Yesterday I spent a few hours visiting with my father. He’s 94 and still in good shape, considering, and since he doesn’t live too far away, I try to see him when I can. But I don’t go out of my way since our relationship has never been a close one. Being a self-absorbed person my father rarely gave me the time of day during those growing-up years. He wasn’t what anyone would call “dad material,” so he became this supporting character in my life. Even when he was bodily there, mentally he was somewhere else. And I suffered for that. It left me feeling less than worthy of his attention which spilled negatively over into all my relationships. As a child, we look to those we love to be present, to cheer us on, to be that shoulder of granite as we tackle all the good shit and bad shit life tosses our way.
Those coming-of-age memories that stick like glue.
With my father now in the final act of life, I wasn’t at all surprised when the conversation turned toward those regrets he harbored about not being there for me all those years. Did I finally feel vindicated? Did I want to scream at him that he had absolutely no right, not now, to say these things? Perhaps a part of me did. But the other part only felt this sad emptiness for him … not me because what he lost was impossible to retrieve.
Sometimes in the busy day-to-day we get caught up in things that really don’t matter. Staying connected to those we love matters.
For many of us, we get so hung up on accomplishing great things, leaving behind a legacy, we forget about the little things. What’s on our resume, all those commas in our bank account, what kind of car we’re driving, they’re not important. What’s important is who we are lucky enough to have in our lives and sharing those moments together as best we can, while we can.
I think we can all agree we live in an age of distraction. When we’re at home, we’re thinking about all the chores we need to do. When we’re at work, we’re dreaming about taking a vacation. When we’re on vacation, we’re fretting about all the work that’s piling up on our desks while we’re away. We are so wrapped up in what’s about to happen or what has already happened that there’s absolutely no way for us to just exist where we are at that moment, because as the Buddhists say our “monkey minds” are too unsettled and restless ricocheting from thought to thought like troops of monkeys swinging from tree to tree.
I think we can also agree on how important it is to stop and smell those roses. “But the problem is how,” says Ellen Langer, a psychologist at Harvard and the author of Mindfulness. “When people are not in the moment they’re not there to know that they’re not there.” Like learning any other skill, to squash the distraction reflex and awaken to the present this will take vision, determination and lots of practice.
“Okay, sure. Easier said than done,” you’re probably thinking. And you’re right. This is up there with climbing Mt. Everest. But here’s the deal. When it comes to solving our problems or finding ways to live better and healthier lives there’s no magic anything.
You just have to do the work.
So here are a few suggestions that I’m hoping will be as helpful for you as they have been for me:
Accept certain limitations
After reading through scores of data, it seems safe to say that contrary to popular belief, human beings cannot truly multitask. Yes, we’re capable of juggling many tasks in rapid succession, but not literally at the same time. Case in point, NTSB reports confirm that “texting while driving is the functional equivalent of driving with a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit. You just can’t effectively attend to two things at once—even the superficially automatic ones.”
Clear your mind
Whatever you need to do, can wait. The bills will still be there, the laundry still piled up. Push all those anxieties off to the side, quiet the noise in your head. By this I mean find your mental comfort zone. The place where it doesn’t matter whether you’re standing, sitting, having a martini and you can react on cue and at a split-second notice. But again, this takes training. As a reformed Buddhist with twenty years under my belt, I remember how difficult it was, in the beginning, to block everything out — everything except the rise and fall of my chest.
Focus and breathe
You control your thoughts. Let me say that one again. You and you alone have control over your thoughts and since life unfolds in the present, focusing on that forces you to stop overthinking every little detail, instead of getting stuck in your head where most of us spend the majority of our time worrying. So breathe. Deep breaths then slowly exhale; not through your mouth, but through your nose. Exhaling through your mouth triggers your heart to speed up while exhaling through your nose lets you relax. Just ask any athlete.
Participate and bear witness
So much of what the present is about are the things in it. Which means observing everything, feeling everything, tasting everything, savoring everything — and all at once. Being conscious and capable of not only witnessing but experiencing the moment (those both blissful and painful), is the whole enchilada.
All of our moments are defining moments. It’s only the ones we notice that end up shaping the course of our lives.
Whatever is missed let it go
Maybe every moment is the most important moment. And wouldn’t it be glorious if we could somehow figure out how to hold on to them? At least a little while longer than that profundity blink of an eye visit which comes and goes with the wind. But we can’t. Nor should we. There’d be no downtime. No hills and valleys to draw from. Part of living our best and most authentic life is coming to terms with what we did with those moments when we had them and who we became after them.
So wrapping this up, let me just say, while we obviously can’t roll back the clock, nor can we look into a crystal ball and foretell when the most important moment of our life is about to happen, it doesn’t matter. Because the real beauty of life is nothing but moments. Moments and opportunities. And whether or not we have years of them in front of us, we do have this one.