Live Each Moment

I heard about a viral video of a woman walking down the stairs onto a subway platform.  Except she didn’t notice where she was, and she kept walking right off the edge, falling to the track area below.  Luckily she wasn’t hurt, and neither was the child she was carrying.  It’s easy to judge this situation, thinking how on earth could she have missed what was right in front of her?  This example is extreme, to be sure, but I can see how this could happen.  She might have been tired, thinking about where she needed to be and the errands she had to run.  Or she might have been worrying about the route she’d chosen, thinking she should have gone another way.  In other words, she may have been living like most of us do, our bodies in the present while our minds are stuck in the past or the future.

Our brains are designed to think about things, so there’s nothing abnormal about this tendency.  But this is just a different form of distraction.  We are multi-tasking, doing things with our bodies while our heads are wrapped up in something else.  But if we aren’t careful, our lives may move on around us while we’re busy stuck in thought. The moments we allow to pass by unnoticed are still deducted from our time on earth, but we aren’t living them.

The cure for distraction is choosing to do just one thing at a time.  This is what is meant by staying present, or being mindful.  It’s simple, really.  Just do what you’re doing, while thinking only about what you’re doing and experiencing it with all your senses.  If you’re eating, sit and eat.  Think about the food in your mouth, the texture, the flavor and the smell.  If you’re folding laundry, feel the warm clothes and smell the clean scents and think about the precise corners you’re deliberately making in the shirts.  If you’re walking, feel the earth beneath your feet, see the people around you and hear the sounds of the cars.  You won’t miss a thing.

You may notice an amazing thing happening.  You may start to enjoy what you’re doing.  Even washing the dishes!  Without thoughts judging the activity or creating anxiety about the other chores that need completing, this moment of warm soapy water and a stack of clean dishes can be a pleasure.  Every moment is worth this amount of attention.  This is presence. This is a moment lived.

Try a Little Kindness

Last week a stranger in front of me in the drive through bought my cup of chai for me.  She didn’t know me, and I had no way to thank her for the treat.  But her kind deed put a smile on my face for the rest of the day.  It also prompted me to seek out ways to “pay it forward” to someone else.  Kindness is catching, after all.

Maybe you’ve felt a wave of positive energy when you’ve offered kindness to someone else, whether it be a compliment, holding open a heavy door, or donating to a friend’s favorite charity.  It turns out that kindness has positive benefits for both the giver and the receiver.  An act of kindness creates an immediate positive feeling, followed by a sense of calm that may last several hours.  There are theories that this is caused by a release of the feel-good hormones endorphins, similar to what happens when we exercise vigorously.  So kindness has physical and emotional benefits, what’s not to love?

Kindness comes in many forms.  One of my favorite acts of kindness is a solo project called Lovingkindness Meditation.  It is based on Buddhist teachings, but is not a religious practice.The technique is simple:  sitting in meditation, first I offer lovingkindness to myself by focusing on these phrases: May I be happy.  May I be healthy.  May I be peaceful.  May I be safe.  As I’m thinking these words, my focus is on feeling them with my whole being, so I truly offer these wishes to myself.  Next, I repeat the same process, offering lovingkindness toward someone I love, like a close family member or friend.  Then, I repeat the phrases focusing on someone toward whom I feel neutral, like a person I don’t know well.  Next, I offer it to someone I don’t like, or with whom I’m in conflict.  Finally, I offer it toward all beings.  Each time, I’m trying to feel the kindness in my heart, even when it is difficult.

Lovingkindness Meditation offers the feel-good tingle of a kindness given to others, and, as a meditation, it focuses the mind and relaxes the body.  Over time, this practice has helped me make peace with some difficult people, and to forgive myself.  I also feel more compassionate in general, because the feelings of lovingkindness aren’t lost when we get up from sitting. Finally, it helps me remember that every being is worthy of kindness from my heart, from those dearest to me to those I don’t know and even those I don’t like.  The world can use more kindness, and the more I give, the more I receive.

Old Habits

Many people want to make a change in their life.  This tends to involve starting new habits, like diet or exercise programs, goals to take more time for self-care or efforts to meditate regularly.  Getting started with something new brings its own challenges, such as finding motivation, practicing time management, and developing consistency.  It also may mean giving up an old habit that no longer serves.  That comes with a whole other set of obstacles.

Our habits have become routine because they have been practiced often over long periods of time.  The process of repeating an action in this way actually forms new connections in the brain, through neuroplasticity.  In other words, old habits are hard to break not just because they are familiar, but because our brains have actually become wired to perpetuate them.  The more a habit is practiced, the stronger the connections become.  Of course the good news is that new, healthy habits will also foster new connections, but it will take regular consistent practice.  The old connections will also still be there, and will initially be stronger than any new ones.

Ancient yogis called patterns of thought or behavior Samskaras.  They were often described as grooves worn into a surface, the stronger the pattern, the deeper the groove.  I love this description because it offers a clear visual image.  Think of an old dirt road in the country.  Many wagons travelled this road, and wore down a path.  Now any wagon will easily fall into the grooves left by previous wheels.  It would take a lot of effort to steer onto a different part of the road, and we may find that half-way down, we fall into the old ruts anyway.

People tend to become frustrated or ashamed when they struggle to let go of old patterns of behavior.  The truth is, it’s hard to forge a new path when the old grooves are waiting there to pull you in.  Change takes patience and effort, and it requires resisting the comfortable grooves over and over again until the new habit is as strong as the old one.  Remember this every time you find yourself frustrated by discovering you’ve fallen back into an old habit.  There’s no need to beat yourself up, just steer your course onto the new path and start again.  As many times as it takes.

Transitions

Change is difficult.  When we transition in life, we face leaving the comfort of the familiar for uncertainty.  Even positive changes may cause anxiety and doubt.  But life is full of transitions.  If we fight every change, we risk chronic anxiety or stagnation as we avoid ever changing at all.  I’m not going to tell you that I easily weather transitions in life.  I get anxious, worry about what could go wrong, and I have even avoided some changes to spare myself discomfort.

One of the biggest changes I made was in my psychiatry practice last year.  I was certainly comfortable with the way things were, but I really felt I had more to offer my patients.  I went from doing brief medication visits to longer appointments that allowed me to offer therapy and the wonderful benefits of yoga and meditation.  It took a leap of faith to go to yoga teacher training, and another to bring my ideas to the managing partners at work.  Since no one was doing this kind of work, I assumed they would say no.  I worried that my patients wouldn’t want to try my new approach, or would even be angry at me for changing.  Not everyone was enthusiastic about it, but many were, and new people are seeking me out.  Overall, challenges have come up, but I have been able to offer what I believe in, without compromising myself.  To think I could have missed out on all this because of my own insecurity and self-doubt.

Change requires faith, because we can’t predict what will happen next.  That can lead to the anxiety of “I don’t know what’s happening!” or the thrill of “I have no idea what will happen next!”  The words are almost the same, but they reflect different choices in the face of uncertainty.  One is fear-based and may keep us from moving forward.  The other is filled with anticipation and the thrill of adventure.  Think about it, the felt sense of anxiety and excitement are very similar.  The difference is the story we tell ourselves about it.

The next time you face change, try thinking of it as an adventure.  There will be some unexpected challenges, and there may be some surprises, but that will keep things interesting.  Look for the thrill instead of the fear, and you may begin to embrace the twists and turns of life.  They’re going to keep coming whether we want them to or not, so we might as well try to enjoy the ride!