Where Are You Now?

There’s nothing I love more or have always loved more than shutting out the world and falling into a story…whether it’s a great film I haven’t seen in a long time, a new episode of a TV show I’ve been looking forward to watching all week, or an interesting new book I want to read.  After about 15 – 20 minutes my imagination has always allowed me to fall deeply into that world and forget about ours for a little while. It’s the same place I enjoy going when I write — although then it’s deeper — seeing, hearing and feeling characters simultaneously as I share them with the page.  Psychologists might describe this process or feeling as “flow.”  It’s a point of deep, relaxed focus, that is described by one psychologist as…

“being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Some people experience this feeling of complete connectedness when they’re exercising, others when they are listening to or creating music, others when they are designing or painting, and others when they are managing or organizing a project they care about  — some of us are fortunate enough to experience it day-to-day within the work we do.

Here are some descriptions of the factors that create “flow:”

  1. Clear goals that, while challenging, are still attainable.
  2. Strong concentration and focused attention.
  3. The activity is intrinsically rewarding.
  4. Feelings of serenity; a loss of feelings of self-consciousness.
  5. Timelessness; a distorted sense of time; feeling so focused on the present that you lose track of time passing.
  6. Immediate feedback.
  7. Knowing that the task is doable; a balance between skill level and the challenge presented.
  8. Feelings of personal control over the situation and the outcome.
  9. Lack of awareness of physical needs.
  10. Complete focus on the activity itself.

This is the feeling of being present, there in the now.  Our brain can be a powerful ally, but it can also be our worst enemy.  Our ability to analyze the past, anticipate / plan for the future, and imagine the possible consequences of those choices down the road can help us create or destroy a fulfilling future before it is able to take shape.  Now, more than ever, it’s difficult to focus on the present.  We are living in what some psychologists are referring to as the “Age of Digital Distraction.”  Some of them believe that the very recent vault in the development, complexity, and reliance on communication technology is literally too much for our brain to handle.  We’re not able to process everything the world is messaging.  If you really think about it, it makes sense.  The technology has evolved quickly for all intents and purposes in a span of the last century — with communication technology spiking in the last thirty years.  Our brains cannot evolve that quickly, so we find ourselves constantly racing to keep up, and then our consciousness (and perhaps society) puts immense pressure on us to stay ahead.

Back to me and my “flow.”  It’s not what it used to be.  Even as I’m writing this post, and it’s frustrating.  It used to come so naturally, easily, it was all mine whenever I wanted it.  Now though, even when I’m watching a great movie, tv show, documentary, or reading a great story I rarely do it without texting throughout or checking / reading / responding to emails.  Thus, I’m never in just one place — I’m always splitting my time.  I’m starting to discover that this is not only effecting my enjoyment of some of my favorite things, but it’s also starting to negatively effect the work I used to enjoy so much.  If any of this is resonating with you as you read it, then you’ve probably been noticing something similar in your own experience.

At times I find myself most anxious or distracted, I remember a question a good friend once asked me in a similar time.  “Where are you now?”  In my car, on my bluetooth, racing from one meeting to another, I snapped back without thinking about the question, “I’m on the Garden State Parkway near exit 165.”  He laughed, re-asked the question, this time a little slower.  He was trying to help me foster a mechanism for triggering “mindfulness.”

This article, published several years ago in Psychology Today does a much better job than I could EVER do at describing Mindfulness and the craft of Living in the Moment:  http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200810/the-art-now-six-steps-living-in-the-moment

You should take the “un-distracted” time to read it, if you’re interested in learning more.

But let me hit some of the highlights, quick tips that I know resonate with me…

1.  Reverse Self-Consciousness:        One of the pitfalls of the way our brain has developed is that we can become overly-aware of ourselves and thus sensitive to how others perceive us.  This manifests into thoughts such as, “what do they think about me?”  “how do I look?” “do they like what I just said?”  This is why people have difficulty with presentations, high-pressure meetings, or even dating.  Most likely, the very same people you’re worried about are more focused and concerned about themselves.  In other words, they don’t care about you nearly as much as you care about yourself — I mean this in a good way, this should be a freeing feeling.  So the lesson is, stop thinking about what you’re doing or how you’re doing and just do it, don’t care about the consequences, just let it flow.

2.  Savor It:          Instead of thinking about “what should I do next?” or “what’s going on tomorrow?” when you’re doing something, focus on IT not what could or will happen next, later, or in the future.  In the article I noted above there’s a great anecdote about a woman who goes traveling with a friend of hers often.  When she and her friend arrive at an exciting new place the friend invariably annoys her with the following excited sentence, “This place is beautiful, I can’t wait to come back here!”

