Today I drank a beer on a lake in central Florida, relaxing on a boat as it slid across the waters, weaving in and out amongst the reeds, and the cranes, and the dying sunlight of the day. I watched my daughter laugh from her seat on the tube that was tied to the back, dragged through the currents and the waves, bouncing with joy as she dipped her toes in the water to splash her friend and tempt the waves to pull her under. I ate cheese, and crackers without gluten, these oddly crisp and clearly ultra healthy versions of their competitors. I sipped upon my beer, and laughed with my friends. I left my phone back on the shore beyond, and didn’t miss it for a second…. I was present. I was truly, completely, inexhaustibly present. It was the most beautiful snapshot of my week.
Why do we fight so hard against being right where we are?
Sometimes it makes sense. When it’s sad, or when it’s angry, or when it’s depressed, or resentful, or needy, or bored, or uncertain, or uncomfortable, it’s easy to understand why we want to bail out of the moment. It’s hard to stay in the hard places.
But how often do you distract yourself from the good that is happening in your life?
When I started to take notice of this, I noticed that I do this a lot… in fact, I do it nearly all the time.
Sometimes it’s because I’m so busy with all the details of the future, and all the bullshit of the past, that I miss what’s happening right now.
Sometimes it’s because I am in such a pattern of checking my phone, my email, my social media, that I don’t even realize that I am doing it, and I miss out on whatever is currently happening in front of me.
And sometimes it’s because things are so good that they are too good, and I just don’t know how to stay with it without fearing that my heart will explode. It is simply too much. I have to escape from just how beautiful my life is.
As I write this out, I feel anxiety around admitting this. What kind of person cannot stay present to the good that is happening in life? Doesn’t that sound like complaining? It feels… wrong.
And yet, it’s true. Today I managed to soak in all the joy and peace and beauty that was happening in the moments of my life, but sometimes I find that I am simply unable to do so, and I have to escape.
My mindfulness becomes mindlessness as I check out and avoid whatever is happening in real time, whether that is good or bad. Emotional overwhelm does not, it turns out, discriminate; too much of a good thing or a bad thing all just seems like too much, period.
My ability to stay present yesterday was not a fluke. To enjoy the taste of the beer on my tongue, the creaminess of the cheese as I bit into it, the sounds of the boat slicing through the water, my daughter laughing, my friend’s camera shutter clicking as it claimed the moment, the smiles on our faces, the way the light bathed us in a glow rarely seen in it’s beauty, all in the exact moment it was happening, without fear of it ending, or thoughts of the past, or musings about what might happen next…. This is a skill I have learned to hone. It’s a practice.
Presence is not a simple action that we either choose to do, or not to do, based on whether we want to experience what is currently happening.
Presence is a muscle that we build, and one that needs to be worked in order to grow strong.
Each time we practice staying present with our experience, with what is actually happening right now in the exact moment that we are in, we build that muscle. Each time we get overwhelmed and escape into mindlessness, that muscle atrophies a little.
Much like physical fitness, staying present becomes a practice of emotional cardio. If you haven’t worked out lately, climbing that mountain is going to be pretty difficult, maybe impossible. Even walking up a hill could leave you winded! A decision to run a marathon requires training, endurance, and consistent practice, regardless of the shape you’re in.
So… What shape are you currently in? When you notice anxiety, or sadness, or physical pain, or emotional discomfort creep in, are you able to stay with it? And if so, for how long?
Notice if the answers to those last questions correlate to the next ones. When you’re experiencing joy, can you stay present to the moment? How often do you find yourself thinking about how similar whatever is currently happening is to something in the past, or worrying about whether or not it will still exist in the future? How often do your check your phone, or change the subject, even when you’re experiencing joy?
How emotionally present are you able to be in your life?
Because in the end, whether it’s good emotions or bad, our emotional muscles react the same way to both. Either they have the endurance to climb the mountains and the valleys of your life, or they don’t.
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” -Lao Tzu
What is the one step you can take today to build your emotional cardio stamina, and start the process of learning to stay present with your life?
Originally published at medium.com