Staying in the present is a challenge. Our lives are so very full. There are innumerous distractions. It is understandable why we so often go on autopilot moving through our days and lives, doing the routine- our normal. Feeling our normal. Expecting the normal- what always has been will always be. Often this is quite an unconscious process. We are blessed with a brain that is sophisticated, layered and complex. It is so busy attending to all of the stimuli around us, it relies on neuropathways that have already been fired and wired. We operate on unconscious assumptions grounded in what occurred in our past and find ourselves distracted by what needs to happen in the future. We exist in our normal without necessarily actually living and being aware of our present. Our normal can be at once numbing, perfunctorily going through our routines, and enormously stress-inducing, trying to juggle all our responsibilities and managing all of the technological distractions that of this age, never mind the impact of the current economic climate.
These unconscious assumptions can be very sneaky. At times they allow us to react quickly to a situation, excellent when an oncoming truck has crossed the yellow line and is heading into our driving lane. However, they can also divert our attention and stifle our ability to awake to the present and consider options. Options about what we intend, or what we really want to happen. That is happen here in now, in this specific situation and that these intentions align with our most heartfelt values and purposes. When our unconscious assumptions are operating in relation to some issue or event that draws up anxiety or another alarm we tend to tense up. Our shoulders and back muscles tighten, we breathe only because it is an automatic response, our pulse quickens, there is flood of hormones in our bloodstream and we slip into our more primal survival mode. Folks this happens more often than anyone of us might like to admit; think about how irritated you can become over the smallest frustration like the new barista not knowing what is your “the regular”. Our minds like our muscles do not flex easily or at times even at all- think horrendous leg cramp- when they are tense. We need to stretch them and refocus.
Opening up some space for mental flexibility would serve us well. To allow for other possibilities and meaning where we are used to assuming only one course of action or outcome will be — and there can only be one, because of some meaning we attach to the particular situation/task/event — presents us with an opportunity for learning and creation. Our unconscious or assumed meaning can be entirely different from what we intend for a given situation/task/event. Opening up your mental flexibility is a practice that takes time and effort, repeated effort. Like learning a new teaching modality, a new approach to providing counseling, a new dance step, improving your golf swing or how to knit lace, practice, focused, regular practice is key. I continually work on my mental flexibility, as do my clients. It takes time for people to learn and to fire and wire new neuropathways, creating new assumptions.
Let me share an experience I had in a recent coaching session. My client, who works in Social Services, was facing a separation with one of her own clients. My client, we’ll call her Rosie, was anxious about this, she assumed her client had not addressed the primary reason she came to Rosie for services; support in getting a new job. Rosie described her experience of her anxiousness as a “Big Dark Thunder cloud” hovering over her all the time. Rosie was sure she had not done enough for her client and assumed a failure on her part was about to be revealed, which would reflect poorly on her professional abilities. Rosie was certain she had not prepared enough while working with her client. In her mind, if she had, then well, her client would have a new job, or at least a few interviews lined up by now. Rosie could not imagine anything other than a negative outcome from her upcoming client meeting.
To open up some space for mental flexibility, I asked Rosie to draw her “Big Dark Thundercloud” hovering over her all the time, which she did. She assumed the Thundercloud was bound to result in something bad. I asked her to change the picture in some way that would help her edge out from under the cloud. Rosie added an umbrella, which literally created some space, a demarcation between her and the Thundercloud. “So what if there is a cloud overhead, it can protect from the blaring sun, it can provide some needed rain, or can entertain with a terrifically beautiful storm. None of these are good or bad, they simply just are, and you, Lucky, get to decide what meaning you want to attach to the experience of being under a cloud,” I suggested. Once she altered her picture, Rosie could close her eyes, and see a bluer sky overhead and that perhaps the client session would not be all bad.
And it wasn’t. In fact her client had good things to say about the services she received from Rosie and even had a solid, new job prospect- one that had been specifically created for her. In talking with Rosie about this experience, she said that under the “Big Dark Thundercloud” she was distracted by her unconscious assumptions about what would happen in the future, based on her experiences in the past, the meaning she attached to them and could not be present in the current moment to center herself. Rosie could not entertain other options for how she “could Be” just then in the current moment, as well as, how the client session might unfold. We had to find a way she could align her preparation for the client session with her honest hopeful intentions for her client’s success and a positive closure session.
And what magic did Rosie pick-up on? Play. We played. First we noticed what was going on- feeling anxious. I asked her to draw a picture of her experience, and then intentionally, very deliberately change it. And by taking those actions Rosie loosened some tight mental muscles that had been cramping her imagination, her source of possibilities. She can use this tool again in the future and so can you. And the more she does this the more she’ll be able to strengthen the new neuropathway’s firing and wiring.
All this activity takes is first noticing what you are feeling. Then grab a scrap of paper and something to draw with and draw what you are feeling. Then take a couple of deep, lung filling breaths, let them out and change the picture. What looks different? What does that mean to you? Ready, set, now go- you can tuck that picture in your pocket, purse, backpack, briefcase, laptop tote or just about anywhere so you can reach for it as a reminder, literally and figuratively.
Oh and by the way, as a kid I was terrified of thunderstorms. I mean dive-under-the-bed, pull-a-blanket-over-my-head-and-not-move, just-lie-absolutely-still, facedown, sweating-my-little-head-off, until it passed. No matter how much I was sweating or how emphatically people tried to convince me it was going to be all right. As very young child I had the everlovin’ bejesus scared out of me a when a thunderclap erupted over my head while walking with my Mom between two buildings; it sounded like the world was literally about to crash on us. And I just knew that the next thunderstorm would be the one that brought the walls down. Now, I love a good thunderstorm even when they make me jump — there is so much possibility in them. They are thrilling.