What I Don’t Know About Being Present in the Moment

The single most profound adjustment I’ve made in my life in the last few years has been learning to be present in the moment. And I still don’t entirely know what that means.

As I’ve mentioned before, I was influenced by Eastern philosophy at a kind of early age. “Going with the flow” was my lifestyle choice for decades. In a way, I’d been practicing for — albeit not actually practicing — mindful presence most of my life.

Accepting and being pleased with the present wasn’t natural for me, though. Even acting on impulse more often than not, I was nearly always more interested in the future than the current moment. Those impulsive decisions were more about getting somewhere else, creating new stories to tell, than celebrating where I was.

Generally, I lived expecting things, including myself, to be better and better in the time to come. Generally.

I suffered plenty of worry about the future too, though. Tons of regret, guilt, and issues from the past as well.

I’m no expert on being present, but I’ve learned a lot and become pretty good at it. Good enough to be happier than ever before. While I’m still developing stronger habits and skills to improve my mindfulness, here are a few things that I can share:

1. It ain’t easy. But it’s easier than you think.

Being present in the moment is challenging for us modern folks. There is so much to do, so much to see, so much to tweet or post or ha ha emoji to. Distractions are distracting. Then there are responsibilities. Stuff’s got to get done.

There’s just not enough time in the day, right?

It’s true that being present takes time. In fact, it’s all about time. But the present is never the present long.

Jerry Seinfeld did a bit about silver medal winners in the Olympics that illustrates how fleeting the present moment actually is.

This cracks Ashley up every time. How long is the present? “Now. Now. N-n-no, now.”

You might want to enjoy more than .03 of a second at a time, but, you know, the present moment IS only a moment. A few seconds pause is all it has to take to acknowledge what’s going on around you and how you’re feeling. In the time it takes to read the subject line of an email, you can re-center yourself and appreciate the moments you’re living in.

ferris-life moves pretty fast

2. Being here, now doesn’t prevent you from being there, later.

In fact, I believe it provides powerful help to get you where you want to be.

This may have been the greatest misconception I’ve had to deal with. I’ve mentioned how I’ve always been sort of future focused. I believe in goals and taking methodical steps to achieve them. Settling for the present, it seemed to me, was at odds with ambition. Even going with the flow at least meant going somewhere.

I just made the point that the present moment can be an exceptionally brief time. Thing is, the present isn’t just that one moment that’s here then gone. The present continues to be the present, stretching on into what had been, a second ago, the future. In my mind, to concentrate on each moment as it comes meant not concentrating on the times yet to be. Like a twist on Zeno’s dichotomy paradox, I mistakenly assumed truly being in the ever changing moment meant never moving.

As with Zeno’s paradoxes, though, common sense and experience proved the theory wrong.

Being present is not being stagnant. Hardly. Being present is, believe it or not, an action. It’s not doing nothing. It’s being fully aware of… being. It means connecting to the truth of a situation, taking in reality as it is. It also means connecting with the truth of yourself.

Having that awareness of who you are, what your strengths and character are, being grounded in reality — that centers you on your best path forward. Outside influences will still require reaction, but a present state of mind can help you maintain focus. And that will keep you moving in a positive direction toward your goals.

3. Living in the present heals.

A couple years ago I struggled with a dangerous bout of depression. I was lucky to get some good help, starting with my loving fiancee and a couple of doctors. It took several different steps to escape that awful situation, but you probably don’t have to guess what I’m going to tell you was one of the most important.

In my case, the state I was in had roots in serious regrets about my past AND anxiety about the future. While there was a lot of good in my life at the time, I was also experiencing a horrendous time at work. I dreaded every day.

My present was terrible. Why would I want to dwell in it longer than necessary?

Because, more than anything else I did, that fixed me.

Focusing on the present helped me finally let go of the past.

Taking a minute to focus on my breathing calmed my anxiety.

Allowing full awareness of what I was experiencing at the time, of what people were actually doing and saying, of what I was feeling and thinking cleared up apprehensive assumptions and misjudged motives.

