I’m going to start by flat-out challenging you. Here’s the challenge: if you can’t spare at least 15 minutes to read this right now – don’t read it. Bookmark it for later when you do have a bit more time. I believe it is so important that I want you to have time to both read it and devote a little time to thinking about what you’ve read, even if that is only a few minutes.
As I begin here, I’m realizing that today’s post will create a bit of a paradox. For in order to be successful, I will need to tell you about something I am choosing not to think about. Moreover, telling you will require thinking. And so, in essence, I’ll be thinking about something I am not thinking about. I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to manage it somehow, without tearing asunder the very fabric of the space-time continuum and whatnot. Wish me luck.
Today, I want to talk about being fully present.
I’m aware that the concept of “being fully present” may sound high-minded and transcendental to some (or as my close friends say, “woo-woo”).
To others, it will sound quite the opposite – cliché and trendy, a mere pop catch phrase for the self-help crowd.
For still others, it will evoke sensory images of plinky massage parlor music or a smiling Buddhist monk, walking silently by a Koi pond while the echo of some distant gong reverberates in the air.
I’d like to simply tell you what it means to me. I hope that, in doing so, it might also help you to decide what, if anything, it might mean to you.
I am still here in Florida, enjoying three whole weeks in a beautiful home in Naples, graciously gifted to me by friends. Time passes in the same way here as when I was a kid during summer vacations from school, every day somehow stretched into three.
Meanwhile, I’ve also had recent discussions with friends who have expressed that life feels as if it is blazing by, and all the faster so as they get older. I couldn’t help but notice that these same friends spoke in equal proportion about feeling like they are always racing, distracted or frantic about future decisions or worries, perpetually tired, and never able to do the things that refill them or give them real joy. Spending time with their kids. Cooking in, instead of ordering out or eating in the car while whizzing between unmemorable heres and theres. Fostering their creative side. Baking cookies for a friend.
However, the fact is that time is moving along at a constant rate for each of us – from that kid on summer vacation, to me during my wonderful and carefree stay in Naples, to those who feel as if their clocks are ticking away triple-time. So what is the difference?
The difference doesn’t seem to be about having enough money. Kids don’t have money. (In fact, most don’t even consider that having it should make them any happier.) But they seem to have figured out how to slow down time.
It also doesn’t appear to be based on how many orbits a person has completed around our central star. I know some sage old souls for whom time seems to be passing at quite a leisurely pace, much like it did for them during those summers eight decades ago.
So maybe it’s work that the trouble, then. Kids don’t work, nor do the elderly. I’m not working during my vacation. And yet, I honestly do know people who work the same number of hours as everyone else (sometimes more) and yet who have no complaint about the rate at which time is passing.
Simple logic would seem to say that if time is constant, any discrepancies in the passage of time are wholly perceptual. And if it is a matter of perception, then the possibility lies within each of us to alter that perception. And that means that, by and large, it comes down to one thing …
It comes down to choice.
In fact, I myself will testify that, while I’ve most definitely been caught in “time traps” where weeks or months have seemed to blur by at head-spinning speed, I’ve also learned to live in such a way during “regular life” that moments tick and tock gently like that old Kit-Cat clock, its eyes and tail wandering lazily back and forth, smiling all the while.
Strangely (and I swear to you that I didn’t plan this at the outset), this brings us back around to that space-time continuum.
Here’s what I think.
Regardless of how you feel, you are in the now. That is, you exist in the present (and for all of my philosophical and religious friends, I’m begging you just this once to embrace your childlike selves and resist debating this assertion).
At the time you are reading this, you are where you are. You are nowhere else. You are no-when else. You are living this moment … and this one … at the same time and speed at which every other person on the planet is living it. The problem comes when we try to jump through space and time and be two places or times at once. Or three. Or ten.
We’re just not designed to be multiple places or times simultaneously; and so, in attempting to do the impossible, it stands to reason that we stress our system. We overload it. Steam builds up. Gears grind. It gets wonky. And before you know it – * SPROING * – our perception of time is all out of whack.
You see, when I report that I am “frantic,” what I mean is that I am attempting to send my mind ahead of me to “where else I should be” at this moment or “how much time is left” before I have to do X, rather than simply allowing my mind to join my body where it is. And that is right here. Right now.
When I let myself to be overwhelmed with busyness (and it is a choice), I am trying to control that uncontrollable space-time thingy by trying to stretch one hour to fit the activity that would require two.
When I nurse resentment, anger and regret, I’m yet again attempting to send my mind away from my body to somehow revisit decisions and hurts long past. I’m making the choice to burn up my mental machinery in vain attempts to rewrite history. Or I haunt old memories like a petulant poltergeist, looking on like Scrooge at phantoms of my own creation who are neither aware of nor interested in my lingering presence there. Before I know it, the hands on the wall clock have once more inexplicably jumped hours ahead.
