The Road to Awareness Is Paved with Good Attention

About a year ago I was visiting a physician in St. Louis for work. It was after hours and the entrance to her practice was locked. I knocked on the glass and she came out front through the patient waiting room to let me in. When she opened the door she said, gesturing to the patient waiting room, "Oh, so this is what it's like out here. I never come out here." 

Because of my job, I now tend to see most everything through a marketing lens, so the first thought that went through my mind was, what do you mean you don't know what it's like out here? It's six feet from where you spend your entire day. This is the place every single person who comes to see you sees. How can you not be intimately familiar with this space? It is the place where people patiently wait nursing their fears, worries, and ailments, where they cling to hope that they will be provided with what they need most: relief, a diagnosis, a plan. This place is Square One! It is important!

But no sooner had my judgement of her statement raced through me, I was struck with another thought: How often am I not present to the familiar places in my life? How often am I missing the patient waiting room? What experience, detail, or nuanced perspective am I missing because I'm not paying attention?

About four years ago, when I was still living in New York City, I was really struggling with my anxiety. I just couldn't seem to get a hold of myself. There would be brief moments, sometimes days even, where everything felt okay, but for the most part I was running on panic and adrenaline. My therapist recommended I take a class called Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), which is, in a non-scientific, layman's butchering, a method for dealing with anxiety and depression by bringing awareness (mindfulness) into the present moment. 

So every Friday, for two months, I left work, rode the train uptown, and sat in a tiny room with five other people I had determined on first meeting were all nuts (but I was totally fine) and an instructor as we practiced doing things mindfully. It was all very New York-y, which meant it cost a lot, someone always ended up crying, and you ultimately left the experience wondering if it was the best or worst thing that ever happened to you. We meditated, we ate raisins slowly, we walked in circles at a turtle's speed, we practiced not speaking. I thought I was going to lose my mind. Being in the present was intolerable.

I talk a lot on Aiming for Okay about being present, being in the moment, finding a place in the here and now, mostly because I'm terrible at it, and I write it as a reminder to myself. Today, four plus years out from MBCT (and still in regular therapy), I credit that experience as a turning point in my life. I had no idea how uncomfortable the present was for me until I became aware I was in it, one raisin at a time. There it was--my life--I passed it every day. Tens of thousands of times a day it circulated through me, and I dismissed it always. And then one day, WHAM, "Oh, so this is what it's like out here. I never come out here," and then I couldn't un-see it: the anger, the sadness, the grief, the anxiety, but also the joy, the love, the empathy and enthusiasm. It was like walking into your childhood home now that someone else owns it. You know the floor plan but everything is decorated differently. I knew it was my life, I just didn't recognize it.

I think it is monumentally difficult to be present, to be mindful and self-aware. I often feel inclined to get away from me, to put some distance between me and me. But a funny thing has started to happen over the past couple of years: the more I strive to stay in the present the softer the experiences of my past become, as if history is re-writing them altogether. And as my past softens, inherently my future feels more exciting and less terrifying. 

We miss so much because we're not paying attention. Let's pay better attention. Let's be curious, not analytical. Let's be participants of life, but also casual observers. Let's go through the motions but maybe once in awhile with our non-dominant hand. Let's be kind to ourselves because we're all just doing the best we can.