Don't Resent the Current Moment

Friday, March 23, 2012

Early 2008. Sadie was a toddler. Lucy was a month away from entering the world. My employer was cratering and my wife was planning her father’s funeral. I was getting on a plane headed to Tampa to be best man in my brother’s wedding. My head was in a weird place.

As I was getting out of my car at Logan, I turned on an audio book to keep me company through the trip. That book was The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. And, over the course of that very strange weekend, that book changed my life. Here’s what I’ve learned, and what I’ve tried to live by ever since.

Turn off your mind

Tolle tell us “you are not your mind.” (Relatedly, Tyler tells us “you are not your [goshdarn] khakis,” but that’s another essay.)

I am. Or at least, I though I was.

I’m lucky; I’m fairly smart. Good thing, because I’m not handy. I’m not pretty (though we’ll go with solidly handsome). I’m neither a saint nor a rogue. I’m not the life of the party, a chef extraordinaire or the guy who knows a guy.

But, I’m pretty smart and generally not evil. That’s what I build on, and that doesn’t strike me as all that bad.

But Tolle leads with “Turn off your mind.” Why? (All the quoted material following is from the book.)

“To be identified with your mind is to be trapped in time: the compulsion to live almost exclusively through memory and anticipation. This creates an endless preoccupation with past and future and an unwillingness to honor and acknowledge the present moment and allow it to be. The compulsion arises because the past gives you an identity and the future holds the promise of salvation, of fulfillment in whatever form. Both are illusions.”

Ahh. This is a little clearer. Identifying with your mind is not the same as being unable to turn it off. It’s great to have a clear separation, but it’s distressing to know I’m now failing at two distinct things.

I’ve always defined myself through my mind. This orientation has helped in many ways (I’m always learning, and I’ve rigorously avoided drugs, so as to not screw up the best thing I got.)

But when you’ve spent all your life identifying with your mind, it’s hard to reconcile with this concept of the “mind is not me.”

“Once you have dis-identified from your mind, whether you are right or wrong makes no difference to your sense of self at all, so the forcefully compulsive and deeply unconscious need to be right, which is a form of violence, will no longer be there. You can state clearly and firmly how you feel or what you think, but there will be no aggressiveness or defensiveness about it.”

Ok, I’ll admit it. I (for one) prefer to be right. Sometimes that’s not helpful, especially when your self-image depends upon you usually being right. I have a feeling that more than a few conflicts in my life have come from the need to be right, or – more generally – to be seen as one of the smarter folks in the room.

But, what about turning it off? What’s the point of that?

“Not to be able to stop thinking is a dreadful affliction, but we don’t realize this because almost everybody is suffering from it, so it’s considered normal.

Or, as Crash Davis would say, “don’t think; it can only hurt the ball club.”

I’ve been trying for years to get rid of the incessant mental noise. I think I’ve made some good progress on this, when I actively think to myself that “The mind is a tool, not an end in and of itself. Treat it that way.”

But even when I can work to turn off my mind, my situation does not always improve. The problem is that the general unease manifests itself in my emotions. (“General unease manifests itself in my emotions” being fancy talk for “I get all pissed off.”) Observing your emotions is as important as observing your thoughts. Generally, if my emotions and my thoughts don’t agree, I should trust the emotions to be a more accurate reflection of what’s inside.

Anytime I’m feeling uneasy, I need to ask myself if there is any concrete and true immediate danger. Sometimes there is: the three-year-old is running towards the oven or the server is down with traffic pouring in. That’s pretty rare, though. Most of the time, whatever is happening right now is not the end of the world.

“The psychological condition of fear is divorced from any concrete and true immediate danger. It comes in many forms: unease, worry, anxiety, nervousness, tension, dread, phobia, and so on.”

I try to prevent my mind from spinning tales of brilliant or horrible futures. I also try to not dwell on mistakes from the past. (I’m far better at the latter – I’m not nearly deep enough to be a tortured soul).

It’s easy for me to say this, because my life is extraordinarily good and easy. I’ll guesstimate that 99% of all the people who’ve ever lived would be happy to trade life situations with me. None of my family has cancer or heart disease or maggots in uncomfortable places. Our house is not infested with wasps. I no longer have a skunk living in my garage. Etc. #firstworldproblems.

That said, pain still hurts, so I might as well design an algorithm to minimize that pain.

Let’s start with this:

Don’t resent the current moment

All you have is right now. Try to be “present” in the current moment instead of visiting the past or the future. Your “life situation” (what troubles you have right now) is not your “life”. This has taken me a while to figure out.

I should probably also complain a little less.

“To complain is always nonacceptance of what is. It invariably carries an unconscious negative charge. When you complain, you make yourself into a victim.”

Ok, got it. Complaining seldom helps things, and it’s always a good indicator that I’m not fully present.

But, I really need to watch for repetitive thoughts, my imagination’s greatest hits of bad things that are going to happen.

Some of these hits are general, though I tend to handle those ones pretty well. Nooses don’t just happen, and I’m pretty sure that if the Yellowstone Supervolcano blows, I’m not going to care much after a few hours.

