Tips If You Struggle with Staying Present

I’ve noticed that a lot of people, including myself, that have tried breathing exercises or mindfulness practices come away from them feeling as though they don’t work. For a while it was a mystery to me why some yoga classes or meditations felt so much more healing than others. I realized that the practices that weren’t able to recenter me were more like going through the motions rather than truly being present. I may have been meditating but my mind was wandering and/or my breath was short and shallow the entire time. Sometimes the internal experience does not mirror the outward manifestation of mindfulness practices.

Some days you’ll find you are just not able to focus as easily as other days. However, this does not mean that you shouldn’t try breath work or yoga or that these practices don’t provide any benefit. One thing I’ve found that helps me stay in the moment if I find myself struggling is imagining I’m writing a story. When the mind is very busy, stopping all together can feel impossible. Instead, try to describe the tiny sensations, sights, sounds, feelings that are happening around you that you normally wouldn’t pay attention to.

For example, say you are taking a quiet moment to connect with the earth. Rather than merely trying to force your mind into focusing on the breath, start writing a mental story as if you are trying to explain everything you are experiencing in that moment to someone else. Are your feet in the grass? What does that feel like? Where is the sun in the sky? Is there a breeze blowing? What sounds are there around you? Be as descriptive as possible. If you find it hard to keep your mind on this task as well, you can even bring a notebook and physically write it out on a sheet of paper.

When you start to put seemingly bland or uneventful moments into words, you realize just how much is actually going on even in stillness that you might not have noticed before. I always find this practice very soothing and pleasurable. Even if it feels like you have no time or your mind couldn’t possibly stop racing, set a timer for just 1-5 minutes. It doesn’t take long for your to settle the mind and body. You may even find you enjoy it so much that you make a little more time than you thought you’d be able to devote to this little mental, emotional, spiritual break. And if not, be grateful that you at least gave yourself one minute to rest. You deserve it.

My Temple

This body is not an ornament
or a toy to break and replace
it is the holy vessel that holds me
and tethers me to this world

A useful container that houses the soul
perfect and precious because it is uniquely mine
the one thing I fully own, my true home
the most important gift I could be given

How ungrateful I've been for
the mortal flesh that supports me
my personal window into reality
an unconscious effort that keeps me living

Belittling all that this body does
based only on shallow self judgement
centered around outward appearance
as if that even matters

The frightened animal form
my consciousness has been assigned
to protect and take care of
offering only criticism and neglect

May I be a better steward
to this living temporary temple
and learn to speak to it with gratitude
and soft caresses of loving kindness

The True Self

My multitudes are mercurial
the ever shifting sand of self
spills through tightly clenched fists
scattered by hot wind into oblivion

Not fully embodied by either
the single granular piece nor
the expansive vastness of the dunes
rather residing somewhere in between

The jarring duel perspective of being
the witness and the subject simultaneously
surreal surveillance of mind and body
fabricated force of strained separation

Taking action is a distraction
over-the-top over analyzing of reality
obscures the resounding hum of here and now
learning to let go and simply allow

Releasing the tension of assumed control
setting down the false shield of ego
to finally reveal the safety we've been seeking
was hiding behind the fear of full surrender

Soul Stumbling

Fear cannot infiltrate
a heart filled with gratitude
protected from unnecessary pain by
the weightless armor of grace
crafted from loving kindness

Withholding joy is an act of self-harm
in a misguided attempt to avoid it
the impermanence of these moments
does not make them meaningless
the soul's spark lies within that fleeting nature

Leaning into the sharp edge of emotion
is the spiritual practice of a lifetime
a struggle worth savoring as we
stumble forward into perpetual uncertainty
a precious lesson of forgiveness and self-love

Enjoying the journey
simply because it is ours alone
a unique experience of endless expansion
artfully unraveling our own soul's wisdom
with curiosity and compassion

Rainy Season

Surrender to the seasons of your life
learn to sit with whatever you find within
what resides inside your childish heart
let it resonate and ring through your ribcage

The feeling of fully embodying each moment
navigating the quicksand of resistance
that binds us to what we fear most
cultivating that counterintuitive current

Can you learn to honor uncertainty and discomfort
to keep your heart open through every storm
allowing the thick, stagnant energy of ingratitude
to flow through you and be released

This life is about collecting lessons
soul of soft clay, continuous transformation
trying to capture and confine good feelings
so clever in our self-inflicted suffering

Forgetting that each moment adds up
to make a life far from what we had intended
justifying, defending, and doubling down
on the things that destroy your peace

Etch your true intentions on your heart
trace the tender grooves daily
whisper them into the air, a gentle prayer
have faith that you will find your way

The Rush to React

Nothing is ever as pressing as the one who’s pressing would like you to believe. And I am content to walk a little slower, because there’s nowhere that I really need to be.