3.  Breathe It Out:     This is the key to mindfulness — when life is at it’s most frenetic, stop and focus on the simplest thing — you’re breathing.  Sounds stupid, but it’s an intrinsic force in many Eastern and Native American religious traditions — there’s a reason.  This slows you down, it helps ground you and remind you “where you are NOW.”  It helps you respond to others thoughtfully and not automatically.  I’ve learned about myself that I seem to naturally absorb and feel internal pressure to match the energy of the people I’m with.  On some level, we all feel this — the scale of which though determines how “empathetic” we are.  The trick for me, at least lately, is not synching up or matching the energy of anxious people when I’m around them.  When you are around hyperactive, stressed, or anxious people it becomes more important than ever to achieve your own mindfulness.

4.  Lose Track of Time:            Schedule some time to lose track of it.  Lately I’ve been doing this for myself after work.  I don’t go home where I’m bound to be distracted, but instead to a coffee shop or book store to write.  I know it’s right when after a half hour or so the next hour or even two JUMP without me realizing it.  I used to have that experience all the time, before life was so scheduled out — it’s important to block out some time where “it” is the last thing you think or care about.

5.  Embrace the Opposite:      We all have certain behavior patterns that are inherent to our nature.  All-too-often, these patterns are set in early childhood by what are called “Limiting Beliefs.”  (for more fascinating information on this look up counselor Morty Leftkoe)  These are deeply engrained psychological reactions to situations, people, or environments that bring us anxiety, stress, or strain.  Here’s an analogy, how did you find out NOT to touch things that were hot when you were a child?  You touched something hot, and it hurt, so you didn’t do it again.  This is how we test the limits and boundaries of our physical world.  Well, we do it internally and psychologically as well.  These limiting beliefs become second nature and active mechanisms for our social interactions, for the same reason, we’ve developed them for our own protection.  They help us avoid embarrassment, shame, disappointment, and failure.  We all have them, and more likely than not they are a hindrance to our happiness and full potential.  So, you need to break them.  Again, the “Leftkoe” method is really interesting and actually helpful, I just used it recently for a limiting belief and found that at least in the few weeks after the exercise — it had some very positive results.  But in the short term, what you can do is re-wire your actions.  When you feel anxiousness or apprehension about a situation don’t avoid it, go towards it.  Make a joke out of it, don’t take it too seriously, don’t care about the consequences because they probably don’t exist anywhere other than your mind.  I love when people tell me NOT to do something, because invariably it immediately makes me WANT to do it.  Why is it different when internally I tell myself NOT to do something?  I’ve been trying to reverse this, and my suggestion is that you should too.

6.  Take it All In:        Routine and sameness makes life predictable and boring.  Some people overreact to this, thinking they need to schedule a bunch of exotic trips and adventures to get themselves out of a rut.  I think that’s irresponsible and only exacerbates the problem, because at some point — you’re going to have to return to that same routine and the life you think is so boring, and when you do, it’ll only be worse.  The key is to find that mystery, enjoyment, adventure and above all appreciation in every day.  Take time to notice others, share, connect, and LISTEN.  I remember one of my best friends in High School — no matter where we went, would make it a point of talking to the people around him, in line at a fast food restaurant or coffee shop, he’d turn to an older woman behind him, smile, and tell her he liked her earnings, her scarf, or just say “you look lovely today, has anybody told you that?”  He said it with a smile, and he always meant it.  He always made the other person’s day, and doing that seemed to make his.  At first I was embarrassed and uncomfortable by this, but I quickly realized how simple but powerful this could be.  Now, I push myself to do this all the time — and 95% of the time people are appreciative of and receptive to the connection.  I guess I’ve come to believe that we all go through this life, from one degree to another, seeking to connect with others yet we often, “don’t want to bother anyone.”  This has become increasingly noticeable lately, with all of us immersed in our smartphones and tablets.  Take the time to notice others positively, and enjoy the world around you and the people in it.

One of my mother’s favorite sayings is always, “The world is what we make of it.”  She’s right.  You want to blame everyone else or everything in the world for the way you feel — okay.  Or, instead, you can embrace it, look for the positive, and appreciate the little things.  Instead of always worrying about what else there is, what’s next, what other people think, or what could go wrong, slow down, focus on the moment and remember where you are.  Despite wherever your mind is, the truth is…you’re here, right now —  might as well make the most of it.

Okay, I gotta go now, I started writing this post at 7:30 this morning when I woke up and now I realize I’m late for work…guess I just lost track of time.

~ by Dan Fabrizio on July 13, 2012.

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