Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Power of the Present Moment-Part 2

So let me provide a concrete example in how things have changed based on a practice of being present, and not taking my “self” as seriously. (See Part 1 of this post)

I accepted an assignment to deliver a web based presentation to an English audience which would require that I get up at 6 a.m. For most of my life this would be no problem, but with my recent discomfort the prospect of being “on” at that early hour made me quite anxious.

In addition I needed to prepare materials and do a rehearsal two days before at 9 a.m.

I began to notice the activity of my mind as it began to anticipate the “problems” involved in this activity, and further chastised my “self” for finding it difficult; after all most people get up every single day and go to work with no resistance.

Why was this such an issue for me? What was wrong with me? Was I getting old and dumb? What would become of me if I could not even deliver a simple presentation early in the morning?

When I mentioned this in my Eckhart Tolle group, Michael Jeffreys described his way of approaching his own projects, and how he only addressed what was required in the present moment, whether that included preparation or actually doing something specific.

Michael said, for example, that for our sessions he did not spend time worrying or anticipating—he just knew he had to get to the venue at a certain time, and concentrated on doing that. Or if something required preparation, he would do so for a set period, and then put the matter aside, turning his attention again to something else, in the present moment.

He also emphasized that to the greatest extent possible he tried to take his thinking “self” out of it—his thoughts about the event were irrelevant—his mind would be active during the event as a tool but would not be allowed to judge his performance or create “problems” when it didn’t matter—before or after.

By now I had already had some experience with trusting Life and knowing that Life was much greater than just my thoughts, but as I approached my project I focused on three things—a set period of preparation, getting up for the rehearsal, and then getting up and delivering the program.

I made it a point to let each of these three, all just when they happened, and not let things play out in my head beforehand.

This was difficult because as I prepared I encountered challenges that required more effort and attention—but instead of listening to the voice that said I was inadequate, I simply handled circumstances as well as I could and moved to the next step.

When I was anxious about the rehearsal, I just let that run its course and it went well—I did not allow thoughts about the actual event to interfere with getting through that particular part of the project.

And finally leading up to the event itself, I minimized my concerns about what could not be accomplished and let those things go—I prepared as best I could but also rested.

When I woke up early on the morning of the event I found myself excited but not anxious. I realized that this was finally the “Now” I had ruminated and sometimes worried about, but it would also unfold in its own way. And where I had previously let such things terrify me, and I also realized that some things might go “wrong,” I also knew that “this Now” would be over in a matter of hours, and I would still be alive, there would be food in the fridge, and the rent was paid.

Life would continue. The earth would turn. Republicans would debate. The Lakers would win or lose. And next week a new set of circumstances would arise that I could stress over—or accept.

This perspective game me new energy and confidence as I showered and got up.

During the night, I had caught my “self” chattering in my head about my internet connection, or the computer breaking down. Now it would either happen or it wouldn’t. Certainly the outcome would not depend upon my worrying or my inner talk—it would simply unfold and I would do the best I could.

As I began confidently things were going well, but ten minutes into the presentation my phone rang.

Since it was 7 a.m. I had no idea that anyone would ever call me, but I knew the caller and hung up quickly. But I noticed myself getting rattled. I was speaking to 160 people in England and my inner voice tried to make me feel embarrassed. I continued.

The phone rang again and I picked it up quickly and said I could not talk, and apologized to the audience. My inner critic was mortified. What had I done? I had actually taken a phone call during a live web event? Judgment flooded in.

But an inner calm told me to just continue. I had good information to convey and weird things can happen. It was Life going a bit wrong—but “wrong” was just the voice in my head.

The presentation was going on. I was getting through some interesting slides…

Then I noticed that there was a glitch in my program and I could not see part of the screen. I tried to get help, but I sensed that I could not waste more time trying to fix it. I knew the audience could hear my concern in my voice as I kept talking.

I took a breath and took stock. I knew this was not the best presentation I had ever given and I was in a bit of trouble. But I also knew where I was and where I needed to go, and I could still convey the important material and much of the “trouble” was still only in my head…

Then I got to the meat of the material, delivered it quite well, and found my voice in handling the questions and answers effectively.

This Now was over. I had completed the task—it was not perfect or as good as my critic would have liked—and I began to have concerns about what others, particularly the client, thought of my performance. Would they ever work with me again? Did I screw up?

Then I realized that those thoughts, again, were not as significant as I used to make them. I had made it through. The event was over… Now I could relax again, or go outside, or get groceries.

I also considered that I had faced and overcome several challenges that could have thrown me, but I had survived.

And then, as I glanced over online comments on Twitter, I found that the audience had found the material valuable. They had been empathetic to the glitches and one referred to Murphy’s Law—saying how what can go wrong often will…

I thought about the phone interruption and realized the irony—although the odds were a million to one with my workload, I had actually scheduled another call for 10 a.m. that same morning.

