Do the present duty—bear the present pain—enjoy the present pleasure—and leave emotions and ‘experiences’ to look after themselves. That’s the programme, isn’t it? C.S. Lewis
The river was running through us.
We had just come from the northern tip of the Trail of Tears at Mantle Rock. Hundreds upon thousands of Cherokees had hunkered down there in harsh winter almost 180 years ago, some to perish, as they waited for the Ohio River to thaw on their forced journey westward. Amy and I and the kids had walked the somber trail after previously exploring the largest freestanding archway east of the Mississippi. Tragedy and beauty had met at this place.
But at the moment, we and our fellow travelers, and those who lived nearby, were sitting in our cars as the ferry nudged its way west across the southerly flowing river into the quiet hamlet of Cave-in-Rock. That night, we would huddle together in a tent overlooking the valley as the barges went by. For now, though, I peered downstream, each second passing slowly by, intersecting the dark current that lay beneath our drive to go another way.
So it is in our daily lives. Time knows no ownership, and yet frequently we find ourselves saying “where has time gone” or “I can’t believe how fast it has flown by.” For those of us with kids, it only seems to quicken with each new addition. It is not uncommon for us to look back upon the day, or week, or even year (or more), and wonder just what really went on. Meanwhile, seconds tick by as they always have whether or not we are there to truly experience them at all.
Many reasons (and excuses) exist why this happens. We often find ourselves blaming all we have to do. Yet this in itself does not explain why we cannot be in the present when it occurs. There are times we desire to be somewhere else, or are distracted; when this occurs, we are as far away from now as our spirit and mind allows. Still, whether memories of a happy or traumatic kind pull us backward or worries and expectations pull us forward, one thing is for sure: Much of the world’s ills lie in not being present-minded, while our happiness depends on being in the now.
Take for instance the psychological conditions of depression and anxiety. Depression is the state of helplessness that things will not change from the dismal situation that has been; anxiety is the state of hopelessness that the future holds much distress and disharmony. All of us who have experienced them to varying degrees know that now gets lost in the shuffle. Take the travesties of addiction. What you find is that the compulsions and urges of the substance (or habit) are conceived in the inability to harness (or deal with) the present opportunity at hand, for a fix that has been and seems must come again. Anyone who has experienced an addiction knows that the withdrawal from (the past) and the compulsion within (for the future) drive anything but a present-minded decision, even if the momentary release or euphoria calms an otherwise distracted, unsettled mind.
As a parent and a pediatric psychologist, I have become increasingly aware of how important being present-minded is in parenting our children. There is a reality that I am faced with multiple times daily: All the best intentions and advice fall woefully short if you and I are not in the moment enough to be aware of the factors that are at play, and the decisions that need to be made. I might know that a particular action is the best way to handle a meltdown. But if I am not present enough to choose an effective action (or refrain from the poor one), then there is little chance that what I know will translate into what I do. Diminished or absent present-mindedness also appears to be one primary reason that parental depression can and does have such a negative impact on kids. It’s not that any parent can or should be present all the time. However, even when kids’ basic physiological needs are met, parents who are depressed (or are very anxious) have difficulty meeting the social-emotional needs of their child. They may be physically present, but their mind is often far, far away.
In speaking of present-mindedness, it is important to clarify what it means and does not mean to be in this state. Being in the now does not mean being unaware of the past and its role in many aspects of our lives, nor does it mean to neglect planning for the future or not working to change negative circumstances. It does not mean disregarding how our environment affects us or closing ourselves to the input that comes in. What it does mean is that we dedicate our heart and soul to what is now and not the false god of what is before and/or after. It means stripping away layers of pride and false pretenses and truly being aware and honest regarding the condition we are in—of what we are thinking, feeling, and doing—and understanding the forces that are guiding us now. Sometimes this awareness may come with a great deal of pain; sometimes with confusion; hopefully, sometimes it may be with gratitude and joy. But whatever awareness presents itself, we can be certain that if we are truly present-minded, what we experience is of the most authentic, formative sort.
So if we desire to be more present-minded, where do we begin? First it must start with what threatens this state altogether, of which the triple E’s loom large. They are endurance, emotional regulation, and empathy. The more we work to improve these aspects of our lives (see July 2015, October 2014, June 2013 in my column among others), the more likely we will have a framework that promotes living in the now. Second, we also must discern whether our environment or our devices are regularly distracting us from the moment at hand; if they are, adjustment or relinquishment is in order. Third, I ask you to consider the simplest of tasks that was presented to me a little ways back. At some point in your day, commit yourself to just one full, deep breath (in through the nose, hold for at least a second, slowly exhaling through the mouth). Then pause, and allow the breath to permeate you. Be aware of where you are, and what you sense and feel, and maybe even desire more.
Finally, consider the potential of meditative or contemplative prayer, or the ancient Eastern tradition of mindfulness, which is increasingly being used across the world as an intervention to help heal the mind, body, and spirit. Research has found that mindfulness is effective in not just reducing symptoms of depression, anxiety, suicidality, and other psychological concerns, but also for weight loss, pain relief, and relationships problems among other things. A brief introduction to mindfulness can be found at the following site: http://www.mindfulnet.org/index.htm.
Most have heard the phrase “You’ve got to stop and smell the roses.” Sometimes it is true. But it is not just the roses we need to smell if we and our children are going to become the people we are called to be. We need to smell the daisies, the dandelions, the daffodils, and even the darned stinkweed that encroaches upon our lives. How else would we know what person we have become if we do not know where our lives have gone and are going? How can we ever expect to teach our children about themselves if we are but a shadow or an apparition of the person standing in our shoes? It is time for me, and you, to come back to the real, raw thing—at this moment, in this place—and seize the opportunity of a lifetime. Now.