Over one-third of the way through the LIFE XT program, I failed.
I had started the program with high hopes after reviewing the book it’s based on, and agreeing to dive in and record my progress on the suggestion of one of the readers of this blog. I started with meditation in week one, added exercise in week two, questioned stressful thoughts in week three, and embarked on week four with these instructions:
Add Presence: Use showering as the cue to Notice-Shift-Rewire to Presence.
To build a new habit, the authors suggest anchoring it to a cue. In a perfect world, you Notice the cue, Shift your awareness to the new habit, and Rewire your brain by allowing the experience to sink in. Do this 21 times, or whatever magic number it takes, and you’ve developed a new habit.
The only problem: I couldn’t remember the cue.
Every night as I showered, I sang with gusto. Or worked through plot flaws. Or edited blog posts in my head. The only thing I noticed was that it was bloody cold with the overhead fan on, and the water was too hot.
I was not present.
I was failing week four.
Friday rolled around, and I took my lunch outside to a picnic table on a rare sunny afternoon. My mind journeyed back to a time before funeral parlors, when the body of a loved-one was embalmed in the kitchen, which is why kitchens in the early 1900s had a big drain in the floor. Not an appetizing thought, but I was sitting across from the history house at the museum which triggered the image, and my thinking would have continued in that vein if I hadn’t dropped a chunk of barbecued tempeh on the table, right in the path of an ant.
The tempeh, from an ant’s perspective, was the dimension of a two-story building. The ant seemed confused at first, then interested, then excited in the way ants get when they’ve found the Mother Lode of sustenance, and after navigating around the base of the object, the little guy climbed up and over and down and around and hurried off to summon the troops.
I picked up the tempeh to toss in the garbage, thinking how disappointed the troops would be when they arrived to find nothing but the lingering scent of barbecue and fermented tofu. Would they send stressful ant-thoughts to the scout, labeling him stupid-stupid? No. Ants don’t have the capacity to judge. Their brains are ant-sized. They would inspect the area throughly and then march onward, looking for food elsewhere.
Watching that ant brought me back to the present moment. It’s probably why children spend hours hunkered down over an anthill. You can’t get more present than watching ants. Or being a three-year-old. I finished the rest of my lunch, feeling the warmth of the sun, appreciating the birdsong, admiring the dusty blue cowboy sky. Time expanded. My body relaxed.
This is what it meant to take my meditation off the mat.
I wondered: if being present felt so expansive, why did I spend so much time opting out instead of in?
Three reasons came to mind.
One: I was preparing for the future with what-ifs. As long as I explored every possibility, like the ant examining the cube of tempeh, I’d survive whatever came next. It was a form of magical thinking, believing I could prevent bad things from happening just by dwelling on them. That was the kind of trouble my human-sized brain got me into.
Two: I was attempting to reclaim my past self with coulda-beens. I visualized where I’d be now if I’d acted differently then, even though what I knew then was a fraction of what I know now so my choices, good or bad, were based on limited experience and could not have been otherwise.
Three: I was avoiding whatever might be lacking in my own life by focusing on things outside myself. Like whether The Bachelor would lose his virginity. And did anybody really care? Wasn’t Bachelor Nation tuning in to see if he’d crash and burn, along with the snippy women who fawned over him, so our own lives would look pretty close to perfect?
I pondered that possibility—and the awful realization that I had referred to myself and Bachelor Nation in the same sentence—while showering. And then I remembered: oh yeah, this is my cue to Notice, Shift and Rewire to Presence.
Which I did.