But my contact was back east – when they called at what they thought was ten a.m. it was 7 o’clock here!

In the past, again, I would have been mortified. The voice would have called me an idiot and I would have blamed my “self” but I wasn’t the voice anymore. I was watching things unfold and sometimes they went wrong, and again, I had not burned down the house or murdered anyone.

While I could have tried to put the blame on my contact, who worked with others on the west coast, I also saw through that trap. Making him wrong was no better than doing it to myself. I put it down to miscommunication and we subsequently had our normal call.

The bottom line was that much of the anxiety and discomfort never came up. And yet I know it might come again—perhaps later this afternoon or tomorrow, when there may again be little or nothing “to do.”

But the “scoreboard” is no longer set to a standard of perfection. Part of me recognizes that that voice of criticism has been helping and protecting me, but by identifying with the harshness of its criticism, I have done my “self” a grave disservice.

For one thing, I have failed to acknowledge many of the positive things that have happened or that it even seems that “I” have contributed.

But I am getting the idea that there is no one “I”, and what “I have achieved” as really just come about through Life as I’ve lived it. I’ve been there for friends and family, learned to love and adopt a cat, and yes, even delivered an imperfect web presentation.

Really something far greater than “me” was living, breathing and being (Life) through what “I” had always thought I was. And it was always in the present moment; I could simply let it unfold, or I could harass my “self” with commentary and judgment.

I no longer need to be superhuman, and accomplish everything my father did, or maintain myself to my mother’s standard. I will do “my” best with the wider perspective that my judgments are not me, and a far greater Being – Life itself—is unfolding in ways I cannot control or comprehend.

And so the jury is not just out—it is dismissed. The judge is on vacation. Life is to be lived and not evaluated and sometimes it will work out, and sometimes it won’t—but the only thing I can even remotely control (pun intended—I watch a lot of TV) is where my attention goes.

And to the greatest extent possible, from now on, my attention will be focused on the only place where I might have any influence—the present moment.

 

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The Power of the Present Moment

In our Eckhart Tolle group a member shared about someone who had recently retired, and rather than feeling good and free, he was extremely anxious because that person had nothing with which to fill his time.

This landed hard with me as I thought back to my last three years of dealing with similar feelings of being unproductive, but not grasping them fully until very recently.

Three years ago I was no longer in as much demand professionally and other circumstances forced me to cut back my own workload. Anxious and frequently tired, the long stretches of inactivity also made me feel inadequate, as my identity and self-image as a writer and trainer in technology became increasingly fragile.

As I became more and more confused, in the words of Eckhart Tolle, “I didn’t know who I was.” But instead of feeling fulfilled and congratulating myself, as he suggests in The Power of Now and A New Earth, I was disoriented and agitated.

But through my work with the Santa Monica Eckhart Tolle group and its leader Michael Jeffreys, I have developed several important new perspectives—including the fact that the voice in my head which sharply criticized my “self” for no longer working as much, earning as much, not being in a committed relationship, or ending one in the recent past—all of this needed to be reexamined.

What was this voice and where did it come from? And why did I give it so much credibility and importance? I learned a great deal from reading Tolle’s books among others, and in the group.

My first insight from Michael was that this voice was really no different than external sounds, like the birds, people talking or traffic. It just seemed to be happening in my head and it was the attention I gave it that made it seem so significant and important – and made it seem like it was “me.”

Through meditation and practice I began to disengage from the voice and doubt its significance, and even talk back to it on occasion, as Michael also suggested.

In time I even found its urging funny—it was the voice of my mother telling me to clean up my room, or my father telling me I had to get up in the morning and go to work or study. It became more and more obvious that these “programs” were deeply conditioned patterns, and were only as significant as I allowed them to become.

This growing gap or space made me realize that the “voice in my head” was in fact not me—but rather the conditioned patterns of criticism that I had absorbed over time—the “agreements” I had made with my parents to live “perfectly” according to their principles, which often were contradictory and unattainable.

(The word “agreements” refers to another great book, The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz, which discusses the “dream state” we live in when we act on assumptions and beliefs that we agree to unconsciously).

I found that as I detached from the voice in my head, and particularly when I forgave my “self” for mistakes or imperfections, life seemed to smooth out, and my anxiety lessened.

Still my inactivity (that I know many would envy) made me particularly anxious in the morning, when I anticipated long stretches of doing “nothing”–and listening to that critical voice in my head spurring me on to things I did not have the energy or desire to do.

The voice also made me physically uncomfortable, mainly with indigestion, and I spent months trying to “fix myself”—with medication, exercise, light therapy, yoga, tennis, supplements, acupuncture and anything and everything I could think of to change what my life had become.

But now surrendered, and took a different tack, and I just accepted all feelings and sensations, both good and bad. Fatigue itself was simply a situation in which I rested as I felt I needed, without creating a story about how this shouldn’t be happening or life should be different.

