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Worry is insidious. It can masquerade as prayer, day dreams or even a virtue like planning ahead, but it is none of these things. At its most fundamental level, worry is a distraction. When we worry, we are focused on the future rather than the present. Worse, when we allow ourselves to worry, whatever is worrying us feels harder to manage. A lot harder to manage.
Rather than facing the next step in our challenge, worry leaves us frozen, staring up in horror at the bottom of a towering, seemingly insurmountable staircase. With that many steps to take who could blame us for feeling petrified? With that far to go, who could fault us for feeling small and helpless?
But the thing about worry is that it’s self-induced. It’s a choice that we make. The good news is that not worrying is also a choice. The “other news” is that not worrying can actually be the more challenging of the two choices. There seems to be something hard-wired in us to look ahead, plan ahead and worry ahead. Not worrying keeps us firmly focused on “now.” When we manage to pull this off, when we manage to stay in the moment, not worrying centers us, calms us and actually empowers us. In short, it is well worth the hard work and extra effort that it can take not to worry.
Those of us who are familiar with yoga or meditation or mindfulness (or just read about these practices which are earning so many headlines lately), know that staying in the moment takes practice. In fact, the word practice is critically important here. Each time our mind wanders off into the future – on a yoga mat, this is often to a posture yet to come or to the To Do List that awaits you after class – we have the opportunity to draw it back to the current moment. Each time we do so, we find that the current moment is plenty full of work to do, sensations to have and experiences to sink into. In short, whenever we refocus on the current moment we find that we would have hated to have missed out on it because we allowed ourselves to be distracted by the future.
Better yet, we find that the current moment is way easier to navigate than any future moment or moments that we can imagine. Whether you’re working a problem, planning your reaction to a possible event, or are steeling yourself against a worst case scenario, worry inevitably makes your situation seem a thousand times worse than it is. By comparison, what is happening right now seems smaller and infinitely more manageable. On a yoga mat, for instance, whereas imagining the next hour of postures that looms ahead of you can leave you feeling daunted, it is always manageable to take just one more breath in the challenging posture you’re currently in.
Best yet, choosing to stay in the present, in other words, choosing not to worry, makes things brighter. Worry casts a dark pall over everything. The gigantic, worst-case problems that worry fabricates tower so high over what actually is that it’s hard to see through the shadows. When we manage to hold our awareness in the present, all that is going well slips into the light of your awareness. These could be teeny-tiny things, but they’re still worth noticing and celebrating because, no matter how small, they’re able to fill you with a sense of possibility and hope.
This is where that feeling empowerment comes in. When we stay in the moment, when we force ourselves to focus on the possibility, when we think only of the step we need to take right now, we feel strong enough, we feel brave enough, we feel capable enough to handle whatever is challenging us. Not only are we able to take the next step, but feeling strong and brave and hopeful enough to do so zaps our worry into proportion. At least for the moment.
Remember that I said the operative word to staying in the moment is practice. Depending on the scope of your challenge or how near to your heart your worry lies, you may have to drag your awareness away from the looming tower of your worry many times a day, or an hour or even a minute. This can feel like hard, physical labor. It really can be exhausting. In fact, despite over a decade of practicing mindfulness and awareness on my yoga mat, I’m still floored at how astoundingly hard it is to do off my mat and in my life. But still, I take a deep breath and do it. Over and over.
And in the moment, which is really all that counts, it works. My perspective shifts. My mood brightens. My state of mind stabilizes. The towering staircase of my worry shrinks down to a single step, which I take. And because I do, I know that, like the next breath in a difficult yoga posture, I’ll be able to take just one more step when the time comes.