Wherever You Go: How Being Present Can Help to Relieve Stress
The past few days, I've been absorbed in reading Jon Kabat-Zinn'sWherever You Go, There You Are. It's a fantastic book, full of very practical and gentle advice on incorporating a mindfulness practice into your everyday life. I was strongly drawn to the book's title; I'm about to move across the country, and I've planned a summer full of adventures and travel. I'm psyched, but it can also be a bit overwhelming to look at all this constant motion that's about to happen.
But the beautiful core message of Kabat-Zinn's book is that we always have stillness within us, no matter how much movement is occurring externally. No matter where we go, or how hectic our lives become at any given moment, we can tap into this stillness that's deep within our core. We do this by becoming fully present to this present moment. Think about it; when you're feeling anxious or worried, isn't it because you're imagining the future or the past? We so easily get lost in thought-tumbles of what-ifs. But when we can turn our attention to what is actually happening right now, we can see those what-ifs for what they truly are: imaginary.
For example, sitting here writing this, I automatically begin thinking about my summer and my plans and my inner to-do list; my mind very quickly turns into a rampage of what-ifs. What if I don't find a job? What if I run out of money? What if I don't finish all my projects? What if I write stuff that no one likes? Okay, sure. Those things would be difficult. But here's the thing: is any of that stuff happening right now? Are those things contained in the present moment? No. My present moment involves me sitting at a desk, on a late afternoon in early June, sipping ginger ale and listening to the hum of the air conditioner. That's pretty much it. That's a lot more manageable than that rampage of what-ifs, isn't it? The present moment is usually a lot simpler than what we're creating in our minds.
And there's an easy way to bring ourselves into this simplicity, into this presence: by breathing. I've been using this trick the past few days. When I start to get anxious or lost in a pile of what-ifs, I take a long inhale and long exhale. I ask myself to stay in the present for just one breath. And it's like a magic spell; it instantly zaps me back to exactly where I am right now, and I can see that the what-ifs are just imaginary creations.
True, the present moment is not always super fun. Sometimes when I'm dying to get off the hot, crowded subway, anxious for the next few stops to come and go, I take this breath and bring myself back to present. The present moment is a hot, crowded subway, which is not particularly pleasant, but it is simple, and it is what's happening now. The subway may not be fun, but when I center myself in the present moment, everything extra falls away and the moment becomes simpler, digestible.
Kabat-Zinn uses the image of a mountain to remind us of this innate inner stillness we carry. A mountain is deeply rooted, utterly solid. Yet it also ascends, reaching upward majestically. It manages to reach upward while maintaining its rootedness. It's a deeply inspiring image; we can imagine ourselves too as mountains, as having that innate rootedness and stillness no matter what the weather or the day's agenda. And this means that no matter the imperfections of the present moment, here we are, sitting still inside of it, our constant breath pulling us along.