Wednesday, June 5, 2013

How I Stopped Hurrying Into the Future

A friend of mine who travels a lot told me recently that a couple of weeks ago she was in the check-in line in the airport in Amsterdam and the guy ahead of her was just losing it over some problem with his ticket or his flight.  When my friend got to the counter herself she said something to the airline clerk about the guy’s behavior and the woman said that that had been happening a lot lately, way more than it used to – people really losing it over relatively minor travel problems.  In fact, she said, it was a noticeable trend; other people who worked in the airport had noticed it too during the last year.
            “Why do you think it’s happening?” my friend asked her.  “And what do you think passengers can do to keep from getting so upset over traveling problems?”
            The woman gave my friend a one-word answer:  “Mindfulness.”  She went on to say that most of the people she waits on don’t seem to be in the moment at all; in their minds they’re already in the next place, the place they’re flying to, and if anything gets in the way of their going there right now, they get really, really angry.
            I nodded when my friend said all that:  It makes perfect sense.  It also, I thought, has major implications for harnessing time.   
Since I’ve been planning my days a la my harnessing time system – sitting down first thing in the morning or at any point during the day and deciding how to use the time I’ve got – I’ve become a lot more able to be present in the day and in the moment.  I’ve always thought of mindfulness as the ability to be present in whatever’s going on around or inside me, instead of, say, being lost in my thoughts, my worries, my projections about who said what to who yesterday or what I should do tomorrow or should be doing right now et cetera. I still think of mindfulness that way, and I’ve always wanted more of it in my life, have always known intuitively that being present in the moment was the solution to just about all my problems.  What’s changed since I’ve been harnessing time is what I think about how you can achieve mindfulness.
I used to think of mindfulness as a state of consciousness that I could and should achieve, more or less permanently, if I tried – tried more, tried harder – if I would only stop forgetting all about mindfulness and lapsing back into not-mindfulness.   But no matter how hard I tried to remember to be mindful, I kept forgetting.  And trying to be mindful didn’t work either, because whenever I try to think or feel anything it automatically slips away from me. 
What I’ve gotten from harnessing time is a set of tools that I can pick up and use no matter what my state of mind is.  Using the tools changes my state of mind with no further effort on my part.  That way I sidestep the whole trying-cancels-out-letting-go-and-just-being conundrum.  (There’s another tool I use to get to mindfulness too – a certain writing exercise I’ve stumbled on -- but that’s a different subject for another day and maybe for a different blog spot.)  The mindfulness I get from harnessing time is the mindfulness of being where I am in time instead of being somewhere else in the past or the future.  I might not always be aware of everything around me in the present moment – the light in the room, the sound of birds outside my window, how my body feels as I sit here in my chair -- but I’m definitely living in the present -- in the day, the hour, the minute where I am – instead of projecting myself into the future, like that guy in the airport in Amsterdam.  And there’s a much better chance that I’ll be aware of everything around me too.
Harnessing time gives me the ability to do one thing at a time.  At any given moment during the day I’m grounded in what I’m doing and I know when I’m going to stop doing that and start doing something else.  I know how much time I actually have to do what I’m doing, and if I start to feel rushed I look at what time it is and at my plan and decide whether or not I do actually have enough time to do what I’m doing.  (Usually I do have enough time – I’m just afraid that I don’t.)  And if something takes longer than I thought it would – if a flight is delayed or something -- I simply recalibrate.   All of that gives me a much better chance of relaxing, getting peaceful, and being present in the moment, maybe even looking around me and seeing what’s there.  Because rushing and all the feelings that go with it – anxiety, irritation, anger, even outright rage -- is really just a matter of trying to get somewhere faster than you can actually go there.  And if you know where you’re going to be for the next twenty minutes or hour or three hours or whatever, then you have a lot better chance of actually settling down and being where you are.
Lately I’ve been noticing another advantage of my harnessing-time-induced awareness in the present moment.  I’ve got a lot of stuff coming up in the next couple of months:  teaching, public speaking, traveling so I can teach and speak in other places – that kind of stuff, and while I’m grateful that I get to do it all, I also feel a little overwhelmed by it all, and all of it makes me just a little bit nervous.  I keep catching myself worrying a little bit about what I’m going to be doing – How am I going to feel when I’m going through it?  Am I going to succeed with everything or will I somehow screw up or fluff my lines?  Will I come down with a cold or have crippling insomnia or…  whatever.   I used to be an all-out victim of that kind of worrying, but now that I’m harnessing time, whenever I notice myself going to those places in the future, I look at my plan for today, I remember what I’m doing at this moment, and I settle back into where I am right now.   And then I remember that for all the times I’m going to be teaching and traveling and public speaking in the next couple of months, there will be just as many times, in fact a lot more times, when I’ll be hanging out and doing nothing, reading a mystery novel, wearing my sweat pants.   I think of how if I’m projecting myself into the future – having a virtual imaginary experience of something unpleasant (because whoever worries that it’s all going to be good?) – I’m missing out on what I have going on that’s nice and peaceful right now.  And I come back to the fact that everything is always fine, nice, okay, whatever it is in the present, and it’s only in the imaginary, worried-about future that things look really scary.
                                                      --- Mary Allen