Being present is possible right where you are, not just for the modern-day Thoreau who can stroll beside Walden Pond. It requires no climb to Machu Picchu. It costs nothing. And it is by no means “woo-woo.” It’s a simple choice.
Notice that I said simple – not necessarily easy. It takes practice. It takes discipline. It takes consistency. But it is totally obtainable. And, if you ask me, it is totally worth it.
Here’s how I stay present.
First, I try always to be mindful and intentional about letting go of bitterness and regret. (If these things tend to eat at you, I recommend reading that post and devoting some time to the process.)
Next, I developed a system to banish worry, and I use it consistently. (If worry is your downfall, I likewise highly recommend that you read this post, if you have not done so already. I and many others have found real value in the approach discussed there.)
However you do it, do let go of bitterness, regret and worry. They are notorious time wasters.
Let me briefly add here that being present doesn’t mean we never look forward or back. I’ll simply say that there is a vast difference between wisdom and worry. One leads to planning, while the other leads to … just more worry. The chasm is equally wide between reflection and regret. Whenever the past or future begin to produce anxiety, they are working against you and not for you.
Next, in order to be fully present, I try to be diligent in regularly asking myself “check-in” questions like these:
What have I taken on that I need to consider dropping?
Where am I squandering my emotional energy on petty things I need to release?
What decision could I make right now to restore a sense of peace and balance?
I’m not kidding. I really do ask myself these things, and then I clear some space for stillness, so that I can hear my own answers clearly.
When I know what needs to change, I remind myself of the central truth in everything I write: “You always have a choice.”
I also remind myself that, if I were to suddenly die tomorrow, all the things I thought I needed to be doing – would still get done. Or they wouldn’t. But one thing is for certain, and that is the world would continue on without my having done them. This humbling realization works wonders in helping me to see that I really can cut things from my life – or say no to other things looming overhead like the Sword of Damocles. Might that upset some people or make for some awkward moments? Sure. Will it matter in a year? Most likely not. And even if it did, that would be a decision on the part of others, not me. I can only control my own choices and reactions, no one else’s.
Then, there are times when nothing particular is urgently pulling at me, but I still find myself woozy with that feeling that I’m somehow slipping from the present to … some-when else. If I’m being honest, that has happened a few times as I’ve entered the second half of my wonderful vacation time here. I’ve found my mind trying to wander outside my “now” – counting how many (or few) days I have left, thinking about tasks that await back home, from something as seemingly simple as wading through three weeks of mail, to bigger undertakings like the inevitability of having to move.
But the reality of this moment is that I am here. I am now. And today is wonderful. This nineteenth day of my vacation is, for all intents and purposes, exactly the same as the day I arrived. It is full of moments and possibilities, alternate realities of my own choosing. And tomorrow, when it arrives, will hold the same potential.
I’ll leave you with one last thought: a mental exercise I use often to stay in the present and keep that perception of the passage of time in alignment with reality. But before I even tell you, I know that some of you, however much you long for time to “slow down” and for things to be simple, will roll your eyes at it. You’ll think it’s silly. That it’s “woo-woo.” I have only this to say: if something works, it works. So don’t be a naysayer. Decide now to take yourself a little less seriously and give it a try.
That said, here is the mental exercise I use whenever the past or future begin to encroach in unwelcome ways: I put words to the present, whatever shape that is taking at the moment. For example, I’ll actually say to myself something like this:
I am here. I am in this chair right now. I have a big comfy pillow propped up behind my back and another across my lap. I am on page 237 of a book I’m really enjoying. I am wondering how this character will get out of his current predicament. I am chewing on a delicious cherry I took from the bowlful beside me. I ‘m enjoying myself right now. I am living this beautiful moment. I am here.
It’s very important that you only put into words what is true at this moment, and that you don’t include what isn’t. For instance, adding in My bills are not due right now defeats the purpose. I’m sure you can guess where the focus would immediately shift.
For you, it may sound like this:
I am here. I am driving. My hands are comfortably around the steering wheel. I can hear and feel the road passing underneath. I can smell the vanilla air freshener. I’m taking a deep breath and feeling it go out. I am here.
I challenge you to put it to the test, to experience once again what time felt like for that summertime you of yesteryear: listening from your tree house as the breeze rustled the leaves; or being suspended on air as your swing reached its full height, the exhilaration of it tickling your stomach as you began another descent.
Let me be clear: I don’t have this down pat. There are times when I catch myself missing present moments in trying to control future ones. And there are days when I must revisit my “I am here” dialog twenty times to make it through. But as I continue to practice being present, that misperception that time is racing by happens far less often than it used to.
