‘Maisel on the family’ is a weekly column written by Eric Maisel in which he shares his insights about family life. This is part 8, being present in your family.
You find yourself in a difficult family situation. In order to effectively deal with it, you need to “be here now”: you need to be present so that you can muster your strength, your courage, your clarity, and your smarts. If you’re only half-here, you’re unlikely to find the motivation, the serenity or the inner resources to cope. What makes a difficult family situation all the more difficult is how hard it is to actually be present. Most people are not here now: they are elsewhere, pestered by the past and defensively distracted by the busy work and the busy thoughts that they themselves create.
If you have two hours at your disposal and it is important to you that you have a certain difficult conversation with your teenage son, then it is not also reasonable to do some other “reasonable” thing during that period of time, something like weeding your garden, planning your menus for the week, catching up on the world news or making sure that the storm windows are in good working order. You could make a case for the reasonableness of any of those activities—but not in this context. In this context, they are ways to avoid having that difficult conversation with your son and ways to be absent.
Nor is it useful during that time period to think about weeding your garden, planning your menus for the week, catching up on the world news, or examining your storm windows, not if what you ought to be thinking about is what to say to your son. In this set of circumstances those thoughts are deflections and distractions. They are thoughts that only help you avoid the hard work of dealing with your teenage son. If, on the other hand, you managed to be present, you might instead rehearse what you wanted to say to your son and rehearse your responses to his denials and justifications; you might research some information on the Internet relevant to your son’s situation; you might practice an anxiety management technique in anticipation of your upcoming stressful conversation; or you might quiet yourself, center yourself, and march right off to find your son and talk to him. It is fine to weed the garden or to think about weeding the garden—but not if you ought to be dealing with your son’s problem right now.
On top of our defensiveness and our desire to distract ourselves from the important business at hand, a second challenge harms our ability to be present. That is the way the past intrudes upon the present. We know that it would serve us to think clearly about what might best help our son and what precisely we want to say to him; we try to do exactly that; and instead of being able to focus on those important tasks we find ourselves flooded with anguish about the past, filled with regrets about how we let our son down over the years, or saddened by our past wrong turns and mistakes. Those unwanted, intrusive thoughts prevent us from really being here now. Suddenly we are remembering—and stewing about—something we did or failed to do twenty years ago; and we are left with no mind space to deal with our son’s current pressing situation.
These two challenges, dealing with our defensive distractibility and dealing with the past unceremoniously returning, amount to lifelong challenges. How can we deal with them? We can make an effort to deal with them by holding the intention to “be here now,” by maintaining awareness about our very human penchant to fool ourselves, trick ourselves, and distract ourselves, by practicing calmness and thus reducing the anxiety that causes us to want to distract ourselves and flee, by engaging in a regular practice (like a meditation practice) whose objective is to teach us how to “be here now,” and by enacting ceremonies that help keep us present. We may never get perfect about being present—but we can make many improvements and giant progress.
With respect to your defensive distractibility, you might try the following. Think about something that you find difficult to think about—in the example I’ve been using, that difficult conversation you know that you need to have with your son. As you try to engage with that difficult subject matter, notice where your thoughts want to go. Do they go to the past and regrets? Do they go to some task that suddenly seems very important to consider, like weeding your garden? Wherever they go, calmly but firmly say, “I need to come back to what’s really important.” Maybe that phrase won’t work so well for you: if it doesn’t, then pick a phrase that does. Practice this exercise and see if you can gain some mastery over your wandering thoughts.
What if the past keeps returning? Say, for example, that certain regrets keep coming back to haunt you. Maybe you regret the wrong paths you took, the time you wasted, the opportunities you missed, the ways in which you failed yourself or failed others—and those regrets keep coming back with a vengeance. What might you try? The following is a powerful ceremony that I often present at my writing workshops to help writers heal their regrets. You might give it a try.
In addition to the regrets that we all harbor, writers harbor many additional ones: for example, that they haven’t produced writing of a consistently high quality, that they haven’t written as often or as much as they should have, or that they haven’t had the publishing successes they dreamed of having. I have them choose one of those poignant regrets, write it down on a sheet of paper, fold up the paper, tear the paper to shreds, and toss the shreds in the air while saying or thinking, “I am through with that regret!” This is a very useful ceremony that you can repeat as needed!
It is hard to be present and it is doubly hard to be present in the face of difficulty. We are as much designed to flee as to stay put. Nor is focusing single-mindedly on something—focusing on the potato we are peeling as we peel it—being present in the sense we are discussing. Rather, you need to be present to what you need to do, not just present to the activity in which you are engaged. If what you really need to do right now is have a certain difficult conversation with your son, being present to that reality means being present to it and not to the potato you are peeling, the regrets you are feelings, or your garden that needs weeding. By being present I mean something that sets the bar very high: being present to that which really requires your attention.