am stuck in my head instead of being in my present moment, my whole life becomes a long stream of obsessive thoughts about “my problems.” I focus on what I don't like about a situation, what I don't like about my reaction to that situation—and here is the important part—to the exclusion of everything else.
Solution? Making the conscious choice to find the good stuff—to identify the things that do work out and what I did get right—makes a huge difference in breaking the spell of “everything sucks.” This helps me see my present moment for what it really is: some stuff I don't like, but mostly lots of good stuff.
And there is always good stuff, I promise. Here is a tip: if you cannot think of any good stuff, think of how it could be worse. For example, you could have no limbs or live in a far more dangerous part of the world
When I realize I have been absent from myself, coming back home to my present moment experience can be a struggle. And it can take a long time, because there is panic in me over the idea that I have “done something wrong,” which creates a striving and straining to “do it right.”
Typically, I over think it, try way too hard, and make it some kind of contest, although I have no idea who I think I am competing with or what exactly is the rush when I tell myself things like, “Hurry up and get back in the present moment!”
Once the competitor in me is activated, I am back on the treadmill of thought about how to “fix this,” and as with all treadmills, no closer to my destination: the present moment.
Solution? Relax. Breathe. Impress it upon my mind again and again that strain does not actually help me accomplish. Good enough is good enough. Perfectionism ruins all good things. There is no contest to win and no race to finish. All this kind of panic does is help me to further elude the present moment.
This process can seem tedious, returning again and again and yet again to the present moment, then doing it all again tomorrow. But as with all things, it's all about perspective. If I can let go of the competitor, the one who is trying to achieve, win, do it right, staying awake gets much closer to effortless.
Making present moment awareness something that is achievement based only serves to keep us bound to shame, and make us feel like failures when we inevitably can't stay present 100 percent of the time.
In the crucial moment when I realize I have left the present moment again, instead of rejoicing that I am once again awake by virtue of that knowing, I often times plunge back in to unconsciousness with thoughts like “You failed again to stay present.”
What a game changer it is, upon coming home to my present moment, instead of hearing “Where have you been?” I say to myself “Welcome back.”