Similarly when experiences with other people, like women who weren’t interested in me and who did not return my calls, I again recognized that the problem was not the “situation”—the only issue was my own voice in the head that judged the circumstances relative to “me” and who I took my “self” to be.

If as Don Miguel Ruiz said, I did not take it personally, or if I did have feelings come up and they hurt, I simply allowed the pain to exist and then run its course without making a further judgment about “me,” and I found that life became a lot better and easier.

And that was really the key—as Eckhart Tolle expresses it—I did not “have a life” which required evaluation and judgment—instead I simply “was life” as it unfolded.

Sometimes things went seemingly according to my desires and other times not. There were better times and worse times. But everything changed except one thing: my awareness that I existed. And life always happened in only one place—THE PRESENT MOMENT.

This had also been my focus in therapy when I wanted my therapist to “fix” my anxiety. We spent hours focusing my attention on what was happening during the session—not the stories I had come in with nor the anticipation of future troublesome events. “What are you feeling right now?” she would ask.

Then, I also realized that my “critic,” the accompanying stream of criticism that made me anxious, was an automatic pattern in my mind—and so my discomfort was largely triggered by memories and often misconceptions or misinterpretations of things I remembered.

The bottom line was that the world was not the cause of my suffering. I had met the enemy, and it was “me.”

(Part 2 to follow)

Going Solo Against Society’s Conditioning

Recently my friends at Singular City hosted an interesting evening at the L.A. Library: a conversation with author Eric Klinenberg, discussing his new book, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone.

In his talk, in answer to Singular Editor Kim Calvert, Klinenberg focused on the intense social conditioning involved in getting married and raising a family, emphasizing how the trend toward living as a single person goes directly counter to this deeply ingrained pattern.

As Klinenberg said, this has led to anxiety particularly among single women in their late 30’s and early 40’s, not so much internally–as they have chosen to live alone and pursue personal goals–but mainly as their peers, parents and society at large begin to trigger their feelings about their biological clocks.

When I spoke to Klinenberg at the reception, I mentioned my own interest in male conditioning along the same lines – and the programming to find a mate, raise a family and particularly to act as a provider in an age when women are so independent. In my experience the pressure for males to live up to a standard of achievement is also fraught with anxiety, particularly in the current economic climate.

For both sexes there is a steep emotional price to pay in going against the powerful conditioning of our society, particularly as it is promoted in advertising and the media.

And yet as Klinenberg pointed out, it is the very need for space and solitude that is also driving this trend toward living “solo,” not only in the U.S. but all over the world. More and more people seem willing to pay that price for the privilege and luxury of personal physical and mental space.

I would connect this trend, which Klinenberg correctly attributes to the benefits of modern technology, to another movement—the search for meaning and transcendence.

In his best selling book A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle also discusses the massive conditioning and automatic and habitual responses of our left brains—our “Ego”—as we react to life’s complex circumstances and try to control events in conformity to our conditioned mental patterns and belief.

As I’ve written in the past, neuroscience has not been able to isolate a physical Ego in the brain or anywhere else; rather scientists now see the “Self” as a complex neural network that works very parallel to a computer operating system and a set of programs that should work in harmony, but sometimes can act in conflict, causing anxiety and depression.

The computer model intrigues me a great deal because we have also discovered another set of computer code in not just our brain cells (neurons) but in all of the DNA or genetic material in every cell of the human body, and indeed all life on earth.

The Genome, or DNA code, when sequenced, runs exactly the same way as the code that runs in Microsoft Word or any other computer program created by humans.

And, as we examine our own lives and the conditioning that shapes us more deeply, it also turns out that our automatic functions (habits) work exactly like a simple Microsoft Word macro.

(A Macro is a series of recorded keystrokes that performs a specific task—it’s a precisely defined block of computer code (software)).

If you can “be the scientist,” as suggested by my friend Michael Jeffreys, and observe yourself carefully, you will see that changing a habit (the most powerful example of conditioned behavior) comes down to three essential steps, as outlined in The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg.

Each habit has three components – a trigger, a routine and a reward.

Perform a “experiment with life” –like changing a habit –and you find that these steps conform perfectly to a simple computer program such as a macro:

First, in a macro, the trigger is an “event”–On Mouseclick” — the routine has the same name in programming — subroutine — and the reward is getting the desired result, which if the program works, means you will “run” it again and again(which is precisely what a macro lets you do — run the same program with just one keystroke (trigger)).

The first step toward change is observation and noticing – and then altering the reward with something that provides the same feeling (fulfillment) but is not self-destructive but rather nurturing.

But consider the meaning of this – changing the conditioned responses of your brain (and its structure—neuroplasticity) involves rewriting (or rewiring) internally coded instructions—literally inner alchemy is reprograming your software.

This ability to mimic life through the coded instructions of symbols or language is why I consider the development of software an evolutionary event in our species’ history, and perhaps the most significant human achievement since the construction of the Great Pyramid.