There are always lessons we can learn from our mistakes and in the months since my horseback riding accident there is one lesson that stands out – and it has nothing to do with riding horses. My biggest mistake was thinking I have time.
Time to pay attention to the important things. Like spending time with family, doing the things I love, and exploring new interests. Time for laughing together, baking and sitting by the fire while reading a good book. You know, the kind of stuff we usually set aside to do work or, dare I admit it, clean the house.
I thought all of those things would happen anytime I wanted them to. Don’t we all do this? How easy it is to block out a few days in the calendar to spend time together, never realizing that the best time to spend together is NOW. TODAY.
The Most Important Lesson I Learned: All We Have is Now
I try not to beat myself up too much for the way I prioritized my time before my accident. I’m a full-time working mama and as we all know, that are so many things to juggle. I was aware that I was working too much, but I didn’t know any other way to live. Things needed to get done, so I got them done. So instead of working less, I put 2 weeks at the end of vacation on the calendar, and scheduled all the things I wanted to do with my son in there. We created a bucket list: go hiking, visit museums, paint. All the things we love.
But here’s the thing. Those 2 weeks? They were not guaranteed. Neither is tomorrow. Or today. I “knew” this before just like I “know” Mars is a planet. But I didn’t know it, deep down in my gut, and I certainly wasn’t living it. This was a lesson I took to heart when I woke up in the field that August afternoon after my horse ran off. A lesson that dug even deeper when the ER doctor told me I was lucky to be alive.
As it turns out I almost ran out of time. For good. No more do overs, just the end.
I remember thinking to myself as I was put into the CAT scan machine: I’m not going to let this happen again.
And with varying degrees of success, I’ve been moving towards a new way of living. One that makes me feel less scattered, more present, and that leaves me with the comforting knowledge that, if I do die today, at least I’ll die knowing I was actually living – not just going through the motions.
4 Things I’m Doing to Be More Fully Present
Striving to be more fully present can mean many things. To me, it means not checking my phone when I’m watching a movie with my family. It means, not worrying about how messy the house is when my son wants to play LEGOS with me. And it means not sweating the inconsequential things that really don’t matter (this is the hardest one for me). It means being all in on whatever I’m doing, and arranging my time so that moments that matter most are at the top of my list. It’s an evolving practice, but I’m happy with the progress I’ve made so far by doing the following:
1. Removed Email & Facebook From My Phone
I never realized how much my phone interfered with my life, even when I wasn’t looking at it. It could be sitting on a table in another room, but there in the back of my mind was a little tug, tug, tug that made me wonder: “Are there new emails? Has anyone messaged me?” It was a constant background static that I didn’t feel there until it was gone and I experienced the freedom of its absence. By removing email and social media from my phone I freed myself from the invisible tether that kept my mind hooked to my device. This change also represents a conscious choice not to jump on that most recent email or message. If it is urgent, people have my number. Otherwise, whatever it is can wait.
2. Only Work During My Work Hours & Block Out Time to Do “Nothing”
When you work from home like I do, you’re always “at the office.” It’s easy – too easy – to check on my work email even after I’m supposed to be done for the day, or finish just one more website update for a client. Soon these little things turn into an entire afternoon I could have spent with my son after school.
Now, my “work time” has a defined start & end point. Any time between work and when I have to start cooking dinner is purposely scheduled to do “nothing.” Nothing as in, nothing responsible, nothing “productive,” nothing that could be categorized as adulting. This leaves me free to be fully present when my son is home after school and be 100% there for whatever we decide to do together. Somehow literally putting “nothing” in my calendar make that time each day more official and easier to stick with.
3. I’m Striving to Be More Like a Duck, With the Mind of a Duck
If you haven’t read Eckhart Tolle’s book, The Power of Now, this one is going to sound crazy – buts it’s deep. Here is the story, both in text and video form:
When two ducks get into a fight, it never lasts long – they soon separate and fly off in opposite directions. Each duck then flap its wings vigorously several times. This releases the surplus energy that built up in him during the fight. After they flap their wings, they fly on peacefully as if nothing had ever happened.
Now, if the duck had a human mind, this scene would go very differently. The duck may fly away peacefully, for a moment, but he would not put the fight behind him. He would keep the fight alive in his mind, by thinking and story-making.
The duck’s story would probably go something like this: “I can’t believe what he just did. He came within five inches of me. He has no consideration for my private space. He thinks he owns this pond. I’ll never trust him again. I know he’s already plotting something else to annoy me with. But I’m not going to stand for it. I’m going to teach him a lesson he will never forget.”
And in this way the duck’s mind spins its tale, still thinking and talking about it, days, months, or even years later. He may never see his adversary again, but that doesn’t matter. The single incident has left its impression and now has a life of its own deep within the duck’s mind.
So what am I trying to do? Be a duck with the mind of a duck. Fully in the moment, without mental chatter distracting me from the now, and without carrying around mental baggage. This has been a challenging undertaking. Just as it has been difficult for me to leave work in its own time, I also struggle with rumination – over what a client said, over the messy kitchen counter, over a mistake I might have made, over an email unanswered, or a traumatic experience (aka being on a runaway horse). It’s easy to put the past on an instant replay loop, but it also cripples us.
By striving to be like a duck with the mind of a duck, I’m practicing continuously bringing my mind back to the now. When I see my mind starting to rile itself up, I ruffle my proverbial feathers, consciously let the negative energy go and bring myself back to what is happening in this moment. It is a continual practice that happens countless times a day. And of course, some days are better than others.
4. Spend More Time in the Saddle
As much as I want to be fully present for my family, I’ve also realized how important it is to feed my soul with what brings me joy. Right now I’m struggling with fear and anxiety around being in the saddle. In fact, I almost had a panic attack the first time I got back on a horse a few weeks ago. (A different horse.) But when I’m able to let go of all my anxiety – all my worries about what happened and what could happen – the saddle is a place of pure freedom and happiness. I treasure those moments when the only thing “happening” is me being in the saddle. I’m not thinking about work, family, chores, ANYTHING but the movement of the horse under me, my breath and my body. It is utter bliss and I know that with enough time both my body and my mind will be stronger than ever.
Being Present is a Practice
I share all these thoughts not because I have it all figured out (I don’t), but because my accident changed me and I’m still processing. Still trying to figure out this new me. Somehow it feels better to process in writing and to share whatever I find along the way. I’m going to continue practicing presence and see what happens.