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Here we are months into the COVID19 pandemic. We’ve had to find new ways of doing just about everything. There are just as many tasks on our lists, actually most likely more and we may not be feeling very efficient. We take a deep breath and charge forward. Sadly many of us, pre-COVID, became accustomed to plowing through our days and our “to do” lists as a way of living.

COVID hasn’t magically changed that but we can take this time to rethink the habits that have us focusing much more on the “doing” and the accomplishing than focusing on the “being” and the process.

Tal Ben-Shahar PhD, psychologist, author and international speaker on the study of happiness, told a story about a dear friend of his having an epiphany around this subject.  We’ll call her Sara.  She is a full time, working mother of two and a part time professional singer in the evenings.  Needless to say, her plate is full.

One evening she was bathing her children and while doing so she was completely absorbed with thinking about all she had left to do before leaving for her singing engagement later that evening.  She was bathing her children robotically, calling on her muscle memory to perform the necessary steps to get the task done.  The kids were having a great time giggling and splashing and blowing soap bubbles at each other.  She was so preoccupied thinking about her next steps that she missed the joy and play of her children…she missed the moment.  She was physically there, doing what needed to be done, though she was certainly not present.

She suddenly had this realization that caused queasiness in her stomach and took her breath away…if she wasn’t present in the moment, participating in a conscious way, she was missing NOW and missing the future MEMORY of the moment. 

This is a powerful thought.  Let’s unpack it a bit.

Today when the conversation moves to the concept of being present, some people roll their eyes feeling it’s a bit too out there, a bit too new age.  After all, where else is there but the present? The present is all we have; it’s where we live our lives.  This is certainly true AND it is also true that there are different ways we can “be” in the here and now, different ways of being present.

This state of “being” is what I want to talk about here.

Many of us live in a state of scarcity, living with a sense there is never enough time. We feel like hamsters on a wheel, running constantly and getting nowhere.  This feeling of scarcity is not a pleasant feeling, it doesn’t support a sense of well-being or contentment, rather it fosters feelings of anxiety, helplessness and discontent.  And, the additional stressors of the pandemic only add to these feelings. When we’re feeling so anxious it is difficult to experience the present as anything other than a time to get through.  If we can just get things done, get through this busy time, this scary time then_____…fill in the blank. We look to the future to find our calmness and contentment.  

The problem with this way of living is that as we are rushing from one task to the next it is easy to lose sight of the fact that life is happening here and now.  The memories we’ll savor in the future are made when we are paying attention, noticing our surroundings, using our senses and feeling our emotions. We are not making memories when we are so preoccupied with what’s next or proudly and skillfully multitasking.  We need to focus on our current state to experience it fully and make an imprint in our mind.

How can we achieve this and still be productive?

Take 3 Deep Breaths. Thomas Crum in his book Three Deep Breaths: Finding Power and Purpose in a Stressed-Out World outlines his breathing technique and the science supporting its impact. He writes, “The Three Deep Breath technique is a mind-body process which allows us to achieve a balancing of our autonomic nervous system through the breath.” The breath grounds us and keeps us focused on the present. We all have time to stop and focus on our breath; it literally takes a few moments.

Prioritize Moments of Joy in each day. As writer Annie Dillard reminds us “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” We somehow believe the big days, the big moments are what brings us happiness. Evidence shows it is not the intensity of your positive experiences that really matters: it is the frequency of positive experiences. Tim Urban, author of the blog Wait But Why, sums up this concept by writing “…it is the joy you find on hundreds of forgettable Wednesdays.” Our lives are made up of simple days, days of routine tasks and responsibilities and we don’t need to change that…we only need to remember to make the most of those routine moments by consciously choosing to find enjoyment in what we are doing…. NOW. If you love the outdoors, make it a point to spend fifteen minutes outside each day. If connection brings you joy, call your best friend for a few minutes just to say hello. Give your child a hug and hold it for a minute.

Write down Three Good Things. Similar to creating a daily gratitude practice, writing three good things that happened during your day is a wonderful way to end your day. Reflect on moments that were pleasant, a kind gesture someone made towards you, your delicious lunch, or the call from a friend. You get the picture. These are not three big things; they are the simple experiences that happen every day. Writing them down helps us learn to notice them making us conscious that amidst the time pressure and sometimes chaos there are happy moments.

I hope you’ll give these steps a try over the next month. Breathe, prioritize and reflect. And though we didn’t choose to be experiencing all the aspects of this pandemic, this is our current reality and we have the opportunity to notice our “now” as this too will hopefully be a memory someday.

It takes awhile to make novel actions a habit, at least thirty days. Socrates was wrong when he said, “To know the good is to do the good.” Knowing what is important to us or what would be helpful is a necessary starting point but it will not make a difference unless action is taken. We must practice steps daily, repeatedly, to help hone our awareness, and change our brain’s neural pathways. In this case we must “do” in order to “be”.

Give yourself the present of presence.