Time is neither your enemy nor your friend. Time simply is. How you spend it is a matter of choice.
Are you ready for some real change in your life right now?
The Best Advice So Far is about choice. Filled with wit, humor and poignantly real stories, The Best Advice So Far shares collective wisdom through a new lens, as well as practical application for living like it matters (because it does).
August 27th, 2015 at 2:46 PM
Hi Erik… just what I needed to read! I feel like I’m being pulled in all directions at the moment and don’t have the time to do anything that I need to. I just need to step back and let things do their own thing! Like you say, they’ll either get done or they won’t!
I will be back to check out some of your other posts. Thanks for connecting over at Frank’s place.
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August 27th, 2015 at 3:07 PM
Hi, Tom. Thanks for crossing the bridge and looking around. I’m telling you the truth, everything I write here is stuff I myself need and practice (and need to practice more). Being present and running my “I am here” dialog has saved me more than once in the last week, for sure. And realizing that the most urgent things aren’t all that urgent in the big picture really does help, as well.
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August 24th, 2015 at 7:49 AM
This I need to try because as you mentioned reading it brought me to a problem I struggle with all the time with comprehension when I’m reading.My mind always drifts off to some distant things that have nothing to do with the with book I’m reading.Oh and by the way,I ordered your book this morning.
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August 24th, 2015 at 8:33 AM
Thanks for reading, letting us in on how you’re wanting to apply this – and grabbing a copy of the book! I trust there’ll be lots more life “stuff” in there than simply reading.
As fate would have it, I’ve also done decades of reading instruction. And the best thing you can do is to be sure you’re turning every single thing you read into a clear mental picture (with sound, smell, etc.). If you can do that, you will have no trouble focusing or remembering while you read. If you’d like, drop me an email (it’s listed in the side bar – or at the bottom, if you’re on a mobile device), and I’ll do what I can to give you some pointers from afar on focus while reading.
August 23rd, 2015 at 2:04 PM
Great post, Erik. Where am I this moment? Smiling in my chair, coffee at my elbow, happy to be commenting on your wonderful advice. Your example of using sensory cues to ground us in the “now” is great, and your statement that here and now is really the only place we CAN be drives the point home. I often find space in the “now” for a deep breath of gratitude. Feeling it.
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August 23rd, 2015 at 7:07 PM
Hi, Diana. “I am here. Picturing you smiling in your chair, coffee at your elbow, reading and commenting.” 🙂 I today is a significant day for you, and how much you are enjoying that chair, coffee and reading. Thanks for sharing your “I am here” moment with us!
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August 23rd, 2015 at 7:09 PM
Blogging all day, Erik. A little book-writing tomorrow. Life is good. Enjoy your vacation 🙂
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August 23rd, 2015 at 7:11 PM
Ahhh, how nice. 🙂
Enjoying my last day to the fullest,thank you!
August 22nd, 2015 at 10:02 AM
Great advice, Erik, and it’s exactly what I need to be reminded of, too. Time has been flying by lately. And I’m sure it’s because of my tendency to overbook myself and to begin thinking about my next project before I’m finished with what I’m working on right now. Living like this is allowing me to get a lot accomplished. But this effectiveness is coming at a high cost. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working on slowing down, and re-fostering a sense of awe (Jon Beaty wrote an excellent post examining the science behind this a few weeks ago).
Anyway, this continues to be an area of growth for me. The good news it that focusing on being present, fostering a sense of awe, and taking time to unplug, are working well for me. I’ve just got to keep doing it. Thanks for another excellent reminder 🙂
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August 22nd, 2015 at 10:12 AM
Hey, Jed. I’m here to tell you, like with the memory strategies I wrote about on Adam’s site, if you’ll commit, it gets easier and more deeply ingrained every time you make the choice to think these new ways. It becomes your “90% rule” rather than your last-ditch effort.
Just remember: people are always more important than projects.
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August 22nd, 2015 at 3:48 AM
The trick I use to get my mind in tune with my body is by telling myself ‘there is nowhere else I would rather be than here at this time and in this place.’ This is usually when I am on the beach or watching the sunset.
As always, Erik, your advice is spot on, especially about letting go of past hurts. I tried for 20 years with an open heart and lots of tears to try to reconnect with my family when a defining moment made me realise there was no going back. I walked away both mentally and physically, with no regrets or bitterness. It was like a switch flicked in my head and told me ‘let it go, Gina.’ I’m glad I did.
Hope you are enjoying your time in Naples and not counting down the days until you have to go back to work!
I’ve been to Florida a few times – it’s one of my favourite states.
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August 22nd, 2015 at 8:38 AM
Hi, Gina. Love your personal wording there.
