The Lost Years
Sometimes, it feels as though I’ve lived a life based on inspirational quotes. All those juicy metaphysical pearls of Zen wisdom strewn and strafed across the internet’s fertile landscape.
The Lost Years of the seventies were spent wastefully hanging around the wrong people on the wrong streets doing the wrong things.
I was on a slippery slope back in my early twenties, the details of which are neither here nor there. Suffice it to say I was adrift in a very unforgiving place where the people I knew one day no longer existed the next.
That’s when and where I discovered that rock bottom has a basement.
But I digress, for as life would have it, those same streets gave birth to my adherence to philosophy. After all, desperation can be one hell of a motivator when it comes down to either conquering yourself or being conquered by yourself.
Then again, not the philosophical meanderings of Plato or Socrates, the forebearers of western thought. Rather, I am alluding to the arcane ancient esoteric writings of The Vedas, Sutras, and Tao te Ching, which, unlike the Judeo-Christian message my peers grew up with, resonated with me on a much deeper level.
Only later was I to discover that the wrong people were, in fact, the right people.
Every person you encounter in life can be your guru if you are open to allowing such. And these misguided, misjudged, and misunderstood educators unknowingly taught me some very precious life lessons.
Amen For Zen
Jump ahead several decades, and I am still wading knee-deep in the muddied waters of life’s mysteries. Some are abiding and self-evident while others still, unraveling layer upon layer so gradually as to be almost imperceptible. Waiting, as it were, for the student’s mind to be open and able enough to receive.
Empirical truths are not always observational in nature despite being omnipresent, enduring, and eternal.
One such self-revelation seeped through the crevices of my cranium sometime back during my regular morning tai chi practice. It truly was a eureka moment. A mental shift capable of skyrocketing anyone’s productivity, as it indeed has mine.
Mastering of Mind
Let me know if this sounds at all familiar.
You begin your day invigorated and renewed, determined to get that laundry list of tasks completed. So, you jump right in and grab task A by the horns with the best of intentions. That is, of course, until your mind decides to act as your personal saboteur.
Either visually or mentally, you quickly become distracted by Task B, which draws you away from Task A. You decide it best to simply get Task B out of the way, fully intending to return to Task A immediately thereafter. But soon enough, the pattern repeats, and you find yourself once more abandoning Task A in favor of Task C.
When you finally do return to task A, you are so mentally and physically exhausted that you either complete it haphazardly or simply dismiss it out of hand.
This sporadic piecemeal approach results in you never giving a single task the full attention it deserves. And though busy all day, you retire for the evening demoralized, feeling you’ve accomplished very little or, worse yet, nothing at all.
The solution, despite its simplicity, has proven to be a formidable task to master. Sure, we would all prefer the resolution be easy, but if such were the case, you would have solved this dilemma by now.
So, what is the magical, mysterious remedy that would have you cease chasing your own tail?
Mental Focus. That’s it.
Now I realize that after such a buildup, it may seem anticlimactic, but bear with me. An old Chinese proverb states, “Where your mind goes, your energy flows.” In other words, where your thoughts go, your mental energy follows.
Ergo, the key to improved productivity lies in you directing your thoughts rather than having your thoughts direct you. In words, ‘Being Master of Mind not Mastered by Mind.”
Living in The Now
We have all heard the phrase “living in the now.” It’s been bandied about so often that it’s become cliche.
It’s a straightforward enough concept that most people comprehend, at least on an intellectual level being unequivocal and honest at its most fundamental level. For the Now, this very moment is the only time you truly have. The past is irretrievable, and the future is merely potential. The present moment is the only point in time that you can exert control and influence over.
But while “Living in the Now” may be a beautiful platitude, how does one actually go about achieving it? How do you find that Zen moment where you are totally in the zone?
Well, it’s not easy. Nothing worthwhile ever is. But the rewards for the work you put in are and will be immeasurable.
The Practical Practice
Let’s be honest. You are going to be continuously distracted every single minute of every single day. Just accept that it’s a consequence of living life in the 21st Century.
And while you may not be able to eliminate the din, you can overcome it.
The simplest way to maintain focus is to acknowledge the many distractions in your mind without giving them any undue attention.
Making a note of distractions may sound counterintuitive initially, but as respected Soto Zen Buddhist monk Shunryu Suzuki states, “Allow your thoughts to come and go. Just don’t serve them tea.”
Using visual imagery is a method to transition from acknowledging a distraction to releasing it. A personal favorite example of mine involves the envisioning of leaves falling off a deciduous tree during autumn.
When a distraction arises, mentally picture a bustling breeze blowing through tree branches; the brightly colored leaves being quickly whisked away, taking with them the distraction.
After acknowledging any mental distraction and allowing it to “blow away,” the easiest and most practical way to return to the “Now” is by utilizing your body and its senses.
The simplest and most effective of which is breathing.
Take a deep breath through your nose. Notice how your chest rises as you do so. Now release that same breath slowly and gently.
Feel the air as it exits your lungs and flows through your throat. Notice how your chest rises and falls with each breath. Listen to the sound your body emits with each breath.
Giving your attention to how your body reacts while breathing forces your mind to redirect its focus back to your body, which exists in the Now.
Having established rhythmic breathing, next, focus on any smells you detect in the air. Perhaps the coffee you brewed this morning or flowers in a vase nearby.
Now, look around and take note of your surroundings: the shapes, the colors, the textures, and the dimensions. Take in the scene as if it were your first time in your current location.
By now, you should be garnering a clearer understanding of how your five senses can be utilized to effectively draw your focus back to the present moment.
When Eating, Eat. When Walking, Walk
This simple practice outlined above is a form of “Mindfulness Meditation,” which can help to calm the mind and bring your attention back to the present moment, reducing your stress levels while increasing your sense of well-being.
As for the “eureka moment” I alluded to previously, that came about quite serendipitously one evening whence reading the following quote,” “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”
The quote points to the idea that in nature, everything happens at its own pace and in its own time.
The natural world doesn’t rush or hurry to accomplish things; instead, it operates in an effortless flow. Despite this apparent lack of haste, everything in nature gets done eventually. The seasons change, plants grow, animals migrate, and so on.
The quote can be interpreted as a reminder to let go of our sense of urgency and trust that things will happen in their own time. It encourages us to take a more relaxed and patient approach to life and to let go of our need to control or rush things.
Everything that needs to be accomplished will be accomplished.
Not through some haphazard, diffused, ineffectual approach but rather by remaining utterly and entirely focused on the present moment, The Now.
By consistently bringing your attention back to the present moment, you can improve your ability to stay focused on the task at hand. Instilling this habit will take effort and commitment, but with practice and self-discipline, you will soon find yourself achieving a lot more with less stress and distraction.