The Difference in the Shades – Bright Eyes

The sensation of being rushed or in a hurry has been chasing me around for years now. I don’t remember how or when it began, but that fluttering, panicked sensation in my chest seems to always be with me. I start jerking myself violent forward through my day from the moment I wake up. The last few days I’ve been lingering for just a few minutes in bed after my alarm sounds to caress and snuggle my sweet animal children, and it’s been amazing to see just how much my mind tries to resist that and tell me I don’t have time for something so precious and worthwhile. My consciousness leaps straight from the peaceful oblivion of sleep to a three-alarm fire of strict routines and to-do lists in an instant.

While I particularly struggle with giving myself the time to just live and experience the life around me without frantically lining everything up for the next moment, I think a lot of other people have this same problem. Sometimes waiting feels as frightening as death itself. If someone makes a comment, if I get an email, if I’m invited to do something, or even have an idea I feel compelled to focus my entire attention toward responding or taking immediate action. It feels strange just to remind myself that I don’t have to react. Certainly not immediately, but often times, not at all.

It’s easier to see the error in this way of living when I watch those closest to me. It’s painful to watch someone continue to leap into awful decisions just because they feel they have to pick from the ones in front of them in each moment, that waiting is not an option. When you find yourself in a situation where both paths laid out before you are unappealing, it’s okay to decide not to choose either one and wait for other opportunities to present themselves. There is so much value in waiting, in stillness, in just observing, in watching patiently, mindfully. In a world where only bold, immediate action is given any acknowledgment, we are quickly losing sight of the quiet talent of simply being.

Even when the external world isn’t keeping us busy with stimuli to force a fast response, our inner world is. I make my emotional experiences so much more painful by feeling the need to do something about them. When I’m sad, I intensify that despair by trying to claw my way out of that feeling in any way that I can. When I’m anxious, I compound that frenzied energy by running from it, wondering about it, and trying to “fix” it. Even happiness sets me off on a quest to somehow bottle it and ensure that it stays with me, rather than just giving myself permission to enjoy it while it lasts.

Our emotions are often helpful, valuable cues. Even so that doesn’t mean they always require intervention or conscious direction. Emotions and internal experiences or mental states are there to be noticed and observed. Sometimes it helps me to pretend I am just a passive observer watching the external and internal events in this life. Then I don’t feel so much pressure to get involved with every little thing. I become aware of the benefit of simply watching everything unfold with openness and curiosity.

There is nothing wrong with slowing down and giving yourself space to experience whatever comes in the moment. This moment, no matter what it holds, is the only place we’re meant to be. Don’t miss the beauty of it, the uniqueness of it, by trying to get to the next moment faster. This moment is where your whole life is happening, take the time to notice it, savor it, enjoy it with playfulness and curiosity. There is nowhere else that you need to be.

What Am I Making This Mean

Our thoughts and inner chatter come at us so quickly that it’s hard to realize what is an objective truth and what is a distorted or biased perception of that truth. The events that play out in front of us don’t necessarily have an emotional undertone or meaningful significance, yet we are so used to assigning these things to every little event in our lives that they feel inseparable. The rejection we might face from a loved one is so immediately followed by our thoughts about what that rejection means, that it feels impossible to distinguish between the two.

I don’t think it has any immediate benefits, but I do believe in the long term just making a conscious effort to pull real moments away from our automatic perception of them is a valuable practice. It can feel pointless and frustrating to do so at first. Just cognitively realizing that rejection, for instance, does not mean we are unworthy of love, doesn’t make our conditioned reaction feel any less true or painful in that moment. This is just the first step though. Eventually once we’ve worked on recognizing and accepting that distinction, then I believe we will be able to move on toward challenging our painful perceptions and subconscious convictions.

