Here’s a question for you: how does one stay driven to keep moving forward to reach and achieve new things while at the same time remaining very present and grateful in the current moment? How can you work toward something new without being distracted from being where you already are?
Put another way: The past is gone, and the future doesn’t exist yet. Or does it? What about all those moments in our past that we dreamed of being in our future, many of which we’ve long since accomplished. Doesn’t that mean the future is now? And if so, why are we leaning so far ahead of ourselves? How do we work on getting “back to the present?”
It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? I grappled with it for a long time. But I think I’m finally getting it. If I could use learning to ride a bike as an analogy for this lesson, I’d say that I took the training wheels off a year or so ago, but kept falling over in my next attempts up until very recently. But I’ve got a good run going now. Am I on to it? Let’s see what you think.
The Magic Bus Runs Out Of Gas …
In March of this year, I was pretty exasperated with myself. There had been all sorts of things going on in my life, most of them really enjoyable. I felt I had no reason to feel rundown. Among the things I had enjoyed:
- A concert by The Trews at London Music Hall with an old pal
- A concert by Marianas Trench and Walk Off the Earth, with my two sons
- I had hosted a number of private events (mostly hockey games) for my clients at work
- I had started (or at least was well into developing) my podcast
- I was creating more blogs and working at some of my songs while also planning other things to do.
- I was just about to serve as Master of Ceremonies for Rock for Dimes (an annual fundraiser for the March of Dimes in Canada), for which I also played a set of original music and prepared for a cameo rock and roll appearance with my buddies in the band 7T8.
- Just over a month prior, I had enjoyed the great fortune to go on a trip to Cabo San Lucas Mexico with my sweetheart, Caroline.
- I was exercising regularly and really thought I was doing just about everything right
This all sounds good, right? I had no reason for complaints. And yet, I still ended up with cold and flu like symptoms, extremely fatigued and down.
In other words, I’d taken a good run without training wheels but still tipped the bike and scraped myself up in the fall.
The day of the Rock for Dimes event, I knew I was gassed. I went home from work and lay in bed for about 45 minutes, not sure how I was ever going to muster the energy to be an enthusiastic host for the night, let alone sing my own songs or rock the stage with my pals from the 7T8. But as does tend to happen, I mustered the energy to get going, knowing that as soon as I arrived, adrenaline would kick in and I would get through the night and enjoy myself. But I also knew there would be a price to pay. I was correct in both cases.
Over To You, Universe
The next day, Good Friday, I was granted the gift of a day where I knew that all businesses were dark and all shopping and retail stores were closed down. That took away the urge to get out and about. And my two best pals, my sons Eddie and Jaden, who come before all else, were with their mother that weekend. So I decided to embrace the quiet and take the next several days to shut everything down except my very essential tasks: enjoying my time with my kids, taking care of my basic household chores, and going to work each day to put in an honest effort. Everything else, such as writing, hosting events, podcasts or anything of that type was off limits for the next week. I put myself on an activity embargo. Forced reflection. I wanted to see if I could find out why I’d get some momentum and then keep falling over, and discover how I could break that cycle.
It’s true that I had introduced some new things into my life and routine, such as the podcast, but I really didn’t feel that it was anything I couldn’t handle. I’m not much for sitting and watching TV or just idly letting time slip by. I like doing things. I like creating and being around other creative people.
Over the following days, I reflected on what I was doing, where I was trying to get to and where I had come from. I wanted to be very honest with myself about the experience that I’ve been having and what traps I continued to allow myself to fall into. I had myself to the point where I was really enjoying doing a lot of the extra things, but found that when my schedule was constantly filled up I would have a creeping sense of claustrophobia, like there was no room to breathe. I didn’t like the feeling and I particularly didn’t like that I was somehow manifesting a mild illness which would then slow my progress at the gym, which would in turn disrupt my momentum of just about everything else. I wanted to know how it would feel to have a good long run of productivity but also feeling well at the same time. I wondered, was this possible?
Triggering the “Upper Limit Problem” & Staying in Rhythm
I long ago decided I believe in Gay Hendricks’ idea of an upper limit problem (from his book “The Big Leap”): that we tend to manifest each experience that is coming into our life whether we are aware of it or not, often tripping ourselves up when things are going well. I find this concept both confounding and empowering but simply being aware of it allowed me to ask myself, “Am I manifesting an illness or fatigue on a regular basis, and if so, what upper limit problem am I continuing to trigger?”
Here’s what I came up with. While I was enjoying the activities I was involved in, I could see that I was acting on them with an expectation of an outcome that was held somewhere in the distant future. As a result, I kept feeling like whatever I was doing was not enough, and that wherever I was, I should be somewhere else working hard or contributing to the future that I was building. As a result, I was pulling myself ahead of the beat. I was not in rhythm with life.
