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Creating Calm & Practicing Presence - Part II

In PART I, we identified the power of practicing "presence" to fully experience the joy that can be found in the little things around us.  We also identified the habit of focusing on the past or the future, that often gets in the way of truly experiencing the present.  I mentioned a technique that we used in wilderness therapy to focus on the present, but said that we needed to deal with getting the past and future out of the way first.

In this post I will address: Dealing with the Past

I don't want you to forget the past, reminiscing is a wonderful thing.  We should be able to reminisce without dwelling.  I suspect that you intuitively know what I mean.  There are the times you think back on the past and smile, but there are other times when you re-live a scenario in your head over and over.  You often think about what you should have done, or what you could have done.  We used to tell our older youth "Don't should all over yourself".  It is the dwelling that we need to get over, if we want to be fully in the present.  The way to stop this may sound counter-intuitive...

I want you to stop dwelling on the past by dwelling on the past on purpose.

I sounds crazy, but hear me out.  If I tell you to: think about anything, but whatever you do, don't think about a pink elephant. What are you going to have trouble getting out of your head?  That @$$ of a pink elephant will stare you down until you admit defeat.  Our past is like that pink elephant.  We know that we feel bad when we dwell on the past, so we try to stop those thoughts, and by trying to stop them we give them a loudspeaker.

One of the ways that people used to do this was through meditation.  They would sit quietly until the thoughts had all come and gone.  When they were left with no thoughts they had completed their processing and they called this Nirvana.  As Christians, we have a tradition of prayer without ceasing to release those thoughts, laying every concern at the feet of Christ until it is only our spirit that still groans, and we are at peace.  These techniques would still be my first suggestion, but I recognize that these are much harder in today's world.  We have so many things pulling for our attention, and so many alarms, bells, and phones that go off and interrupt the process.  So, I will offer something a little less effective, but more practical.

You need to create a place for processing the past.  When you have a set time, place, and format for processing, then your brain can relax knowing that it will have a time to process.  It may still wonder away from the present, but it is much more effective to remind yourself that you will honor that thought at another time than it is to try to shut it off.  This will take some time to be effective, your brain will need to learn to trust that you will allow it to come back to the thought.  I suggest adopting at least one of these three routines, and sticking to it everyday.

1.) Dinner Conversation:  Turn the TV off and interview each other over dinner.  Each person should aim to find out three levels of information.  What were the events that happened during the day? What emotions went with those events?  What were, or are, the person's hopes in relation to those events/emotions?  This exercise is helpful for lots of reasons.  You will get to know each other better and your family will be much closer.  You will gain a higher level of empathy for each other and you will find yourself routing for each other's success.  It also helps some people to process out loud.  Some people cannot think it if they cannot say it.  If you go into the conversation with the goal of learning these three things, you will not run out of things to talk about.  Post your version of these questions where your kids can see them, and make a game out of them through quizzes.  Have your kids play the role of an investigative reporter, let them dress up with a trench coat, hat, and pad of paper.  Let them pick the next meal if they asked the best questions...whatever you need to do.  Quizzes like this actually turn into reflective listening practice, I will do a post on the power of reflective listening soon, but it is a technique we all need to practice more.  Finally it teaches everyone in the family some conversation skills, a much needed skill in today's world.

2.) End of the Day Processing: At the end of the day spend a little time as a family talking about the highs and lows of the day, as well as your hopes for tomorrow.  Each family needs to approach this a little differently.  The intention of creating the space is more important than the outcome of style.  With my daughter, we used to always do this at bedtime.  When she was young I would tuck her in, read to her, ask some prompting questions, and then we would pray together.  As she got older I stopped tucking her in, but I kept a time right before bed that was just for her and I.  When I had several foster children we had to be careful how much time we took up with this because they all had a lot that needed processing, so we did a "Rose, Bud, & Thorn" for each of them.  A rose was something they loved about the day, a thorn was something that bothered them, and the bud was their hope for the next day.  This helped us to keep it quick, but still created space for them to process.  With groups in the woods we had elaborate conversations around the fire each night.  In one of the group homes I stayed at, we had a prayer time in the living room and the children could either go to bed, or stay up late and pray with me.  That prayer time was often full of processing.  Figure out what works for you, just be sure to create the space for processing and stick to a daily routine.

3.) Daily Grateful's:  This is simply a time of the day where each person in the family lists of what they are grateful for that day.  They don't get to pass, and we don't move on until they find one.  This can be really hard for some children, and adults.  It can be particularly hard on bad days, but it teaches their brains to scan for good things.  If they know that every night they are going to have to come up with something, and they usually have trouble, they will start watching throughout the day so that they have something to say.  They hate awkward silences as much as we do.  Our brains are usually looking for the bad, and because of confirmation bias, we usually find what we are looking for.  This routine will help train our brain to utilize confirmation bias to help us instead of hurt us.  I think this is most effective before eating dinner.  This one does not help process the bad parts of the day, so it should be used in tandem with one of the other two suggestions.

These three routines may help you to stop thinking about the past...but what about the future?  We can't be fully present if we are always thinking about tomorrow.  I will cover that in the post scheduled for next week.  Then in the final post for this series I will tell you how to practice being fully present.

Coming up:

Part III - Settling on a plan to avoid living in the dream world of a Future that won't come

Part IV - Practices that foster Presence


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