“There would seem to be nothing more obvious, more tangible and palpable than the present moment. And yet it eludes us completely. All the sadness of life lies in that fact.” — Milan Kundera
I felt smug as my finger ran down the chapter headings. They were in a health book recommended by trusted people – The 4 Pillar Plan by British GP, Dr Rangan Chatterjee. Where most American books of this genre overwhelm me with their scare-mongering tactics and complicated advice (often requiring the purchase of their own products) Chatterjee’s book felt refreshingly straightforward and manageable.
Moreover, I was already doing most of them. Ha! I thought; I’m ahead of the game. I spend (way more than) 15 minutes of me-time every day; I eat sitting down; I almost kind of sort of have a bedtime routine; I get morning sunlight.
But as I read his book, I realised he was advising doing these and more without e-devices. Oh. Nooooo.
Podcasts, streaming and pings of all sorts had become my faithful companions. I’m not proud to admit this but a lot of the time, even when simply moving from room to room or doing just about anything, I felt I needed to have something else going on. Not to “optimise” my time (please), but because it felt comfortable to always be in a state of distraction.
I had of course noticed how mentally fractured I’d become. How my attention span was shot to bits. I gave myself brownie points for meditating every morning, but I knew that couldn’t make up for jamming the rest of my waking hours with – let’s face it – often entirely unnecessary information and communication.
I used to laugh at those who’d feel the need to keep the television on in the background. Now I’ve become a variation of it. Always plugged in, always on. I have to liaise with people at multiple time zones so having a fixed work schedule has rarely been appropriate for me, but much of my device time is not even work-related; honestly, it’s just noise. I reach for my phone first thing in the morning and the last thing at night. And I’m not even on social media, that insatiable beast. But I can’t be superior about that – I’m no less an addict.
The thought of “just” walking, cooking or eating was so terrifying that I told myself I had to try it. (Admission: I negotiated with myself as one does with a toddler with a quivering lower lip – try one morning walk without headphones and you can have an extra half hour of reading before bedtime, okay?)
Many of us are past-focused or future-focused. I’m happy to have a decent equation with my past. I’m not sentimental or clingy, and there’s no drama letting go of what’s outdated. I have definitely berated myself for choices I’ve made but on the whole, I try to go by what chef and author Samin Nosrat described so elegantly in an interview as what she wrote to a critic who became apoplectic with a mistake he’d found in her book: “I’m sorry for this mistake, we’ve remedied it since in future printings, and I really hope that the next time you make a mistake, people treat you with more compassion than you just treated me.”
No, regret and nostalgia are not my zone. But the future is where I live. And I know I’m not alone. A dear friend once told me at the start of my weeklong visit that she was already feeling sad knowing I’d soon be leaving. From the outside, it can sound faintly ridiculous – why not enjoy what’s right there for now? Yet, I do it all the time.
Moreover, in fear of future pain, I imagine I can somehow control it by arming myself in every way possible. By knowing useful shit, by being prepared, by always planning.
I once asked a holistic doctor what I could do to overcome my teeth-grinding problem, for which I have to wear a deeply unsexy mouth guard when I sleep.
She motioned like a tiger about to pounce and told me: you grind your teeth because you’re always braced for battle.
How we do one thing is how we do everything, as the saying goes, and so Geneen Roth uses the way we eat to understand how we live. She said in an interview that most of us raise the next forkful before we’ve finished chewing our current mouthful. She said we never actually take in who we are or never let ourselves have what we have, so focused are we on rushing to the next thing, training our minds in the process to behave as if we’re in the waiting room of our lives.
Yeesh. That’s me.
I’m convinced that if I pre-empt future trauma, I can circumvent it. So I’m armoured, on high alert at all times. Like in the Robbie Williams song, Feel, “Before I’ve arrived/ I can see myself coming”… “Before I fall in love/ I’m preparing to leave her.”
I imagine that if I can somehow get to there safely, only then I can relax. Even though, as Emily Dickinson wrote, “Forever is composed of nows.”
