Dr. Justin Hill was an officer in the U.S. Army prior to earning his doctorate degree in Clinical Psychology from Suffolk University in Boston, Massachusetts in 2008. He completed his clinical pre-doctoral Internship and post-doctoral Fellowship training at the VA Boston hospital where he was a Fellow at Harvard Medical... more
If you take a moment and check in with yourself, see if it isn’t true that, on some level, it feels as if your life is on hold in some way. When doing this, our minds will likely jump in and remind us that we have been living for quite a while, but see if you can move past that and get to the feeling. It is a feeling that many of us have. We tend to think that once I graduate with this degree, once I meet this person and settle down, once I get that particular house with the particular fence and the particular dog, once I have kids, once my kids are older, once I get that job and then that promotion, once I lose weight, once the weather gets better, and on, and on, and on.
When we stop to really get in touch with that feeling and all the thoughts that come with it, we might realize that in waiting for that “thing” to come, we may not be fully present in our lives as they are right now. John Lennon wrote, “Life is what happens when we are busy making other plans.” In the book “Walden,” Henry David Thoreau wrote, “As if we could kill time without injuring eternity.” It’s not easy to ask ourselves what we have been busy planning for, how much time we have been “killing,” and how much of the present are we sacrificing because of it.
Continually looking forward and making the attainment of future goals and accomplishments a remedy for our feeling in the present moment is very common. Often, the present moment is not as satisfying as we would like it to be, and it is natural to tell ourselves that our satisfaction will improve and “I’ll really start living my life once certain things are in place.” Unfortunately, when we do reach that goal (fill in the blank: graduation, life partner, house, kids, job success, weight loss, etc.), it might seem great at first but soon the satisfaction may diminish and we get back to getting busy making more plans. The existential treadmill never slows, and our feeling of “stuckness” in our lives may continue to grow.
A common contributor to the feeling of “stuckness” is routine. While routines and habits can be very beneficial and can make certain things in life more efficient, the potential cost to them is a feeling of staleness to our activities. Thankfully, there is a powerful strategy that can significantly help with the common feeling of our lives being somewhat on hold. It has to do with looking at the same things with a different perspective and reminding ourselves that no two experiences, no matter how similar, are exactly the same. In some circles, this has been labeled as “Beginner’s Mind.”
People from all walks of life, including authors, poets, and musicians, remind us of the importance of practicing changing our perspectives on seemingly similar experiences. The poet Louise Gluck wrote, “We look at the world once in childhood, the rest is memory.” Gustave Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary, wrote:
“There is a part of everything that remains unexplored, for we have fallen into the habit of remembering, whenever we use our eyes, what people before us have thought of the thing we are looking at. Even the slightest thing contains a little that is unknown. We must find it. To describe a blazing fire or a tree in a plain, we must remain before that fire or that tree until they no longer resemble for us any other tree or any other fire.”
The lyrics of the song “Both Sides Now,” originally sung by Judy Collins and then again by Joni Mitchell (among others who re-made the song) talk about seeing clouds, life, and love differently as a child compared to as an adult. In reflecting on this idea of perspective-taking, the singer ultimately comes to some conclusions:
“Oh but now old friends they're acting strange
They shake their heads, they say that I've changed
Well something's lost, but something's gained
In living every day
I've looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It's life's illusions I recall
I really don't know life at all.”
Looking at what we thought we were familiar with (“life’s illusions”) in a new light with a new perspective can be very powerful. Our friends might “act strange” and think that “we’ve changed” by doing this. However, in living every day with this strategy of “Beginner’s Mind,” as if seeing everything for the first time, the power of needing future accomplishments and milestones to make meaning of and justify our current lives can diminish. We also may notice that the feelings of satisfaction and joy for our lives as they are, at this moment, with all of their “flaws” and “shortcomings,” begin to emerge.
This strategy may awaken us to unexpected surprises. Our morning drive to work may not be so monotonous because we realize that we have never driven the route on this particular day. With this in mind, we may notice a house, a tree, or a particular sign that we had driven past hundreds of times before but never saw. Our weekly trip to the grocery store is brand new every time because, while there are similarities, we recognize that we never entered the store on that particular day. We notice that the customers are different, things may have been rearranged, new products may be displayed, etc. Note how this strategy can be applied to anything: brushing our teeth, showering, eating, doing the dishes, and even breathing because no two breaths are exactly alike just as no two moments are exactly alike. Imagine what changing our perspective and truly seeing our partners, our children, or our friends might do to our relationships.
Simply changing how we see what is already in front of us and what already exists in our lives, rather than waiting for change before feeling differently, empowers us to make the most of our lives right now. Walt Whitman wrote, “The powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.” It’s important to ask ourselves, “What has to happen before I contribute my verse? What am I waiting for? Do I have to wait any longer?”