This morning I woke up with big plans: Go for a long walk, catch up on “The Daily” podcast episodes from The New York Times, fold my sweatshirt pile, call my dad, finish a finance problem set, write an essay, draft this piece. At the crack of dawn (10 a.m.), I stepped into my Ugg slippers, stumbled down two flights of stairs in an oversized grey T-shirt and Monsters Inc. fluffy pants and landed in the kitchen. I was compelled to walk outside and check the weather immediately after being blinded by the sunlight shining through the window. To my surprise, I was greeted with a gentle warm-ish breeze, one that felt unfamiliar after a chilling Ann Arbor winter. I inhaled the welcoming air with a deep breath. And then I did it again. And again.
I closed my eyes. I felt calm. I felt peaceful. The sun melted away my exhaustion.
After what felt like a moment of tranquility, my long list of morning plans suddenly came flooding back into my mind. I pivoted my feet towards the door, but something kept me in place as I tried to reenter the kitchen. I fed the urge to turn back to the sun, close my eyes and begin to breathe slowly again. I couldn’t help but smile. I was resisting the urge to move, to do, to achieve. I was standing alone in a t-shirt on my Joe’s Pizza box-covered back porch, and I felt more alive than I had in weeks.
If 2020 has shown us anything, it is that we never truly know what to expect in life. And while this uncertainty naturally leads to feelings of stress and anxiety, it also gives us space to practice being comfortable with the unknown. This so-called “space” that I am referring to has been a contentious topic throughout the pandemic. For example, the alleged increase in “time” we now have to find new hobbies or to relax has been taken advantage of by educators and CEOS alike, over-assigning and over-expecting from their students and employees. The faux luxury of time that the pandemic has brought on has led to intense burnout and dangerously busy schedules.
But it is possible to take back the time that has been stolen away from us by back-to-back Zoom meetings and the pressure to master crocheting with all the freedom we have. Instead of asking what-ifs, we can focus on what we do know — what is right in front of us. We can strive to be what my therapist calls process-oriented, rather than results-oriented.
I first noticed this distinction as I reflected on my reading habits. I always have a particularly difficult time starting a new book. My selection process is unnecessarily long and usually leads to option paralysis, where there are so many choices that I ultimately end up with nothing. There are simply too many books in the world and so little time. This may explain why walking into Barnes & Noble is simultaneously exciting and sickening. Same with The Salvation Army. I digress.
But if I do decide to embark on an intimate endeavor with literature, my new and carefully selected read often sits on my bedside table, lonely, waiting to be touched. Sometimes I tease the book by picking it up, but this is usually just to show a friend what I am “currently reading.” And all-too-often, I’ll emit the familiar line: “Yeah I’m really only on page four — haha. So I have nothing to report about it yet.”
And I likely won’t for several months. Right now, this book is the New York Times bestseller “Where The Crawdad Sings” by Delia Owens. Its cover art happens to match my cute little purple lamp.
When I am finally compelled to pick the book up, it takes a significant amount of time for me to focus on the first few pages. I often have to read them over twice. Five or six pages in, I flip forward to see when the chapter will end. 10 more pages! I can do this, I think to cheer myself on. I continue reading with the goal of finishing a chapter. I read with a results mindset.
Flash forward a few weeks and I am sitting upright in my bed at 3 a.m., my book propped up against my knees. Now, I turn the pages with less haste and more hesitation. I am attached to the characters and lost in the words on the page. I read with a process mindset.
I try not to read books this way, where I don’t start to enjoy them until they are about to end. Yet unfortunately, this cycle continually repeats itself. It’s a sad truth that applies to more than just books: In life, people tend to not enjoy things until they are over.
The problem is that people are constantly projecting into the future and ruminating in the past. We have all become victims of the attention economy, one where so much available information and stimuli has created a huge attention deficit. Hustle porn, or the fetishization of overworking oneself, is another force driving people away from focusing on the process. And of course, our capitalistic attitudes don’t help us deter our attention away from results. Even mindfulness, the antithesis of capitalism, has been exploited for profit.
In her book “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy,” Jenny Odell discusses how the very essence of what makes us human has become threatened by the urge towards constant productivity.
