[original publication date 2016]
I was curled up on my couch reading Tuesdays with Morrie. It was one of those dark, drizzly kind of days that make everyone move slower but doesn’t keep you from going about your business. It’s a book about an elderly college professor with ALS and his weekly meetings with an old student of his. Each week they get together and Morrie discusses his philosophies on life as he endures his unforgiving disease. I had never heard of this book before and after hearing the “oh of course” tone in my grandmother’s voice when I mentioned it to her, it appears my age might be partly to blame. I was really taken in by it. It’s full of all kinds of life lessons. The stuff you know you should try to live by but it’s still hard to.
Morrie was talking about the concept of “presence,” truly being with another person and in the present moment. I believe wholeheartedly in this ideology. Mid chapter I realized that I was away from my iphone. It instantly pulled me out of the lovely moment I was having. It bothered me that it bothered me to be away from my phone. I normally wouldn’t care so much but I just started a new venture so I want to be connected when I’m needed. I fidgeted on the little part of the couch I had managed to settle into. I struggled but I stayed with it. After finishing my chapter I strolled into the bedroom where I found my little electronic friend waiting for me. 1 missed call. Life, you ironic butthead. Didn’t you know how present I was trying to be? This is how you repay me? I laugh to myself after returning the call and confirming that I was a little too late and lost a potential client.
I’ve heard this anecdote numerous times and I can’t stand it: basically, forget the whole “balance in life” thing. It’s a farce. Something is always going to give so if you invest too much in your work life, your personal life will start going to shit and vice versa. You can meditate and eat as much kale as you want but there’s no secret door called “balance” that will open for you. At least not for long. Soon enough you’ll be thrown back and forth into that struggle of time and energy again.
I was wondering about what to do about that as I ran out of my house 10 minutes late to meet a dear friend for coffee (presence problems). I paused at the red light, getting ready to turn right when I noticed an older man beginning to walk across the street from the other side of the road. I could have gone ahead but decided to sit there a moment instead. I still had Morrie on the brain so I took a deep breath and waited for him as he made his way across. He looked at me and smiled, offering a gentle wave my way. I smiled and waved back. A brief moment of human connection between strangers. I feel the warmth build inside my chest and thank Morrie for the sweet moment I would have otherwise missed.
The coffee shop is modern with a hint of hipster. I like it. There are panels of dark wood on the walls and modern fixtures hang from the ceiling with Edison bulbs. I order a cortado and take a seat when I get a text. My friend was running late as well. I generally have a book in my handbag because why wouldn’t I, so no big deal. I reach for my bag when I remember that I had purposely not put one in there because I was reading Morrie and had thought to myself, “you’re meeting a friend. What do you need to bring a book for?” Effing Morrie. I smile to myself. I take the remainder of my time to sit and just be.
There are macs everywhere. Some folks are having meetings. Others appear to be students. Many look like creatives and small business owners themselves. And then there I am. Present and hanging with Morrie feeling all warm and happy. I wonder to myself: being present, mindfulness meditation, all that jazz has become so popular within my field of psychology. My own interpretation of why this practice of being attuned to the living, breathing moment is becoming so big is because we’re losing our everyday capacity to engage in this way of being. I think we’re spiritually shriveling up as we lose sight of the importance of cultivating fulfilling, grateful moments. We get swept up too easily in another wave of work and life responsibilities. It becomes too tempting to be plugged into technology more than necessary for those moments in between. I think that’s why we have so many hipsters. We’ve gotten too out of whack with how we live so people are starting to grow beards, listen to vinyl, and blog about how horrible technology is. Case in point (minus the beard…).
Psychologists are now turning to mindfulness meditation to help treat depression and anxiety and the research is ridiculous in how effective this practice can be to our emotional well-being. The practice of being present in the moment can actually change our brain. It helps us break away from depressive thought traps and access these “present-moment” neural pathways better. Research findings indicate that it may even decrease the density of grey matter in the amygdala, a part of the brain that is implicated in stress and anxiety. These moments of connection, and more so, the feeling of connection with something greater than ourselves, opens the door for emotions that far exceed happiness and can lead us to feelings like joy and awe. So I’m thinking about all of this as I’m sitting with no barrier between me, my cortado, and the world. Present, alone, and engaged, I can’t help but think to myself: is this kind of creepy? I mean, like really. I’m just sitting here with nothing and no one and looking around at my environment completely fascinated. I wonder about our ever-evolving modern day culture. In our need for greater presence in our lives, is the approach in doing so going to become creepier and creepier?
Morrie didn’t write a chapter on that so I guess I’ll have to finish it myself. I’m thinking that we’re going to have to make an honest fight for our spiritual sanity. We’re going to have to actively engage and challenge ourselves to be fully alive and not caught in that in-between state too long as we run from task to task. And that might mean missing out on a potential client sometimes and it’s going to be totally OK. I would rather my headstone read “lived in the present moment” than “never missed a potential work opportunity.” Of course we will always be caught in the struggle between the two, but I know which side I will gladly err on at the end of the day. Plus, the more fully engaged and alive I feel, the better work I’ll be able to do anyway. So there’s that. I think I’ll stick with this whole presence thing, even if it does border on creepy sometimes.
Albom, M. (1997). Tuesdays with morrie: An old man, a young man, and life’s greatest lesson. New York, NY: Broadway Books.
Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly. New York, NY: Gotham Books.
Lu, Stacy (2015). Mindfulness holds promise for treating depression. Monitor, 46, 50-55.
Segal, Z. V., Williams, J. M. G., & Teasdale, J. T. (2012). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression (2nd ed.). New York, NY: The Guildford Press.