Not everything needs to be an annual tradition

Contemplating this week’s #bebetter52 challenge to be “more present,” I find it impossible to analyze without connecting to the deeper meaning of life. I don’t mean to be too intense, but it’s true.

It’s only when you realize you are not present that you start becoming present.

One summer I sat out on the back deck of my parent’s backyard in Oregon. It was a beautiful day in 2008, and I had found a cozy pillow to lie on next to the fire pit I had enjoyed during the summer nights. I had just graduated from grad school at UCLA, and the uncertainty of what to do next was all too real. Months earlier my heart had been broken by a boyfriend of eight years, and I felt more nervous than excited by the prospect I could do ANYTHING with my future.

I had vivid memories of that summer when I started reading the book The Power of Now, by Eckhart. My mind was blown.

Quotes like this one caught my attention: “The moment you realize you are not present, you are present. Whenever you are able to observe your mind, you are no longer trapped in it. Another factor has come in, something that is not of the mind: the witnessing presence.”

I had been wasting away my life by allowing my head to be consumed by fears of an uncertain future. My mind was a runaway train when it came to planning out the unlimited number of possibilities that could occur.  I was under the false belief that worrying about my future somehow better prepared me. Instead, the distraction of the “what ifs” only confused and paralyzed me. Detached from what was present, I was missing out on important moments that could have ACTUALLY prepared me.

The shift to live more present.

It was that summer I decided to travel the world. I had to “figure out life” and until that point, traveling was the only time I felt truly present. The days would feel long, packed with enriching experiences. I was convinced that in different countries, days would go by in slow motion but weeks would speed by.

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I was living in the present. I returned from a month in Ecuador, weeks in Kenya and a month in India and Nepal and felt shocked that months had gone by. I was present in the new cultures-- what I was seeing, smelling, tasting--and I embraced not planning, believing that by releasing the tight grip of a planned schedule, I would let life take me where it wanted. As a result, I reacted to every moment, good or bad, with the mindset it created an experience that would teach me something.

Why was it difficult to continue this outlook on life once I returned home from my travels? When reflecting back to those days in 2008, I believe these travel experiences slowly helped transform my life from one in my head to one in the present.

However, the struggle to be present is still something I deal with daily. I am a planner; it’s just the way my mind works.

Let’s take one of the more current examples of my ability to ruminate over details that only distract me from the present. To some, these might seem valid questions, but my mind never simply asks and allows me to sit back and observe. it starts to plan.

Planning Pregnancy with Cooper:

“What if I were to get pregnant this month? Cooper would be born around the holidays.

If Cooper is born around the holidays, I wouldn’t be able to go home to Oregon for Christmas for the first time in 33 years? Or could I? When are babies allowed on a plane? (quick Google search) Dang, looks like they need to be at least 8 weeks old.

If I don’t go home, I will be stuck in sunny California during Christmas (which to me seemed the end of the world).  I don’t want to be in sunny weather. I like the cold. Maybe I can take a newborn to Big Bear Mountain, just so it feels like Christmas.

But what if I can’t get pregnant then? What if I wait and Cooper is born during lacrosse season. Who will coach while I am gone? Would I hire a babysitter to come to the field? Would I leave the baby at home? How long would it take to pump a bottle if I am on the field all afternoon? You get the picture. My mind can be a runaway train.

Meanwhile, those moments wasted in my head will never be gifted back to me. They are gone forever. And guess what? Cooper was born on January 10th 2016, days after Christmas and New Years. I didn’t go home for Christmas. Instead, Cory and I enjoyed a very special holiday, just the two of us, anxiously awaiting the arrival of our little girl. On that day, I was extremely present, able to embrace the treasured last moments of just Cory and me. It was a Christmas I could have never planned or prepared for--it just happened.

What percentage of my days, of my life, do I live unaware of the present?

Luckily for me, my struggle to live in the present isn’t as deeply rooted in anxiety as it is in excitement to PLAN and DOCUMENT.

I like to obsessively plan. Many would say it is one of my strengths, and I would agree. But does the need to plan take away from the present? Or am I simply creating moments that allow us to embrace the present. I think there is a balance.

I also have to document.  Most of the time I feel that unless I document something by journal or photo, it didn’t happen. And worse, if the moment goes by undocumented, then I grieve the memory gone. What in the world is this about? Maybe it’s because I have a horrible memory. Maybe remembering good times brings me great joy.  Again, I think there is a balance.

But I now recognize the unsatisfying feeling of not being fully present compared to the joy of being fully aware in the present.

Some of my tips:

1.     Don’t start grieving the end of holidays before they have even begun. This is also true of the weekends. How many times do you wish for the weekend, and then once the weekend comes, you start worrying about work?

2.     Set down your phone the majority of the time. Take a picture or reflect on the moment at the end of the day in a journal, but don’t fall victim to having to document everything. I have seen too many moms take photos and then automatically look them over, deciding which ones to post-- while memories pass right before their eyes.

3.     The big picture can be paralyzing. I am a big thinker, but when it comes to the daily grind of checking off items from my to-do list, I allow this “think big” tendency to paralyze me. For example, what is the point of pulling garden weeds if one day (years from now) we are going to rip out the backyard and hire a landscaper to redo the whole thing? Recognizing the items I need to accomplish in the present makes the present more enjoyable.

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4.    Not everything needs to be an annual tradition.  Every time I enjoy a moment, I have this temptation to start daydreaming about the next time we will do it. For example, I love holiday traditions and a highlight last fall was taking Cooper to the pumpkin patch. Before the experience was even over, I was talking to my friends about how excited I was to do it again next year. Although I believe in the importance of traditions, I am not fully living in the moment if I start planning the following year’s tradition before the current one is over. My enjoyment of the tradition is lessened by my consuming need to repeat the tradition.

5.    Anxiety is worrying about the future and depression tends to focus on analyzing the past. As I prepare for the birth of our son, it is easy to be consumed by the past trauma of what happened to me after Cooper was born and what is to happen in the future. By doing so, I will miss out on being present during the birth of our son. My main motivation to be present lies in my commitment to be present during these limited moments as a family of three and the welcoming of our newest addition. I never want to reflect back on these times and wish I’d been more present.

To summarize, let me end with my favorite new quotes:

“Past and future are in the mind only- I am now.”---Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

“Life is available only in the present moment. If you abandon the present moment you cannot live the moment of your daily life deeply.”---Thich Nhat Hanh

“The meeting of two eternities, the past and future….is precisely the present moment.” –-Henry David Thoreau