Stop and smell the roses – we’ve all heard it before. Slow down, stop rushing, take it all in.
For someone who used to be so wrapped up in the little ecosystem I had created in my mind, living purposefully in the present was near impossible. The present moment was always something I was running from, using “coping mechanisms” to get from wake-up time to bedtime, day in, day out. My reality at the time was incredibly unpleasant. I wanted to get away from my mental and physical health, external circumstances etc. – all of which seemed too hard.
So, I would often cover them up with anything that could take me away from my current circumstances. I would become obsessed with a TV show and binge-watch it, then research the actors, spinoffs, prequels and sequels. Anything would do, if it could take my mind from what I was actually experiencing . Drinking and partying were my default setting at university, and smoking became more than a physical addiction in my twenties. It went around in circles for years. No matter how hard I tried to give something up, it would always be replaced with something equally unhealthy or worse.
I’m a thinker, which probably doesn’t surprise you. I often catch myself immersed deeply in my thoughts, completely unaware of my surroundings or what the person in front of me has just said. A lot of the time I’ll have to stop them, sheepishly apologise and tell them I wasn’t listening to a word they just said. Embarrassing but honest. Some people appreciate my honesty when it comes to that because then they’re aware that I’m actively listening, which makes for a better conversation.
I’m not proud of the times when I used other things to distract me from my real life. I had a lot of close calls and too many occasions of complete disregard for my own safety. The self-sabotage seemed endless. Even now, I have huge chunks of time when I literally cannot remember what happened because I’ve blocked it out. If you were to ask me how I passed the time when I was sick in bed with glandular fever, I would tell you about cross stitch and TV, but anything further than that and I would draw a blank. Looking back now I realise that I was actually absent. Not physically of course, but emotionally I just wasn’t there. I couldn’t be. It was too painful.
The last few years have been very different though. I had been a step mum for about four years when my partner and I started trying for a baby. When I gave birth, it was like becoming a new person. My whole world shifted and I felt awake. Awake to whom I needed to be for both of my children, not just my biological one. More importantly, my step daughter was looking to me as a maternal figure for emotional guidance. That’s a big responsibility, especially when my own emotional development felt as if it was still in its infancy. I had a young lady in her formative years looking to me for help in building the foundations, on which she would base the rest of her life. This is when I decided not to hide behind coping mechanisms any longer.
I stopped and smelled the roses in my own way. I felt my pain, I cried and I laughed. I tried to feel everything as strongly as possible without judgment.
The first time I read Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, I was flummoxed. The ideas he shares in this book are profound, especially to someone like me, who had created a complex world in my head and had been living there unknowingly for so long. Every few chapters, I would have to put the book down for a couple of days just to be able to digest it and really get a grasp of what he was trying to get across. Since then, I’ve read it four more times, and have lost count of how many times I have applied particular themes from the book to a current struggle.
Together with medication, this book helped me through some incredibly dark times. One particular technique, called “grounding”, has stuck with me and become the quickest, most effective way to get me out of my head and into the current moment.
Grounding uses the most basic senses to bring me back to the moment – to ground myself. Using four out of the five basic senses (see, hear, touch, smell, taste), I tick off a list I’ve made for myself:
Choose four things I can see.
Choose three things I can feel with my skin.
Choose two things I can hear.
Choose one thing I can smell.
Once I’ve done this,I can usually realign my thoughts and take the power away from my inner world.
Right now I can see the fake wood grain of the vinyl covered table, the letters in the word in the newspaper in front of me, the fibres in the woven carpet and the fine hairs on the backs of my fingers.
I can feel the pressure of my jacket over the layers of clothes, the smooth roughness of the newspaper, and the smoothness of the table under my fingers.
I can hear the low rumbling of the building's air-conditioning and the faint whisper of the office radio down the hallway.
Finally, I can smell the coffee my colleague made a moment ago just before she finished her break and left the room.
All of these things brought me intensely into this very moment right here.
As you read this, you may start picking out things around you using your basic senses. If you really want to, you could try thinking about what you taste. Did you just take a sip of water? Have you recently eaten? What tastes are lingering in your mouth right now?
Living in the moment means to take in my surroundings, allow myself to feel what I’m feeling and not judge it. A trap I fell into initially was to label the things I was feeling, as if I was judging them good or bad. Eckhart warns against this, saying that I’m just coming in through a backdoor and therefore “noticing my noticing”. How frustrating! But after lots of practice, I feel as though I’m finally able to do the things he describes without judgement.
Suppose I was in a situation where I was a bit anxious – a public speaking event, for example. My heart would race, my hands and knees would shake and, for some weird reason, I would always get the sudden urge to pee! While I was learning how to observe myself in this situation, my initial process was to name all the things I was feeling, and then decide whether that was good or bad. In other words I was judging myself for feeling nervous. Then I would mentally tell myself off for judging and labelling, realise what I was doing and it would start all over again. This is what Mark Manson calls the feedback loop from hell. Eventually, I learnt that if I was in this little cycle, grounding was the fastest way to snap out of it.
Over time, I learnt to name the things I was feeling and leave it at that. Racing heart, tight chest, hands fisted etc. It took a lot of practice. Over and over I would repeat the physical things I was feeling, eventually I’d be able to do it without judgement. After much more practice I am now able to notice, pause, and let go. I still catch myself in my feedback loop every so often but it’s not controlling my thoughts anymore.
And when I can’t get out of my head, grounding is my go-to solution. It’s almost like a quick meditation on the spot where I notice my surroundings without any words going through my head.
I’ve come so far from the person I used to be and yet I’m exactly the same. The layers I’m peeling back are finally coming off more easily. Writing like this really makes me see how far I’ve come and makes me eternally grateful for the decision I made to put a stop to my own self-sabotage. I have so much further to go too, I’ll never be done. And that’s what I love about growth and development. Practice makes progress, never perfection.