But most hits have specific triggers. Like a child’s whine. (To completely pick something totally at random that is in no way something I deal with every single goddam day. Totally random example.) The child’s whine sets me off, causing me to slide down the slope to what it will be like 15 minutes from now when it’s only gotten worse.

I need to short-circuit that slide.

I should be dealing with the present fuss, but my body has decided to jump directly to the ending of the worst-case scenario. I need to stop and see what’s happening right now, and only interact with what’s happening right now.

Don’t “worry” about what might happen. If you need to prepare for it, then consciously say that I’m going to solve this problem, then accept what you’ve done and move on with your life.

“Either stop doing what you are doing, speak to the person concerned and express fully what you feel, or drop the negativity that your mind has created around the situation and that serves no purpose whatsoever except to strengthen a false sense of self. Recognizing its futility is important. Negativity is never the optimum way of dealing with any situation. In fact, in most cases it keeps you stuck in it, blocking real change.”

I’m far too prone to irritation and impatience. It’s usually not helpful. The ladies at daycare know me for my incessant “Let’s Go. Let’s Go. Let’s Go.” refrain. Every. Single. Night.

Tolle talks about how the energy you resonate comes back to you. I think that’s true, and the children can undoubtedly sense my irritation (at least at some level). I also touched on this concept in my Don’t Betray Yourself essay. People can always tell when they’re being handled, mollified, disrespected or shunted off. The girls can always tell how I’m really feeling.

At least I can use that to my advantage when they’re hurt and I’m fixing them up. I can tell them “look at Daddy. Do I look upset? No? Then you don’t need to be upset. It will all be ok.” I have the advantage of being all dead inside, with it’s sidecar power of being able to entirely disengage emotions and just act when necessary, like when the older one has a hotdog stuck in her throat. (This skill also comes in handy when the brakes on your little sports car decide to give out on 128.)

“In your everyday life, you can practice [presence] by taking any routine activity that normally is only a means to an end and giving it your fullest attention, so that it becomes an end in itself.”

This is some basic Buddhism that I’ve been trying to live by for a while. I’m not super-successful at it, but I do keep trying. This dovetails well with the focus principles around getting things done. Do one thing at a time, and give it your full attention.

Give more attention to the doing than to the results. This will make it so that you are working within the current moment, enjoying and experiencing each piece for what it is. The results will be what they will be, but life is always better if you are harvesting the inherent the outfit worn by the actress on the screen. Hear the breath of your wife in the chair next to you. Feel the warmth of your home. Appreciate the wittiness of the physics humor on The Big Bang Theory.

“Maybe you are being taken advantage of, maybe the activity you are engaged in is tedious, maybe someone close to you is dishonest, irritating, or unconscious, but all this is irrelevant. Whether your thoughts and emotions about this situation are justified or not makes no difference. The fact is that you are resisting what is. You are making the present moment into an enemy. You are creating unhappiness, conflict between the inner and the outer. Your unhappiness is polluting not only your own inner being and those around you but also the collective human psyche of which you are an inseparable part. The pollution of the planet is only an outward reflection of an inner psychic pollution: millions of unconscious individuals not taking responsibility for their inner space.”

“Accept – then act. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it. Make it your friend and ally, not your enemy. This will miraculously transform your whole life.”

“If you find your here and now intolerable and it makes you unhappy, you have three options: remove yourself from the situation, change it, or accept it totally. If you want to take responsibility for your life, you must choose one of those three options, and you must choose now. Then accept the consequences. No excuses. No negativity. No psychic pollution.”

I think this is the most important piece of the whole book. It boils down to this: Change the moment, leave it, or accept it entirely.

Take control of yourself. Either do something about it or accept it. Don’t just whine and bitch; it’s not going to change the situation, and it makes everyone else around you a bit more negative.

Now that I’m older, I have a better idea of what I can safely not give a flying [goshdarn] about. It’s liberating. If I’m not going to actively take action to change something right now, then I’m not going to worry it. If I have to deal with it in the future, I’ll make a note in my org-mode file to ensure it’ll come up when it is time to do something about it.

“Pleasure is always derived from something outside you, whereas joy arises from within.”

This is an awesome quote, and it accurately hits a distinction I’ve never really thought about. If your current happiness is being derived from outside you, then forces outside you can take it away. No one can take away joy.

You can always deal with the present moment, but you can never deal with a projection of a possible future or a remembrance of the past. Thanks for spending a couple of those moments reading this. I really appreciate it.

Now, it’s your turn. How do you keep from going insane through the day? How do you find sustained awesomeness? What tricks do you use to focus? Please leave me a comment with your ideas!

P.S. This really works best as an audio book. Tolle’s voice is hypnotic and it really gets you into the right frame of mind for absorbing the material. If you can swing it, listen to the book when you’re working in the garden or taking a trip, when you can basically shut off everything else and let yourself slip into the world he’s building.

I’m not sure how, but I’ve found that listening to the book gives you a glow as you’re walking around during the day. To the point that we talk about “I need some book” when we’re having a tough time of it.

The only bad things is that we need to coordinate book time so that we don’t clobber each other’s “left off” point in iTunes.

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