It has been interesting for me just to notice how violently my mind resists the very idea of my immediate reaction being a choice or something I could view differently. There is a physical sense of revulsion in my body. My heart closes tightly. My mind attempts to shut down this new direction in my thought patterns. Despite how painful a belief might be, I find myself clinging to it desperately instead of being open to reevaluating the situation. Isn’t that a curious thing. Why am I so stubbornly trying to maintain a way of thinking that causes me so much suffering unnecessarily?

I think the answer to this question is that somehow, part of me has developed this stimuli/reaction cycle as a form of self-protection. It doesn’t seem to make any sense how genuinely believing someone couldn’t or shouldn’t love me could be protecting me, but that scared little animal inside of me must have some basis for mistakenly thinking it will. Even our most hateful inner voice is ultimately just trying to keep us safe. It is just afraid for us. It’s up to us to work every day to push through that fear and show ourselves that we don’t have to hold on to these harmful inner narratives any longer.

One way I’ve learned we can distance ourselves from the intensity of these upsetting thoughts is to speak to ourselves as if we were someone else. Internally addressing ourselves in the third person, saying our own name instead of I, can provide a mental cushion of space between the emotional energy of the thoughts and our conscious awareness. A question I’ve been posing to myself in this way is: “Rachel, what are you making this mean?”

Framing the question in this way is actually a reframing. It has become so automatic that we’ve lost the original question we’ve been answering which would be “what does this mean?” After being confronted with an uncomfortable reality such as rejection, the small voice of fear inside whispers this follow up question in it’s desperate attempt to make sense of things and create a story around what’s happened. Our well worn response to the situation is our answer to that question.

Even though I might feel as though I am constantly doubting myself, I never seem to doubt these explanations and narratives I create around the moments of my life. Why not? Part of the problem is I’ve somewhere along the line lost the ability to recognize I am the one creating this particular meaning. After years and years of unwitting reinforcement, the voice that tells me how I have to think or react doesn’t feel like it’s coming from me anymore. It doesn’t feel optional. It feels like a hard and unavoidable truth.

When I ask myself “what are you making this mean,” it is a reminder, however surreal it may seem at first, that I’m deciding to add qualifiers and opinions to otherwise neutral events. The way I see a situation is not the one right way, or the only way to see it. Really there are an infinite number of possibilities when it comes to interpreting the experiences we have in life. It might feel like those possibilities are extremely limited at first, but the more we encourage our awareness of their existence, the more we will feel capable of pivoting our perceptions towards ones that better serve us.

At the end of the day, I don’t believe there is necessarily any objective truth in this insane experience we can life. All that matters, all that is, is what you believe. It’s not easy. Sometimes I don’t even feel like it’s possible. But even so, I do believe it is worth the effort to help ourselves see the world and our own lives in a way that brings us joy, peace, self-love, and equanimity. What else could be more important or meaningful? Even on the days were my battles with inner demons and mental illness feel like a living example of Sisyphus, I know the only thing to do is keep going.

Permission to Pause

Coasting on momentum for such a long time, makes the idea of stopping a daunting one. One of the reasons I’m so fearful of allowing myself a moment to rest is because I worry that I’ll like resting so much, that I’ll never do anything again. Instead I keep white-knuckling my way through life hoping that somehow the tension will eventually break and things will get easier. My intuition for when to go inward and when to express myself creatively has gone dormant long ago. Now it’s hard to even tell what I’m feeling or need from day to day. I no longer trust myself. I have turned my back on my body’s wisdom.

Western society is so focused on outward expressions of productivity and progress. We have completely devalued and cast aside the inherent worth of rest, introspection, and mental/emotional/spiritual growth. I’ve been sensing the need to go in a different direction with my life for quite a while now. My daily pursuits no longer bring me the joy and sense of fulfillment that they once did. Still I continue to cling to them, walking swiftly farther down the wrong path, and then wondering why I haven’t discovered the new direction I’ve been searching for.

You can’t explore your other options and reassess things while simultaneously barreling ahead with your current routines. Especially when those routines are as time consuming as mine are. There needs to be stillness, quiet, and rest for you to gain new perspective and insight. Even if it feels like it or looks like it from the outside, slowing down and even stopping completely is not lazy, unproductive, or a waste of time. Come to think of it, what’s even wrong with giving yourself permission to be lazy and unproductive every now and then anyway? Moments spent “wasting time” can often transform into some of our most precious, playful memories. Whether or not something is a “waste” is all based on what you place value on. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Despite all of the endless examples presented to me constantly in nature, my human arrogance insists that the cyclical nature of things does not apply to me. As a species we’ve become so separated from the nature ebb and flow of activity and rest that we forget the importance of both. Now the setting sun no longer commands rest, the seasons have no hold on our ambitious routines. Even if we only cared about productivity and working hard, it would still be more beneficial for us to also take moments to relax and do nothing.