Reflecting on the present instead of the past opened my eyes to possibilities.

Greatest of all, being truly open to the reality around me helped me realize all the reasons I have to be grateful and happy.

Enjoying the present is great when the present is good. Even when it’s unpleasant, centering yourself in the actual here and now is healthier than getting lost in imagined fears.

What I Don’t Know About Being Like the Bell

Ashley and I made a late night stop at the Taco Bell drive-through, as one does after going to see Duran Duran and Chic in concert. Or any concert.

Always looking to turn every experience into a learning one, the quick trip to Taco Bell got me thinking:

In your interactions with people, especially when you are in service to them, be like Taco Bell. Give them more sauce than you think they’ll need.

I don’t know if it’s true for every area, but around here, if you say you want sauce Taco Bell gives you a whole bunch of it. We always have more than we need, and that’s with me sometimes using two or even three on an individual taco. We keep what we don’t use right away and pretty much always have some packets in the fridge. It’s not often, but I have used some on other food at home.

When someone comes to you for something, I suggest you give them more than they ask for. More attention. More time. More effort. Surprise them with your willingness to casually provide more help than they might expect. Don’t limit your output to the bare basics of what you believe will satisfy them. Give a little extra.

I see this applying especially to business, but definitely not only.

This is something highly successful people do. Extremely successful businesses as well.

A customer interaction in which the consumer needs a product or service and is provided exactly what they ask for is perfectly satisfactory. But is it memorable? Does it inspire the customer to tell others, to keep the business top of mind, or to even return?

Consistent good service can lead to customer loyalty, certainly. Might exceeding expectations do better at creating fans?

It’s been said before (and was even repeated just yesterday at my workplace) that successful businesses don’t sell products or services, they sell experiences. I submit that an abundant sauce experience is better than a one-packet experience.

Considering Taco Bell’s policy of generous condiment delivery, I can’t help comparing it to the experience at other fast food drive-throughs. Most don’t even ask, as they do at Taco Bell, whether you would like condiments. There’s no offer, so the responsibility lands on the customer to ask, beg, or demand some. Then when they are given, it’s in the most minimal amounts.

Having operated a cafe that was awarded “Most Profitable” in the company (twice!), I certainly understand gross margin, and I get why places might keep tight controls on their goods. I also understand customer experience, though. Small measures of goodwill — and, conversely, the smallest bits of stinginess — can swell to create huge, often unexpected impact. “Sow the wind and reap the whirlwind” can work in positive fashion as well as negative.

The extra you give could be anything. A token, a bonus item; extra effort to go above and beyond; reassurance and affirmation. Being especially generous with your gratitude can be the greatest thing you can give.

Sure, not everyone keeps the extra, leftover sauce packets. Some people will discard the excess. But that’s for them to decide. If you freely give what you have to offer in abundance to everyone, what does it hurt you? You will be rewarded anyway. Trust me.

 

What I’ve Gained From Journaling

Like meditating and exercising, maintaining a daily journal is something I’d seen recommended for years. It’s nothing new. I know some people have been doing it for decades. The popularity of the practice seems to have really picked up in the mainstream over the last couple of years, though. Maybe it’s Shawn Achor’s doing. So in this case I’m kind of following the trend, not at the forefront of it. I’m well okay with that, since writing in my journal nearly every day has made a tremendous difference in my happiness, my attitude, my behavior, and my mental health. In short, it’s just about improved everything in my life.

There are bunches and bunches of well-researched articles listing the many benefits of positive journaling, like this one, this one, and this one. I appreciate the fact there is real science and documented results behind the promotion of a healthy journaling habit. I’ll leave it to you to research and read those details. What I know most about and aim to tell you about are the specific ways keeping a journal has helped me.

