Live your life they say. Be happy. Laugh more. Blah blah blah. Inspirational quotes have good intentions but seriously, who doesn’t like to laugh? Who hasn’t embraced the mantra of living your life? Sure, most times we need reminders, but more often than not, we need to be shown ways on how to adopt this mantra—ideally in a healthy, consistent way and no, reading a quote every day can only work for so long.
As if we don’t want to just breathe the ocean air and enjoy the moment (the ocean is far dude, it’s at least a 20-hour drive away from where I am right now in Toronto). Don’t get me started on the “Keep Calm and…insert-stupid-addition here” franchise—yes I called it a franchise. It’s manufactured authenticity, which well, doesn’t make it so authentic anymore. An acquaintance of mine once told me she got into a huge fight with her husband because he told her she was hanging a piece of wood on their wall with the quote on it the wrong way. I don’t think she gets into her zen mode when she sees it now…yeah.
What does living one’s life mean? A popular answer is being present. I’m not going to lie to you. Adopting this mindset is fucking hard. Blocked creatives like to tell stories in their heads: it’s a place of comfort and familiarity (and a potentially lonely headspace) which takes one away from the present.
Trying something as mundane as a new coffee shop—which forces you to be present—deviates from your routine and feels like a mountainous task: it creates anxiety of the unknown. When I was a blocked creative and in a new city wanting to explore, I would scour websites looking for a cool local place to hang out…and end up at Starbucks in my hotel lobby. It was familiar, convenient and easy. Going off the beaten path seemed like too much of a hassle. Boo me.
For many people I don’t think trying something new is problem—when we stick to what we know it’s not out of anxiety but more out of habit. But for a blocked creative, well, for yours truly at least—it’s an invasion of your senses which are used to things the way they are because it’s protecting the soul from the unknown which has the irrational fear of being in danger. Blocked creatives have some serious Stop signs encased in their wonderful, clogged neural pathways.
“If you keep looking behind you, then you’ll miss what’s in front of you” my fiancé always says. That guy is probably one of the most present people I know (which is a great complement to my cray-cray, mind-floating tendencies). For blocked creatives, I think a more accurate saying is “if you keep mentally disconnecting, then you’ll miss what’s in front of you”: not exactly something you’d put on a mug or Instagram to inspire your followers, but you get my drift.
To all blocked creatives, I pose this question: how many times has the jelly in your head wandered off while literally having someone in front of you trying to engage you in conversation? I even mastered the attentive face for it: a deep penetrating gaze to show how (un)present I am. A woman on the bus would be telling me about her amazing experience at a Cirque du Soleil show and my mind would be far away thinking about what I was going to eat for dinner when I got home; or that I really should return that horrible tank top that makes me look like a sausage; or I would be silently freaking out about the $150 meal I had in New Orleans to treat myself because I was lonely in one of the most entertaining cities in the world. You know, stupid shit.
Another example is when I’m watching a movie and have to go to Wikipedia later on to get clarification on a plot because I was lost in my own head during a movie and missed important parts of the plot. I inadvertently tune out if a scene or a dialogue doesn’t capture me right away. You can blame the shortening attention span we have due to technology (last I checked it went from 14 to 9 minutes—could be less now). Hard core truth time: I hate that I didn’t get a chance to be present in those conversations, no matter how boring or mundane they were. At the very least, those convos would have stopped my negative self-talk or put my anxiety on pause. That’s when I realized that living in my head made time go by faster, and life was passing me by…the thought made me very sad. Coz I kept missing shit.
With pain and the ugly stages of healing, I kept mentally re-connecting to the painful memories of the past, which is kryptonite if you want to be present. I wanted no more of that toxic rumination. So, I made the conscious decision to heal and finally decided to get into the business of being present.
I’m going to talk about a couple of ways I experimented to stay present—and this is nowhere close to an exhaustive list. It’s a couple of drops in the ocean of the countless stuff you can do. I encourage you to figure out what works for you. I tried travel, yoga and meditation.
Travel was great, but it’s not something I could do everyday. Travel throws you into the unknown—especially in places you’ve never been before—which forces you to be present. You know, survival in order to get back to your hotel.
Travel: I noticed that I was starting to live in the moment in small glimpses. The first sign was when I caught myself staring at the ceiling in a ghetto hostel in Hawaii, watching a bug crawl (true story. I let the bug live—one of my Zen Buddhist moments). I got to that point after about 4 months on the road. It was the first step in a somewhat-long journey of clearing my head after being burnt out from my job of 10 years. I do have another post on travel with more comprehensive detail—stay tuned.
Yoga: I dabbled in yoga a few times (if you’re thinking of taking up yoga, don’t give up if your first experience is crappy and shitty: the key is to find a place/studio that resonates with you and an instructor whose style you like. This could take time with trial and error. Also, there are variations of yoga that do VERY different things depending on your needs). I have to say, while yoga was cool, I didn’t wanna drag myself to a studio three times a week.
Meditation: I’d been meditating during my travels but on a more casual, inconsistent schedule. The most accessible way to do it was to get a meditation app on my phone. This was the one I stuck to as my daily practice.
I found it ironic that I was using a smartphone to meditate. It seemed counterproductive to use a device that was distracting and encouraged aimlessness, especially if you’re just scrolling through your Instagram, Facebook or reading the news. But I brought my phone pretty much wherever I went so it was the most convenient and accessible way to keep me on track.
While meditating, I put my phone on flight mode (keep those notifications OUT I say!). There are many apps out there but I settled on Headspace, which is awesome. There’s a cool British guy who guides you through the sessions with his soothing voice and talks about the concerns that come up about how to meditate, all of which I had, being neurotic and anxious and all.
If you want a fun read about meditation, Dan Harris–that news anchor who had a panic attack on-air–writes a funny book on how he learned to meditate. It’s called 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story. It cracked me up a couple of times which I found refreshing from the stoic, spiritual books out there by serious gurus whose books took on a more sombre tone. No diss to those guys—they’re great, but a funny book on meditation is a light addition to my mindfulness education.
As I write this post, I’ve had the app on my phone for about 15 months. Let me tell you, meditation takes practice. There are days when I’m meditating and I keep thinking of all the shit I have to do that day (since I do meditate in the morning). And there are days when I can calm that monkey brain, hear my breath and feel stillness for maybe twenty seconds. Twenty seconds you say?! That’s it?! Yup. But it resets me. And then monkey brain goes off again until I remember to reset her again. Over a 20-minute meditation session, if I could reset 5 or 6 times I feel content. And yes, I do feel like I’m getting better. When I say better it means there’s always room for improvement—that makes me feel like I’m progressing forward. A friend told me once that the Dalai Lama could reset for one whole minute. And he’s the Dalai Lama folks! You can’t get any holier than that.
As a final note on meditation, I will say that I do enjoy group meditation. It’s easier for me to get to that reset part than when alone.
I want to emphasize that being present does not have to require spending a whole bunch of dough on a trip, living on a mat or a meditation app. My fiancé is a chef, and when he’s in the kitchens cranking out 300 plates and making sure he doesn’t burn his arm—you bet your ass he’s present. It’s a stressful type of present, but it gets him out of his head. I call it a head vacation.
What about you? What activities do you engage in to keep you present? Is it a hobby like playing your guitar? Or baking? Or hanging out with your child in the afternoon and eating ice-cream by the park? Even so, is it hanging out with people whose company you actually enjoy instead of those obligatory pleasantries with your friend-in-laws? What do you do to get out of your mental vortex that is your brain? Let me know in the comments below!