Forcing myself to do the same mentally and physically demanding tasks day in and day out, it’s no wonder that my inspiration and motivation have bottomed out. Nothing lasts forever, even our internal stores of energy and creativity have a limit when we never allow them to naturally be replenished. I hardly remember what it feels like to be bored. Maybe that should be my goal one day, to remember what it feels like to be so idle that I’m bored.

Having scheduled out every minute of every day of my life for years now, you’d think it would be easy enough to include a few days here and there to rest. Wouldn’t that be so nice? Wouldn’t that be such a loving treat to give to myself? Part of me is excited at the idea. Strangely, at the same time, I feel a deep fear rising up as well. In my desperation to avoid that fear, that voice in my head that says “you don’t deserve it” or “everything will fall apart if you stop to rest” is so powerful that I continue to push myself even though I’ve gone far past my limit. It’s high time that I acknowledge the fact that I can’t keep running forever. I can choose to face this fear and show myself that it is just a phantom. It will evaporate into dust in the shadow of my courage and loving awareness.

As winter shrinks back and the warmth of spring begins to thaw the frozen earth, I want to make sure I am able to pause and witness it. It’s been a hard year and I’m always so happy step our from the cold dark months to emerge again into the sunshine. This month, I am going to schedule at least one day to do absolutely nothing. I need to refill my cup. It’s long overdue.

Getting Out of My Own Way

When was the last time I truly allowed myself to do nothing? Was there ever a moment that I’ve allowed myself that space, that freedom? No matter how busy I make myself day after day, year after year, I still go to sleep at night feeling like I’ve wasted so much time. I still wake up every morning with the pressure of thinking I’ve dwindled away all the days before. I keep myself in a flurry of frenzied thoughts and trailing to-do lists. I hold my breath as I rush around my home, my office, my head, trying frantically to get as much done as possible.

I tell myself that I’m trying to do extra work to create a bubble of free time for myself in the future, but that future moment never arrives. There is always something more that I could be doing. From time to time, I become so overwhelmed, so run down by my own errands that I have to stop and try to remember why I’m even doing any of this. I must have a good reason right? What was my ultimate goal again? What’s the point of all this work?

When I ask myself these questions, it’s hard to wrap my mind around the answer that always seems to come up. My only real goal, the thing that I’m struggling so desperately to achieve is just to be happy. I become so tangled in all the techniques I’ve piled on to my daily routine in order to facilitate a happy life, that I forget happiness is a choice. All I have to do is keep making that choice in every moment. These limits and restrictions and qualifications I put on my happiness are mine to hold on to or let go of as I wish. No amount of self-help or self-care rituals will generate happiness in my life. These things are just reminders, opportunities for me to give myself permission to experience the happiness that is already inside of me.

Despite all my years of yoga and meditation practice, I keep grasping and clawing at the world around me, at my external circumstances, trying to reach some perfect, organized, flawless outer condition in order to finally rest. I keep feeding myself a story that I know is a lie. I say, “In order to be happy, I must do this or achieve that or resolve all the problems in my life.” I place my happiness in some far off idealized future world that is intangible and unattainable. Then I beat myself up for not being able to reach it. “I’m a failure! I’m lazy! I’m not trying hard enough! I’m too easily overwhelmed! I’m too mentally ill to ever be happy!”

I allow my own inner voice to berate me and belittle me in ways that I would never allow anyone else to. I hardly even recognize the self-abuse I inflict every day. I place the aspirations of who I’d like to be off in the future and set up hurdles for myself to reach them. I make life more complicated, grave, and serious than it has to be. I tell myself to be calm and then pile on unrealistic tasks for myself to complete in order to permit a moment of relaxation. I tell myself to be happy while I rattle off endless criticisms of myself and everything in my life.

Life can be more simple and light-hearted if I only allow it to be. I don’t need to be or do anything in order to be happy or find peace. Those states are part of me. They are not dependent on anything outside of my head. I can go within and find peace, love, and happiness no matter where I am or what is going on in my life. They are not objects to be acquired out in the world. They are essential aspects of my nature. I generate them. I am them.

