Therapeutic Mindfulness in an Age of Interruption

Michael Ventura on Achieving Mindfulness in a Distracted World

Michael Ventura

We speak about “the present moment” and the ability to be fully present, and we claim a sort of smudgy understanding of what that means. But what is “the present moment?” Seriously! “Be in the now.” “Be here now!” “Be present.” “In family life be completely present,” says Laozi's Tao Te Ching (in Stephen Mitchell's New Age-ish translation)---a sentiment echoed in one way or another by every marriage counselor alive.

Americans have heard and used these phrases for about 40 years, as Eastern and New Age concepts influenced psychology and other ologies. We're all familiar with expressions like “right attention,” “mindfulness,” and family therapy's emphasis on what's happening in this room right now.
Obviously, once you delve into it, now isn't as exact a word as it appears.

Finding the Present

So you're taking a walk, and the entire walk is "now." You're having a conversation, and the entire conversation is "now." You're making love, writing, cooking, telling a bedtime story---the entire act is "now." That's a manageable present, something that can be discussed without requiring the capacities of a Zen master.
A manageable present, but also complex and variable. You're taking a walk. In a park, say. And let's say you're an attentive person---you're not one of those people who walks staring down at their shoes. You notice birds, trees, clouds, kids playing, an aged person sitting on a bench, a couple walking hand-in-hand.

But the mind is a nonlinear organ: while you're mulling your thoughts and you're attentive to the comparative sanity of the park, something you see reminds you of something else and takes you away from your primary thoughts. "Now" you're in three places at once, at a leisurely pace: the park, the relationship, and the fact that kid over there is doing just what you used to do as a kid, or that you once had a dog like that dog this very pretty lady is walking. Various things are going on all around you and within you, and you're walking in the park.

Frenzied Schedules

It isn't so easy to "live now" in a multimedia, interactive era of cell phones and pagers in which we're expected to be constantly available---I've called it "The Age of Interruption." We've even devised nifty gadgets for interrupting ourselves, and never letting the present speak to us on its own terms. The iPod supplies a constant soundtrack wherever you are---background music to force the present into whatever mood, or pastiche of moods, you programmed into it.

Meanwhile, in our big cities, it's hard to be out of sight of some ad that exists for no other reason than to wrest your attention from the present to something you can buy. Life now is a kind of cacophony that's difficult to turn down and almost impossible to turn off.

Jungian psychologist James Hillman told me once that in his clinical practice, he found that nothing was harder to "treat," to do therapy with and upon, than peoples' schedules. He said it was very difficult to get people to see that their schedule was their life---the skeletal structure of their existence. You're not going to change your life much unless you change your schedule: open it up so that the unexpected may enter. Else how can the present be a presence instead of just another goal---or just something else you don't have time for?

Living with Courage

For some, "the present moment" is nothing less than terrifying, when faced full on, without blinders, without apologies. The marriage is sunk in compromise, the job sucks, the children are an endless worry, and God doesn't respond. Who wants to face "the present moment" in most circumstances? Better to watch TV, videos, or Jeopardy. Anything becomes better than an awareness of where you are. Anything becomes better than not faking.

The odds have always been against any individual who desires to live a free inner life---and a free inner life means not being afraid of, indeed relishing, the present moment. To buck the odds takes courage. To determine to find one's way through the societal maze to a place where "the present moment" can blossom requires not one but many small acts (perhaps large acts!) of courage.

In a life running from one sort of appointment to another, space must be made for appointments with oneself. This, too, takes that "small courage," but all talk of being "in the now" is pointless without unspecific appointments with oneself.

Blessings from the Past

Now, when a memory arises, I see it clearly, and I say, softly or to myself, "Go well, my beauties." And the memory passes without wounding. I'm doing something in the present that relates to the past but isn't gripped by the past. My ghosts are welcome, and, being welcome, they quickly go elsewhere---they still have much to do. Because of this, my present feels vastly expanded. Memories are no longer interruptive or fearsome; they're part of the present, and I've found that when I've blessed them--"Go well, my beauties"---good and bad alike leave a loveliness in my present air.

We cannot be in the present until the past lets us go. It'll never leave entirely; it must always return. I suppose it needs a lot of blessing. But, blessed, it'll let us go...and the blessing, because it occurs in the present, also blesses the present.

This blog is excerpted from “Appointments With Yourself." Read the full article here. >>

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Topic: Mindfulness | Children/Adolescents

Tags: conversation | counselor | ED | family | family therapy | kids | loss | marriage counselor | meditation | mindful | psychologist | psychology | TED | therapy | marriage

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