The upshot of living in the future is of course that my focus is away from the present. Meditation teacher Tara Brach calls this state of distraction a “trance”. This is so accurate. It’s a means to avoid myself.
As I’ve said before, excess eating, shopping, smoking, drinking, drug taking and gambling are all at heart the same – a way of bolting from reality thanks to fear. Fear of feeling whatever I’m scared to really feel in case the overwhelm swallows me up for good. Fear of my deepest desires not being met. Fear I’ll put my best self out there only to be exposed as being entirely inadequate.
It’s my fear (disguised as my over-protective – and ostensibly “helpful”– self) getting all Jack Nicholson on me and bellowing, “You can’t handle the truth!”
The scariest part of halting mindless consumption is the vacuum left in its wake. This, after all, is what I’d been doing my damnedest to avoid. So it felt like a Big Deal when I decided to go for my usual morning walk in the park without my phone, without my ears plugged into a podcast or music. What would it be like to not be… occupied?
Honestly, it wasn’t so bad. My mind wandered. I listened to birdsong. I used the excuse of stopping at a bench to surreptitiously hug a tree. It was pleasant. When I finished and came back home, I was relieved to have survived this odd little episode of peace and quiet. The next morning, I surprised myself by deciding to do it again.
I’ve heard writers and other creatives say that they come up with their best ideas – and the best solutions to creative problems – while jogging or running without the distraction of music or other audio. Now it’s been a month since I started and I don’t see myself bringing headphones on my morning walks ever again.
Getting quiet is the only way we can hear ourselves (and the Universe, if you believe we’re all connected). As I meditate before walking, it feels like a continuation, with ideas and solutions – strategic as well as creative – bubbling up in that once-dreaded vacuum of silence.
I soon began to cook and clean in the kitchen without having a show streaming in the background. I ate my meals with not just my laptop and phone closed but away from the table altogether.
In what felt like a natural progression, I stopped consuming news the way I used to. This included even my beloved Broadsheet and the Guardian, as well as the New York Times’ The Daily podcast (though the latter creeps in once in a while when there’s a specific current event I want to understand better).
I hadn’t registered how deafening it was living in a culture where provocation and outrage are common techniques to stand above the noise. I hadn’t realised that imbibing the news gave me the false conviction that I was being a responsible citizen yet in my fatigue, I did exactly nothing beyond just reading about the events, except working myself up into righteous fury.
Of course I still consume information and entertainment – not watching films would be like telling a meteorologist to not look at the sky – but I am now more deliberate and discerning with it.
I was going to write this post at the start of this “brave” experiment a month ago. But I have actually been spending much less time at my laptop and so am only now getting around to talking about it.
As per Chatterjee’s other recommendations, I did try to remove the email alerts from my phone, but that didn’t last long (I just kept opening the app to check for mail, which defeated the purpose). Neither have I managed to sleep at night with my mobile charging in a different room, nor do I have a whole day a week completely free of e-devices. But you know, slowly, slowly.
I definitely haven’t become a Zen master. I still need to rewind 10 seconds on Netflix because I’ve dazed through some critical scene. I still stop in the middle of reading a book to pick up my phone and add some notes to my to-do list before I forget.
But I’m stopping and zoning out mid-task less often. I’m also less mentally and energetically fractured. And less anxious. However, the truly remarkable benefits are ones I hadn’t even aimed for.
The problem with constant bombardment and consumption is that I kept looking outside for guidance on what are really inside jobs. What do “experts” say? What are the pundits’ views? By Gretchen Rubin’s matrix (you can take her quiz here), I’m a Questioner, so I get stuck in research mode until I force myself to rein it in.
Given that I’ve previously gained significant benefits from silence (clarity as well as creativity), I have to keep re-learning that going inward is indeed the most powerful way to move ahead in my life.
Reducing the chatter, I was able to ask myself: what do I believe? How do I want to live? After all, half my life is over. I want to be discriminating in how I spend my time. What am I willing to fight for?