“What I’m suggesting is that we take a protective stance toward ourselves, each other, and whatever is left of what makes us human,” Odell writes. “I’m suggesting that we protect our spaces and our time for non-instrumental, noncommercial activity and thought, for maintenance, for care, for conviviality. And I’m suggesting that we fiercely protect our human animality against all technologies that actively ignore and disdain the body, the bodies of other beings, and the body of the landscape that we inhabit.”
Odell preaches something that is essential, especially during a pandemic: We must do everything in our power to focus on our humanity and appreciate what comes with it rather than fighting for what we cannot always control. I live for an extra hour of laughter at the dinner table. The sweet sound and serenity of Jimi Hendrix on the highway. The passion with which my sister plays the piano. Spontaneous sing-alongs. The salty taste of tears.
We lose a lot when we are not in the present.
Before her tragic accident in 2012, in her essay “Opposite of Loneliness,” Marina Keegan wrote, “The best years of our lives are not behind us. They’re part of us and they are set for repetition as we grow up and move to New York and away from New York and wish we did or didn’t live in New York … of course there are things we wish we’d done: our readings, that boy across the hall. We’re our own hardest critics and it’s easy to let ourselves down.”
A tweet I recently read said, “I feel like I’m constantly worrying about the next part of my life without realizing that I’m right in the middle of what I used to look forward to.” By obsessing over everything but the reality in front of us, we are depriving ourselves of life. Life should not (only) be a past experience or a future plan — it should be the now.
Take a deep breath right now. Where are you? Who are you with? How do you feel? Why are you reading this?
The practice of being process-oriented rather than results-oriented takes intentionality. Resisting forces such as the attention economy and the pressure to work hard means not only seeing the problem but developing the strength to fight powerful tendencies: Don’t constantly check your phone in the car, gaze out the window; Don’t fill your weeks with too many tasks, welcome what each day brings. To focus on the process means to find success in everything (F you capitalism!) — learning from failure, accepting an unproductive day, appreciating the little things (as demonstrated by Big Mouth’s Gratitoad).
Over time I have discovered habits and hobbies that keep me grounded, thoughtful and intentional. I avoid going on my phone first thing in the morning (I usually do not succeed — shoutout to my Twitter addiction) and instead lie on my floor and meditate.
By no means am I the meditation expert. I’m actually far from it. Instead, I have tried to habituate the practice even if only for two minutes a day, using countless guided meditation apps that never seem to catch on. Recently, however, as I lay on a yoga mat on my bedroom floor in NYC, I had a thought that shifted my meditation practice from being results to process-oriented.
When I (attempt) to meditate, I often find my mind wandering away from what I am supposed to be focusing on, such as my breath. I quickly begin to make schedules, construct grocery lists and psychoanalyze my relationships. This is common for beginners, and many times it’s what disincentivizes people from continuing with mediation. People are often motivated by results, creating a sense of trouble when sticking with the practice because it lacks immediate gratification. Instead, it is gradually effective.
My mind may have wandered away from my yoga mat and to the grocery store, but instead of giving up, I focused on the moment that I returned to my breath. Why, at that particular moment, had I refocused my energy? I still do not have an answer, but I am gradually discovering what leads my mind astray and what recenters it — the smell of grapefruit, an itch on my forehead, footsteps. I have stopped caring about doing it right. I embrace the process.
Mediation does not only take the form of breathwork or sitting still. I meditate on words as I read. I meditate on sounds as I listen to music. I meditate on movement as I practice yoga, focusing on each pose and nothing else. Laughter, too, is a form of meditation.
The process is the weekend to-do list you make on a legal pad. The process of crossing things out when they are done. The process is being hungover from one too many drinks yet still trying to muster the energy to do your laundry. The excitement of making a plan. Introspecting. Laughing. Waking up. Building a relationship. Experimenting. Walking to an interview. The interview. Decision making. The process is mindlessly gazing at somebody you love because they amaze you. Appreciating when somebody reaches for your hand.
The process is writing this piece, sitting on my floor, chewing Bubblemint gum, the faint sound of “Give Me Everything” by Pitbull blasting from a car outside, the breeze from my window cooling down my sweaty fingertips as they hit the keyboard.
I do not even know if this sentence will make it to the final draft, but it is certainly a part of the process.