I am finally giving myself permission to stop regularly and ask, “what is it that I need right now?” and then simply allow myself to have it. Instead of withholding all of the compassion, understanding, and tenderness that I so desperately long for until I reach some distant abstract goal, I can give it to myself right now, this moment, every moment. I no longer require anything of myself in order to offer myself kindness. Real love is always unconditional. We merely clip it’s wings and distort it’s healing energy by placing qualifiers on it in any capacity.

I’ve wasted so much time and effort trying to earn love, trying to earn happiness, when in reality, all I have to do is stop choking off these energies that are always naturally flowing within me. No matter how many times I affirm it to myself, it’s so hard to remember that when I find myself in a state of distress or despair, I don’t need to do anything or obtain something to “fix” it. All I’ve got to do is be there. Just allow myself to be there, with whatever is happening internally and externally. Just allow myself to feel what it’s like to exist in that moment, to breathe, to experience life.

It sounds so simple, so easy that it just can’t be true. It’s very hard to combat so many years of telling myself the answers are outside of me somewhere, that reaching milestones and goals will bestow the inner experience I am seeking. It’s a daily effort in mindfulness to pull myself back down to earth, back into my own body, and redirect my soul’s awareness to that deep, dark, smooth, cooling stillness that soothes all of life’s struggles. It’s always right there inside of me. It is me. If I can only be silent enough to hear it’s soft, kind, loving voice. That’s the me that I want to be. That’s the me that I really am. She’s always there waiting patiently for me to come home. That path home might be perilous and overgrown at the moment, but I know with time it will be worn down until one day I’ll be able to make that journey back to myself with ease.

Inviting the Critic In with Courage and Curiosity

“You’re not enough.” “You don’t deserve this.” “You are weak, broken, a burden on everyone.” These are just a few of the familiar mantras that my inner critic seems to be whispering to me under her breath every waking moment. For most of my life, I didn’t even recognize this as a voice. I didn’t hear the phrases themselves. I accepted these perspectives as simple facts. I never even thought to question the deeply held belief of my own unworthiness. I was unworthy, obviously, and that was that. I lived my life from these painful premises for most of my time here without even the slightest inkling that I had the option of challenging them, or respond in any other way.

More recently, now that I’ve recognized this hateful, critical voice inside of myself, I have tried to shut it out, to silence it. That has not been very helpful either. While I now know I should question these opinions I have of myself and try to determine if there is really any true basis for them, it doesn’t make them feel any less true or unchangeable. The voice hates me and I hate the voice. I spend my mental energy in this gridlock a fair bit of the time. No resolution, no relief. Perhaps a different tactic is in order.

I see you Mara. Come, let’s have tea.

The Buddha

This is a quote from Buddhist mythology in which the Buddha, instead of trying to avoid or destroy Mara, the demon god, he invites her in. This serves as a lesson for how we must respond to our own inner demons. The struggle to resist them and cast them out is only multiplying our suffering. We shrink away from our self-defeating, self-judging thoughts in fear, shame, and sorrow. We cover our eyes and close our hearts to our own harsh words in an attempt to protect ourselves. But we don’t need to hide away. We don’t need to fight. These thoughts, our inner critic, is a part of us. We cannot outrun her. What might happen if we invite her in instead?

For me, ideas like this, that feel so contrary to my natural instinctive response, are revelations. It feels as though the clouds have parted over my heart and mind and I am able to gaze at a clear blue sky I had forgotten could be there. The mere thought of opening myself up to all that I want to reject within myself is healing. I can almost imagine the look of shock, bewilderment, and finally, gratitude of my inner critic as I welcome her too, into my heart.

The next time I find myself despairing and berating myself, I am going to try this new method. I am going to tap into my bravery, my courage, my curiosity and turn towards that suffering voice inside my soul. I am going to extend my hand, to invite that voice in, to ask questions and learn more about her. Responding to the unpleasant parts of ourselves with denial and rejection is exacerbating the problem and intensifying our suffering. If we can teach ourselves to open rather than close, to reach out rather than pull away, to offer loving kindness instead of rejection, that will bring us closer to that calm, steady, inner serenity and acceptance that we all urn for.

I am going to work hard to cultivate my courage and my curiosity. I am going to keep trying to be brave enough to embrace every part of myself, even the parts that might feel hurtful or hateful. Love is always powerful enough to disarm hate. I intent to prove this to myself one day.