Rick Hanson, PhD, examines how we can spend too much time trying to get “somewhere,” the impact on the brain and offers tools to be more present.
We spend so much of our time trying to get somewhere. Part of this comes from our biological nature. To survive, animals – including us – have to be goal-directed, leaning into the future. It’s certainly healthy to pursue wholesome aims, like paying the rent on time, raising children well, healing old pain, or improving education. But it’s also important to see how this focus on the future – on endless striving, on getting the next task done, on climbing the next mountain – can get confused and stressful.
It’s confused because the brain:
• Overestimates both the pleasure of future gains and the pain of future losses. (This evolved to motivate our ancient ancestors to chase carrots hard and really dodge sticks.)
• Makes the future seem like a real thing when in fact it doesn’t actually exist and never will. There is only now, forever and always.
• Overlooks or minimizes the alrightness of this moment – including the many things already resolved or accomplished – in order to keep you looking for the next threat or opportunity.
Further, this pursuit of the next thing is confused because the mind tends to transfer unfulfilled needs from childhood into the present, such as to be safe, worthy, attractive, successful, or loved. These longings often take on a life of their own – even after the original issues have been largely or even wholly resolved. Then we’re like the proverbial donkey trying to get a carrot held out in front of it on a pole: no matter how long we chase it, it’s always still ahead, never attained. For example, for years I pursued achievement due to underlying feelings of inadequacy; how many accomplishments does a person need to feel like a worthwhile person?
Besides being confused and confusing, striving is stressful. You’ve got to fire up, activating the fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system and its related stress hormones. There’s a sense of pressure, of worry about a future that’s inherently uncertain, of entrapment on a neverending treadmill. There’s a lack of soothing and balance that would come from recognizing the truth of things:
You’ve actually already arrived.
Recognize the simple fact that you got here, in this place, and now, in this moment. It may not be perfect. But think of the many things you have certainly done to come here. At a minimum, you survived high school! You’ve taken many steps, solved many problems, put many tasks and challenges behind you.
The word, “arrive,” comes from roots that mean “to reach the shore.” Once you land, of course, life is not over, since the next moment will be a new arrival. But sinking into the sense of having arrived, of having crossed the finish line of this moment, is calming, happy, and deserved. And knowing you’ve arrived, you now are more able to turn your attention toward being of true service to others.
To deepen the sense of arrival, help yourself relax into this moment. From time to time, you could softly say in your mind: arriving . . . arrived . . . arriving . . .
Draw on your body to strengthen this experience. Let each breath land in your awareness: arriving . . . arrived . . . arriving . . . Be aware of the bite landing in the mouth, the meal consumed, the body fed. As you walk, notice that, with each step, you have reached another place. Know that your hand has reached a cup, that the eye has received a sunset, that the smile of a friend has landed in your heart.
Consider old longings, old drives, that truly may be fulfilled, at least to a reasonable extent. (And if not fulfilled, maybe it’s time to let something go and move on.) Can you lighten up about these? Or can you accept that you have arrived at a place this moment that contains unfulfilled goals and unmet needs? It’s still an arrival. Plus it’s a “shore” that probably has many good things about it no matter what’s still undone.
In the deepest sense, reflect on the fact that each moment arrives complete in itself. Each wave lands on the shore of Now – complete in its own right.
Arriving . . . arrived . . . arriving . . . Arrived.