It’s funny how we consider certain voices to be acceptable while other voices are a sign of insanity. For example, the voice inside our head that says, “I can’t forget to pick up the kid at the babysitter’s in three hours,” seems pretty sensible. Whereas the voice that says, “I’m the physical embodiment of JFK and I must warn the world of impending UFOs,” doesn’t appear too rational, to put it lightly.
But what about the voice that runs through our minds nonstop all day, every day? It’s not just telling us to pick up the kids from the babysitter. It is also evaluating, judging, and categorizing any and every interaction we deem worthy of our attention, and frantically inventing elaborate solutions to invented problems. So it’s less like the above example and more like this one: “I can’t forget to pick up the kid at the babysitter’s in three hours. That means I’m going to have to get dressed, and I should probably put on makeup because Nancy always looks at me sideways when I show up in sweat pants, like I’m some spoiled privileged woman just because I had three hours to myself and didn’t put on lipstick, which I’m not. I mean, maybe I am spoiled, a bit. But who is she to say so, anyway?” and so it continues. On, and on, and on. I would say that voice is every bit as concerning as the one who says I am the reincarnation of our assassinated president. The voice circles around infinitely, and by engaging it all day long we confine ourselves to endless worry, anxiety and tedium. It is a voice, I am learning, that is not to be taken too seriously.
In The Untethered Soul Michael Singer writes, “To be aware that you are watching the voice talk is to stand on the threshold of a fantastic inner journey” (p. 15). He further explains, “Because most of us don’t have to worry about food, clothing, or shelter, we have the luxury of worrying about a spot on our pants, or laughing too loud, or saying something wrong” (p. 58). In other words, this voice used to be there to prevent us from real danger. Now it just invents the problems.
These words have been a wakeup call for me. Since a very young age I have run my entire life with to do lists. I spend my day obsessing about their completion. I plan for big events with that same voice I mentioned above running circles in my head, and even when the big day arrives and all the items have been checked off my list, I never quite know how to relax. And even though everything is written down, that doesn’t stop me from thinking about my list all day long, like it is some kind of assistant-in-training that I haven’t learned to trust yet. I am constantly thinking about what I have to do next, analyzing to the point of the ridiculous (e.g. is it more efficient pick up all the laundry now and possibly drop some, or waste time making two trips?) I caught myself doing it just today; I had 45 minutes to shower, make a phone call and eat breakfast, and I realized my mind was going in endless circles, problem-solving this same situation again and again, even after I had decided on a plan and begun to implement it. In so doing, I failed to live the moment as it was occurring right then. The voice (which is really my psyche), has been robbing me from being truly present. You see, despite everything I still thought I was living in the present. What I didn’t realize was that immediate future was still the future.
The key, according to Singer (and pretty much every other expert on the topic), is to understand that you are not defined by your thoughts, your actions or your emotions. Rather, you are the one who observes. He writes, “I am the one who sees. From back in here somewhere, I look out, and I am aware of the events, thoughts, and emotions that pass before me” (p. 30). In other words, we are not the object of our awareness. We are awareness.
To experience peace, Singer tells us, we must be fully present with whatever we are experiencing. This means just watching, not figuring out how to make it stop or comparing it to the last time it happened. Simply noticing, and being there, is what will set us free. “Don’t think you’d be free if you just didn’t have these kind of feelings,” he warns. Instead, allow them to move through you. Experience the thoughts and feelings, even the painful ones. Allow the discomfort to pass through you. For that is its only way out.
So for the last few weeks I have been doing an experiment. It finally occurred to me that I always complete my to do lists. Therefore, keeping a running log of that list in my head is not useful. Not only that, but I created a free and autonomous life for a reason. I design my own schedule, and I am my own boss. So why is my lifestyle not reflecting that? Why am I scheduling my days around the emails I have to write? Why not put the emails on my list, leave them there, and complete them in between the things that I actually want to do? It occurs to me that my only responsibility in life is to enjoy life. And that means that I have to stop waiting for everything to be perfectly in its place so I will “finally be happy.” It means being perfect at enjoying the moment, as it is right now. So I am experimenting with staying in the present and trusting my future self to take care of itself.
I am realizing that living in the moment means truly being in the moment. I am realizing that even an event as soon as this Saturday does not constitute Now. And I am realizing that I have lost too many precious moments in anticipation of the Moment That is Supposed to Mean Something, and then experiencing the throes of disappointment if Something Unexpected turns up.
So I am training myself to re-focus. Every time I hear the spiral of thoughts or I feel a sinking feeling in my chest, I step behind it and observe. Over and over I re-focus. And when there are no negative thoughts or feelings, but just a voice that refuses to be still, I painstakingly center myself again and again to the present moment. “I am peeling this orange right now,” I tell myself. “I will be present with this orange.”
In carrying out this practice, we must understand that we have trained ourselves to take this voice, our psyche, seriously. We must also understand that we have trained it to fixate on certain things. There are plenty of things that happen during the day of which we take no notice. But certain triggers set us off, and that is usually because they have activated an emotion that we have not allowed to express itself. We deemed the emotion too painful, so instead our psyche has worked frantically to put up a wall and avoid the pain. In other words, we have given our psyches the impossible task of always avoiding discomfort. But the kicker is that when that does not work (and it won’t work; it is impossible to always avoid pain), we suffer anyway. We will just suffer more, because at that point the feelings or thoughts have become stuck, and we have trained ourselves to repress them. So we have to stop giving our psyche so much power.
Instead, what we have to learn to do is stare that discomfort in the face. Without trying to fix it, we must step into our Self as the observer, and allow the feeling to pass through. Only once we have experienced it will we truly be able to let it go.
Once that has happened, we have to make the conscious decision to re-focus to the now. It may be tempting to spend all day discussing my aggravating commute, or my fight with my boyfriend, but if I instead allow the angry feelings to come up as they arise, I can spend the rest of my day enjoying the present moment instead of fixating on that morning. And this doesn’t mean screaming at my fellow commuter, or yelling at my partner. (In fact, in the heat of the moment I should turn inwards, understand my feelings and allow them to pass through, without engaging anybody else.) So, in the moment, the conversation with the insurance company and the email about the late payment are aggravating. I will allow them to be aggravating. What I will not do is carry that conversation with me once it is done. I will let go of Proving My Wounds in order to show that I was right. I will experience the pain of the frustration and then I will let it go.
And then, when the moment is right, I will bathe in it. Now that is exciting. I am discovering a capacity for unlimited joy if I can simply tap into it and be present. I am learning that I can enjoy myself wherever I am, whether it is at home on the couch or in line at the grocery store. I can stop waiting for a Special Moment in order to be happy.
Perhaps more painfully, I am also learning that I must allow myself to feel those emotions I have trained myself to avoid; anger, disappointment, hurt feelings. But by stepping into the place of the Observer and reminding myself the feelings will pass, I am capable of staring pain in the face and overcoming it.
In this process, I am discovering what Here and Now really is. At this moment, right now, I am on my terrace, with flowers I planted this morning while I was ignoring incoming emails. I trusted my future self to handle the future, and I enjoyed what I had before me. And so here I sit, my future self, transformed into my present self, with my laptop and my flowers, writing. Right now, that is all I have.
“What actually gives life meaning is the willingness to live it”
–The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer, p. 149