Monday, July 7, 2014

Here and Now: The Silver Lining of Your Present

In two weeks, I will be moving to Los Angeles to begin a four-year residency program in obstetrics and gynecology.  To celebrate the move, I have been trying to catch up with as many of my Pittsburgh friends as possible.  Recently, on the way back from dinner with some family friends, I was riding with my mother down the highway, and we hit a patch of traffic.

As she cursed out the other drivers, it occurred to me how futile her efforts were.  She angrily encouraged the driver – yours truly - to straddle the dotted line so that the other drivers – in an equally frustrating situation – couldn’t creep up in front of us.  She had been at work for ten hours prior to our meal, so she was understandably grumpy about the traffic, but I couldn’t help thinking to myself, “What’s the point?  How does allowing a car or two in front of us change her situation?”  My mother only began to calm down when the traffic started to move, though I tried repeatedly to remind her that chilling out and singing along to the radio with me wasn’t the worst way to cap off our evening.

We have all experienced that feeling of dread that comes with the anticipation of sitting in traffic, especially at ten o’clock at night.  My mother complained that now she wouldn’t “be able to get to bed on time!”  That she had “so many things that she wanted to get done for work before she went to bed!”  But what she hadn’t considered was the silver lining.  This was one of the final evenings that she would be spending with me, her only son, to whom she had reiterated on numerous occasions how sad she had been that I was leaving to the West coast for four years.  Had she just taken a moment to readjust her perspective, she would have seen the silver lining: thirty extra minutes of uninterrupted time with her son. 

Our population always seems so eager to be somewhere.  When we finally arrive to wherever it is that we were so eager to get, we quickly become bored with our surroundings and turn to our smart phones to entertain us until something exciting happens.  When we do achieve excitement, we feel compelled to take a selfie to show how great our lives are for that brief moment.  But after the moment has passed, we are simply waiting for something else to happen.

In general, we have forgotten how to live in the present.  Although this concept has become a clichĂ© popularized in Internet memes, maybe there’s something to it?

This concept of being present is rooted in many Eastern philosophies.  For instance, in Buddhism, suffering is attributed to our efforts to control that over which we have no control. Buddhists thus believe that by ridding ourselves of desire – sex, money, power, fame, etc. – we can rid our lives of suffering. After all, you can’t control your past (what’s done is done), and you certainly can’t expect to manipulate your future.  What you do have full control over is your present.  That is, at this moment, you have 100% control over your comfort and happiness, but many individuals are so consumed by what’s on the horizon that they forget to enjoy the present. 

In January, 2010, I set out to complete an Ironman distance triathlon, which consists of a 2.4-mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and then a full marathon.  After nine months of training, I stood at the finish line with my supporters for only a few minutes before heading to the transition area to gather my things for the ride home.  In hindsight, I can say that it wasn’t as climaticcat as I had hoped it would be, but what exactly had I been expecting?   I was there to become an Ironman, wasn’t I?  In the excitement of finishing the race, I failed to spend just a few extra minutes to look around at my surroundings, to take in the smells, to acknowledge the perfect machine into which I had crafted my body.  All I could think about was getting home for school the next day.  Does this sound familiar? 

Eckhardt Tolle, author of “The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment”, refers to the ego in describing this pathology of the mind.  The ego is concerned only with how it came to be (the past) and where it is heading (the future).  In our society, we live by a credo that one must preoccupy themselves with investment for the future, and, in order to accomplish this, we must learn from the past.  But what about the present? 

This illness leads to car accidents due to irresponsible drivers texting or answering emails while speeding down the highway.  It drags a father away to answer a business call the moment before his son gets his first RBI in little league.  It encourages bad habits like eating in front of the TV instead of mindfully enjoying every bite of a freshly tossed salad.  It’s the driving force behind this strange concept that accumulating more material “stuff” like electronics and fancy cars is going to make us happier.  It’s a societal pathology, and it’s likely responsible for the low-grade anxiety that pervades many households and work places.

The good news?  You have all of the tools to fix it.  Extreme athletes experience this on a regular basis.  Rock climbers, for example, are intensely aware of the position of every part of the body at every moment while they are clinging to a wall one-hundred feet in the air. Climbers aren’t thinking about bills, the stock market, financial investments, or other tribulations of life when they are hanging off a rocky cliff side.  As a result, adrenaline junkies experience a “rush” that results from escaping the present, even for a brief moment.

It feels good to live in the moment, but you don’t need an extreme sport to enjoy the present.  Think back to a time when you were focused on the present.  When did you last find yourself thinking, “Wow…life is wonderful”?  This used to be our normal state back in childhood, before our egos had fully formed.  As a child, our minds and senses were wide open, but somewhere along the line, in the hustle and bustle of adult life, we forgot altogether how wonderful it is to be present.

This past weekend, my fiancĂ©e and I went on a hike in Ohiopyle, PA.  There’s an outlook there that has always dazzled my senses.  Dangling your legs over the ledge, you can see for miles.  You can hear nothing but the sound of the rapids on the river far below.  Stare at the dirt around your feet, and you’ll see hundreds of organisms shuffling around in the dust.  The sunlight at four o’clock was still bright overhead, illuminating the leaves that created a natural canopy overhead.  I had left my iPhone back at the car, so there were no distractions from the feel of my lady’s hand in mine.  Laying back with my head rested on my hands, I had one of those rare moments.  I thought to myself, “This is why I work so hard; this is what life is all about.  This moment is perfect.”

If you are cognizant of the way that you allow anxiety and impatience to rise up within you, it’s possible to spend more of your time in the present, but this is entirely dependent on you.  Are you willing to forego your busy mind once in a while?  The stuff of the past may have been grand.  Likewise, your anticipations for the future might change your life for the better.  But you have no control over those things.  What you can control is this very moment.

Where to start?  The Zen master Rinzai would advise you to ask yourself, “What, at this moment, is lacking?”  Turn off your computer and go hug somebody you love.  Show them that you appreciate them.  Stop and smell the flowers.  Realize that there’s no better time than now to make happiness a reality, because you never know what the future holds.

Nathan Riley, MD, is a Resident OB/Gyn at Kaiser Permanente in Los Angeles.  He writes about food, movement, sleep, relationships, and stress in order to bridge the gap between his patients and evolutionary theory and clinical evidence. You call follow him on Twitter @BeyondtheMD.  He can be reached at You can also connect with him on Google+. 

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