March 15, 2018
By Maryann Joseph, PhD, Psychologist
Do you remember the DeLorean travelling through time in the Back To The Future movies? This post is going to be just like that…only different. In my last post, I wrote a bit about how my experience as a mom to newborn twins was, um, how shall I put this, an effective new form of psychological torture not quite how I had pictured it was going to be. My mind slipped into functional zombie mode and I felt like I was flipping past chapters of my own life. Time rushed by but I was tangled up too far away to notice all the casual magic unfolding around me. I needed to find my way back to the present. Back to the NOW.
Contact with the present moment is a core aspect of mindfulness and a key skill we practice in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). It’s about being fully here now, even for a moment. It’s being consciously and flexibly aware of our inner and outer world, as opposed to the very common state of being tuned-out of our experience or caught inside certain thoughts and feelings. You can check out my last post about contacting the present moment to see if you might benefit from this skill. It also covers three basic steps to get you started, plus a brief practical exercise that you can do anywhere, anytime to reconnect with the moment using your physical senses. That exercise is essentially a “bottom-up” approach; we start with all the little sensory building blocks of experience to build up to a more richly detailed picture of here-now. Presently, I’d like to share a complementary “top-down” approach; we start with whatever is precious to you in the big picture of your life to come into closer contact with little elements of the current moment that may otherwise be flying under the radar.
To practice this “top-down” way of contacting the present moment, we can start by packing for a little time-travelling exercise. We can travel light. Start with your intention to make better contact with the present moment and just add the following 3 concepts to your inner carry-on bag:
Think of hedonia and eudaimonia as two separate but interconnected paths to well-being. A hedonic orientation involves seeking happiness, positive feelings, life satisfaction, and reduced negative feelings. On the other hand, a eudaimonic orientation includes seeking meaning, authenticity, excellence, and personal growth (Huta & Waterman, 2013). Basically, there are many difficult moments in which you might not feel happy, but in which you might find some sense of personal meaning (Frankl, 1963). In ACT we explore this by not getting too hung up on a perpetual search for pleasant feelings (nor a constant mission to avoid unpleasant feelings), asking instead, “Who and what is important to you?”
“Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it.” –Eckhart Tolle For me, this quote captures something essential to mindfulness and the capacity to be present in the here and now. In ACT, acceptance is the idea that instead of playing tug-of-war with challenging elements of your experience, you can choose to “drop the struggle”. The key idea here is to accept and then act so that you work with the moment and not against it.
One way to shift perspectives on a situation is to wonder what it looks like from a different point of view, taking on the vantage point of a different person, a different place, or a different time. ACT encourages us to shift perspectives as a means of increasing psychological flexibility (i.e., having awareness and responses that are more adapted to a given situation and more in line with your values). Compassion-focused therapy (CFT; Gilbert, 2010) encourages shifts in perspective as a means of increasing self-compassion (relating to yourself with kindness and non-judgment). That’s why this next video blows my mind. It’s an incredibly poignant perspective shift: “We take it for granted that life moves forward. But you move as a rower moves, facing backwards—you can see where you’ve been, but not where you’re going. And your boat is steered by a younger version of you. It’s hard not to wonder what life would be like facing the other way…” – John Koenig, Avenoir, Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows Koenig’s brilliant video points out that we naturally look at where we are in relation to where we have previously been. He offers a seismic shift in perspective by wondering what the present moment would look like to your older future self, with all of your additional life experience already within you. Well. The DeLorean is fully charged now and you have all you need to hit 88 miles an hour. So let’s put it together and experiment, shall we? Drawn from ACT and CFT, may I present:
Imagine that one day, far far ahead in the future, there is a much older, much wiser, more compassionate Future You. Future You has lived your whole life and knows every page, every chapter, start to finish. Intriguingly, Future You can time travel (!) and specifically chooses to come back to this very moment, right here, right now. What challenging elements of your current experience can Future You see with wise, compassionate understanding? (e.g., difficult thoughts/feelings/sensations?) What important sensory elements of the present moment does Future You want to experience one last time? (e.g., what is meaningful or precious to you in this moment and how do you experience that with your senses?) What does Future You want to do right here, right now? (e.g.,Is there something Future You wanted to tell you? Perhaps there is something Future You wanted to do again? Perhaps there is something Future You needed to go back and do differently?) I challenge you to give it a whirl yourself right now or anytime you want to practice contacting the present moment, especially in a moment that is a bit challenging for you on some level. Notice what might shift in terms of your sensory, mental, and emotional focus of attention.* I was trying not to let this post get too long, so consider that the end of the official post! You’ve got the goods now. But of course you’re welcome to read on if you’d like an example of how it all played out in my case:
It’s the middle of the night and I feel like I’ve been awake for eons. I’m standing in a dark room just big enough for two cribs, trying to block out the grating sonic loop of two babies bawling in tandem. The twins are a few months old and it’s a particularly difficult night. It goes like this: I pick up baby 1, eventually soothe her, put her down, pick up baby 2, eventually soothe her, put her down; meanwhile baby 1 is crying again, and rinse, repeat, on and on. I feel hopelessly inadequate to mother these two at the same time and I just want all the crying to stop. Sensory focus of attention:
Mental/emotional focus of attention:
Then I imagined Future Me choosing (whaaaat?!) to come back to this very moment and everything started to shift. Wise Old Future Me saw my exhaustion and feelings of inadequacy with compassionate, understanding eyes. Then she just went straight to drinking in what she knew to be the ephemeral beauty of the situation: me standing upright in my relatively young, strong body, holding the girls in their temporarily tiny form. Sensory focus of attention via Future Me:
Mental/emotional focus of attention via Future Me:
Soaking up all the parts of the present experience from Future Me’s point of view, my harsh judgments dropped away. Instead of wasting my time struggling against feelings of inadequacy or trying to block out the crying, I instinctively shimmied a little closer to what is truly precious to me. It was the difference between pulling away from the discomfort of a challenging moment and the willingness to lean in and experience it. From the outside not much looked different. The epic crying relay continued on. But on the inside, if only for a limited time, it made all the difference in the world. It was a radical gear-shift out of zombie auto-pilot and back into my own experience. Back to The Present! (*Figurative DeLorean and flux capacitor included. Some psychological flexibility may ensue. See your own experience for details.)
Forsyth, J. P. & Eifert, G. H. (2007). The mindfulness and acceptance workbook for anxiety: A guide to breaking free from anxiety, phobias, and worry using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications. [This is a great ACT self-help workbook and there are others in the series, e.g., for depression.]
Frankl, V. E. (1963). Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. New York: Washington Square Press. [A poignant classic, as relevant today as ever.]
Gilbert, P. (2010). Compassion Focused Therapy: Distinctive features. New York: Routledge. [A richly theoretical clinician’s guide to CFT.]
Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple: An easy to read primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications. [This is an excellent, accessible resource for any clinician.]
Huta, V. (2015) The complementary roles of eudaimonia and hedonia and how they can be pursued in practice, in Positive psychology in practice: Promoting human flourishing in work, health, education, and everyday life, Second Edition (ed S. Joseph), Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. doi: 10.1002/9781118996874.ch10. [Conceptual, research-based aspects of well-being.]
Polk, K. L., Schoendorff, B., Webster, M., & Olaz, F. O. (2016). The essential guide to the ACT matrix: A step-by-step approach to using the ACT matrix model in clinical practice. Oakland, CA: Context Press. [Clear, concise, and wonderfully practical ACT resource for clinicians.]