Who are the people I want to surround myself with? Whose negativity sucks all the oxygen out of the room? Whose energy is life affirming and boosting?
What stories am I telling myself that I could now revise? What am I doing that I can drop as they are no longer serving me? What am I willing to risk by not hiding behind my usual excuses?
None of these questions can adequately be answered without having space within.
Another benefit of silencing external input is strengthening the muscle of trusting my own decisions. I don’t need others’ (even those mythical construct others) approval when I’m standing in my own conviction.
As I cleared the clutter of noise, I was surprised to find a yearning for ever deeper connections – with myself, with loved ones, with the Universe. Surprised because I already feel extremely grateful to have such close family and friends, to be surrounded by love. Why would I “need” more?
I read about the Hawaiian practice of Ho’oponopono, which believes that everything outside of us is really a reflection of our inner selves, and provides a simple tool to clear it. I began doing this and, within days, animals began approaching me.
Now, I have had a lifelong fear of dogs, and when they see me, they either ignore me or bark at me. I have been so averse to getting close to animals that when I mentioned to my cousin I was changing my vibrations and wanted to get a puppy, she (an animal welfare advocate who’s basically Dr Dolittle) archly recommended I start instead with a pet rock. On a recent visit, she went as always towards every stray dog we passed, and to her (and my) amazement, they bypassed her to come lick my hand and nuzzle up against me. We both qualified that as a miracle.
However, the greatest “gift”, as it were, is creating the quiet to imagine. Gandhi imagined an India free of British rule. Steve Jobs imagined a handheld gadget that could run our lives. Perhaps not surprisingly, both of them were big on meditation.
How incredible to tap into that inside/outside part of ourselves where boundless possibilities reside. To give space for the previously unimaginable to take shape and form. To at last pay attention to those quiet but persistent whispers deep within, once pushed down and ignored because they felt so crazy and outrageous, but now feeling maybe-who-knows-why-not-wow-could-I-really?
Inside each of us is the birthplace of all dreams. I’m not ready to give them up for a life spent distracted and fearful.
So I’ve reduced time with e-devices, but have I stopped being so future-focused as to be completely present? Sadly no, not yet. But it’s a practice, and now I catch myself when I begin outlining (okay, fretting) about the next steps before completing the current one.
Stop, I tell myself. Breathe. Maybe, just maybe, everything will work out exactly as it needs to.
“If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.” — Lao Tzu
Although I am no longer active on social media, I’m more than thrilled if you choose to share this post on your end, thanks!
Watch Brené Brown: The Call to Courage on Netflix where she talks about her always-fascinating themes of shame and vulnerability. This is signature Brown – humour and pathos, and learning and inspiration come together in this 75-minute talk in front of an audience. If you want more Brené, you can listen to her recent live talk, The Anatomy of Trust, on Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations and being interviewed on leadership on the Goop podcast.
The practice of Ho’oponopono is really just saying four phrases (in any order that works for you): I love you, I thank you, I’m sorry, please forgive me. You can say it to the injured parts of yourself, you can say it to the Universe, you can say it (silently or out loud) to any person or animal or tree or, heck, lamp. I say it when I meditate and throughout the day when I remember. Against my usual habit, I actually don’t want or need to “know” more than that, and so have instinctively resisted studying up on it (but if you want, here’s Tara Brach talking about it, or download a free ebook from the Radical Change Now site). I’m enjoying the simple pleasure of having something to turn to in the void of external stimuli, and something more soothing than circular unconstructive thoughts.
I learnt so much from Dr Rangan Chatterjee’s book, The 4 Pillar Plan, such as why stress really is so harmful. He writes that all our hormones are made from the same basic LDL cholesterol, of which we naturally have a limited supply. When we’re in a long term state of stress, our bodies believe we’re in crisis so it prioritises making more cortisol, which means there’s less available to make oestrogen, progesterone, testosterone and others. Yikes. He also has a great podcast.