Because I love music so much, one of the analogies I find myself using quite a lot is the idea of what you might call “staying in the pocket.” Let’s suppose that you’re playing the guitar. You want to learn how to play slow, fast, and medium songs, and always be right in rhythm with the rest of the band. If you lag too far behind, it sounds horrible. But if you race too far ahead, it sounds equally as bad. You need to stay in the pocket. You need to find the groove and stay in rhythm and recognize and embrace that some songs are fast, and some songs are slow. And I could argue that playing with a lot of breath in the slower songs might even be more difficult than playing quickly.
Finding the Sweet Spot: Move Toward the Future by Fueling the Present
It was around that point I realized that creating and acting and being a part of enriching events that contributed toward building a future that was taking shape in my mind was something that I enjoyed but it was still taking me somewhat out of my state of presence. I decided that I needed to re-frame it so that I made it a thought priority to have any effort or activity I was engaged in right now to add to the value and enjoyment of my present experience and to let go of the outcome. That doesn’t mean I’m not interested in building the future of my desire. It means that the action that I’m taking today may have been motivated by the idea of getting somewhere new, but that the act of doing it was something that was contributing to my here and now.
I’m going to say that again in a slightly different way: My curiosity in achieving and becoming something new drives me to learn and do new things. But if the learning and doing pull me ahead of the beat, it’s all wrong. You lose your balance, your bike tips over and your momentum stalls. However, if the learning and doing ignites further engagement and adds to my present moment, that’s where the magic happens.
Discovering Plutonium By Accident: Health Comes First
After that week of reflection, I decided to engage in everything I was doing with a sense of play and gratitude and I accepted that I could only do so much at any one time and that I would have to let go of the rest for that moment. I also made one other very key adjustment at that time: I rearranged the priority of my goals and desired achievements so that the number one thing on any of those lists was always, “I am healthy, happy, calm and content.” I made that my top goal, my absolute priority above all else. By setting it up that way, it enabled me to monitor myself more effectively and to ask in just about every moment, “Is this serving me well or not?”
Making those two subtle shifts was like (as George Costanza says in Seinfeld), “discovering plutonium by accident.”
One might argue that sitting around watching movies or television or some other such thing is more healthy than constant activity. And for them, that may be true. And there are times when I realize it’s best for me to just sit still for a couple of hours and not be thinking or doing. However, I feel most fulfilled when I am doing something that I enjoy. So as it relates to health, I don’t feel good if I’m letting tasks pile up or feel unproductive. I can be very busy yet completely relaxed in my mind when I am fully engaged in whatever I’m doing, whether it’s scrubbing the toilet, cutting the lawn, doing administrative tasks at work, or conducting a podcast interview. But when I’m with my sweetheart, Caroline, or my two boys, all of that other stuff shuts down. That’s my favourite way to rest and recharge: to be with the people I love most, and feel totally present in those moments. Consequently, if I’m with my kids and have a creeping feeling that I should be working at something, I don’t feel good. Because I’m not present. Ahead of the beat again.
Change Comes Around
Once I got that distinction down, here’s what happened:
- Consistent Presence. I begin to feel more locked in with just about every moment, no matter what I was doing. And when I was getting out of the present, I was able to catch it quicker.
- Increased Productivity. I began to get more done than ever before and find new ways of achieving more and doing more in less time. I’ve kept up with the podcast, started this site, created all a handful of new videos (including the one above), created some new song demos and done all kinds of new writing.
- Improved Diet. I started buying higher quality foods, spending a little bit more on good stuff and I found that I actually was spending less overall by planning my days and week a little further in advance and buying higher-quality foods.
- Improved Fitness. I begin to exercise differently and started focusing more on how I felt as opposed to how I looked. Rather than training with resistance buy weights, which I still do from time to time, I put more energy and focus on flexibility and aerobic work. The ironic thing is that by doing that, I ended up both feeling better and looking better. People that I have known for a long time began to comment that they thought I “looked better or just slimmer or more energetic.”
- Better Sleep Quality. I started sleeping better a lot more consistently and actually took more on and have achieved a greater amount in the last five months then I had in the prior couple of years combined.
When I look at that list, I conclude that the future is, indeed, right now. I dreamed of all of that stuff happening at some point. And I only began to achieve it by getting more fully present.
Now I’m by no means declaring that I’m “there.” I don’t think we ever are! But I have been able to identify another step in the process and I think I finally learned another part of a lesson that had been eluding me for a long time. I have enjoyed sustained good health and positive momentum ever since the process I just described. Can I keep it up? Time will tell.
Perhaps I can leave the training wheels in the garage and just keep pedaling for now.
So … what’s next?
- I’d love to hear from you! What do you do to remain present? What is “balance” to you? What goals are you working toward and how do you work them into the rhythm of your life? Leave a comment. I’d love to know.
- Want to know how others are doing it? Listen to the stories of a couple of my previous podcast guests. Two terrific examples are the Speakers. Andy Thibodeau (click here to listen to his story) and Sara Westbrook (click here for hers), for more valuable perspective on this subject and much more.