Most obviously, it helps develop a writing habit. This result will be more important to some people than others, but I do believe everyone can benefit from improving their experience with writing. Even if you only use bullet point notation, which I do sometimes, the process of organizing your thoughts and selecting words that make sense as you put those thoughts on paper sharpens communication skills. For me, it’s trained me to be able to sit and write at least a little something every day. Writing for no other expected readers than myself has also trained me to let the words flow, to get my thoughts out without pre-editing or stopping to correct myself. I’ve learned to be content with what I write without feeling I need to edit and revise everything endlessly.

It’s a meditative practice. Taking a few moments to pause and be still while reflecting on life and things has helped me focus. I notice I feel more centered afterward, and that feeling lasts into the next day (at least).

IMG_1748
My current journal. It’s almost full. The next one is waiting behind it.

My journal is an excellent way for me to document things I’ve learned throughout the day as well as my own achievements. It’s a record of progress. Much like an exercise journal or diet tracker, the journal is a device that allows me to recognize accomplishments I’ve made that make me a better person. It also gives me opportunity to review my goals and intentions. Sometimes that leads to admitting I could do better. That’s still learning. Still improving. If I have made progress, I feel good. If I have had opportunities to improve, I feel motivated.

Also, the process of  writing down lessons I’ve learned reinforces them for me. There’s science that explains this, too. Basically, bringing the learning experiences to mind repeats the events once, then, with the action of writing it down, I “tell” it to myself, repeating it, effectively, two more times. Putting these experiences in my journal, reliving them, secures what I’ve learned in my memory.

Repetition of other positive experiences — people I’ve helped during the day, people who have helped me; pleasant moments, even meals, enjoyed; recognition I’ve received, and gratitude I’ve expressed to others or they’ve shared with me — increases my happiness in the same way. And here’s something: those good, happy memories are doubled, because now I not only have the memory of enjoying it the first time, live, but I also have a happy memory of remembering it and recording it and feeling good about it a second time. So what was good the first time around is doubly good for the feeling of joy the memory of it can bring.

And what wasn’t good the first time around? Surprisingly, when looking back, even experiences that seemed negative or exceptionally stressful tend to not be so terrible once I’ve got past them. I caught part of an interview on NPR a couple days ago where retired paramedic (and now author) Kevin Hazzard talked about having to deliver babies:

“It’s one of those things that it’s not good until it’s all over with. Don’t forget, these are people who are enduring a natural childbirth, so they aren’t happy to see us. There’s no joking with a woman who is way deep into a natural childbirth and is going to do it on the living room rug. She’s not in the mood to smile or necessarily even be cooperative. … All of a sudden there’s this child and everybody is smiling. … It wasn’t one you always looked forward to, but it was one in the end that everybody always seemed to enjoy.”

Now, I ain’t delivering babies, but tough things I go through in a day generally turn out like that. Not so scary once it’s all over. Sometimes there’s even a positive result. Journaling has helped me maintain perspective, and appreciate just about all the things I experience.

Similarly, journaling trains the brain to look for positives, and, when looking back on the day, to realize how good the good things were and how minimal and unimportant the negative things were. Or how they weren’t negative at all. Since I’ve been journaling, I find myself applying this knowledge as I go through the day. I’m more open to opportunities and much less worried about challenges as they come up.

Another way keeping a journal increases my personal joy is by providing a mechanism for me to recognize how fortunate I am. It provides a medium for expressing gratitude, if only to myself, so I stay cognizant of how much there is that’s good in my life. Bringing these things to mind, it then spurs me to act graciously, with compassion, humility, and appreciation of others.

Through the benefits I’ve mentioned, my journal has become an incredibly effective tool for self-coaching. It’s like talking to yourself, you know. I think I read it’s even more effective than speaking affirmations to yourself, because of the repetition involved. When writing it down, your brain thinks the positive thought once in order to write it, then again as it reads it back. I write in my journal, celebrating life, detailing accomplishments and goals, and it encourages me. “Wow! Look what you’ve done! Look where you’re headed! You are one lucky guy! Stay strong, man. You can get where you need to be.”