Regarding your family difficulty and tough decision, I’m right there with you, having had to make a similar decision. I talk in my book about “BEASTs” (or, simplified, “beasts”):
While family situations can be more heartbreaking than Stupid, per se, there are times when, we realize that all of our efforts are truly wasted, while still Absorbing massive amounts of Energy from our mind, heart and soul. It’s a completely personal thing to know when the time has come that enough life energy and effort has been expended and that we can do no more; and it’s always a soul-searching final decision. But, yes, even with family, there can come a time when the healthiest choice is to do just as you (and I) have done … and let it go, including any bitterness, regret, shame, guilt and the like.
Your willingness to share so openly brings up another important point: sometimes, the moment or stretch of time we are in isn’t a beach sunset or a vacation or a good book. It doesn’t feel very much like one where we want to say, “I am here” or “There is nowhere else I would rather be than here at this time and in this place.” This is when we can tend to start getting sucked into the past, or begin trying to escape to the future where we are finally out of the current un-fun moment. Yet this still has the effect of causing time overall to seem to jump.
I’ve found that we can still be present in these times by micro-focusing, and reminding ourselves of what is true and good in that moment. Mine might go like this: “I am here. I feel my breath going in and out. I’m gaining character and resolve right now. I have a choice. No one is forcing me. I’m strong enough to handle this moment. I’m safe and in control. It’s my choice to be here.” (And there are times, in having this inner dialog, that I realize I do not want to choose to continue to be there, and I exercise my right to remove myself from the situation. This may involve taking a deep breath and navigating the momentary awkwardness of doing so; but it is sometimes the best choice I can make given the dynamic of a moment and other people’s choices.)
Thanks for reading and for your willingness not only to share your thoughts, but your deeper heart here, Gina.
August 22nd, 2015 at 9:28 PM
BEASTS. Yes! Exactly right. It was only one of the many Erik Tyler insights I identified with in ‘The Best Advice So Far.’
I don’t write as succinctly or eloquently as I would like but as far as the sunsets go, what I was trying to say was so much of what goes on around us passes us unnoticed because we are not focused on the here and now. In most cases these moments may only last a nano second. For example; an unexpected smile from a stranger on a crowded street or the sight of a flock of pelicans flying in perfect formation in the early morning sky (which I saw a few days ago)
As far as being in un-fun moments (which I avoid like the plague, LOL) I like to think I am intuitive enough to see them coming. I’m not only talking about personal relationships here but practical every day life as well. As you say, it is all about choice. I choose to be organised and I look for the unexpected. (I know what you are thinking here) I know, I know, you can’t always control what happens in life but at least you can try to lessen the likelihood of things going pear-shaped.
P.S I have been spreading the word about your book so hopefully you will see a spike in sales from Australia. Did you see my review?
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August 22nd, 2015 at 10:54 PM
Hi, Gina. “Succinct” isn’t me, either (at least not in my blog), nor do I consider myself eloquent. The important thing for a writer is to have a clear voice, whatever that may be; and you certainly have that.
I’m with you on not missing the moments. I’m on the lookout for them, and creating them where I can.
As for spotting awkward situations and steering clear, I’m also with you. I think the type I had in mind were events where family tensions are involved. Sometimes, you choose to be present for one family member, while another who will also be present makes things difficult.
I love your idiom “going pear-shaped.” That’s a new one on me!
I’m honored and excited that you found real value in the book, enough so to talk with others about it. That is, far and away, the best form of “advertising” there is: people who are genuinely enthusiastic and just talk. I did read your wonderful review! I thought we’d been in touch about it the day it went live. Now I feel like a crazy person! So sorry if I only dreamed that I had thanked you. Thank you!
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August 21st, 2015 at 9:15 AM
Erik, knowing you for a long time. It’s incredible I haven’t heard you share this method of becoming present. But holy smokes did it just work for me. For the sake of connecting, here’s a snippet of what just went through my head: “I am here. I am in a canvas tent somewhere in Idaho. There is the sound of horses roaming all around me. I’m laying next to my beautiful wife. (Who somehow suppressed the fear of the 100+ bugs lining the tent walls when we went to sleep.) right now, no bugs. Sounds of little animals scurrying around. I am here.”
Thank you for this nifty trick! A 15 minutes WELL spent.
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August 21st, 2015 at 11:34 AM
Hey, Chad. It’s actually fun to realize that people who know one another very well still have things to continually learn about one another. You probably never knew this one because, having known me for so long, you’ve also been privy to the times I’m forgetting I have this in my own “toolbox.” You are actually a person who reminds me, whether you’ve known or not. (
By the way, this all caused me to remember our one hour of “together but separate” silence out on the stone jetty that night years back.
I love your “I am here” for this moment. It created a clear image and feel for me.
I hope it will encourage others to share their own “I am here” moments.