According to Eckhart Tolle, presence is the key to contentment.
And in theory, this might mean that finding contentment should be easy, or at least easier than it would be if it required millions of dollars, a dream job, the perfect partner, and a 22-inch waist.
Unfortunately, however, presence has never really been my thing.
I have always been keen to look ahead. When I was a kid, I anxiously looked forward to my birthday when it was Christmas, and I wished for Christmas when it was my birthday. I always wanted something other than what I had. Maybe not more than what I had—just something different.
I certainly don’t recommend this as a way of existing; it just happens to be the way that I am.
For me, the present has always seemed a little blah when compared with the future. After all, the future is full of mystery and possibility and potential, while the present is, well, this.
Rather than simply calling myself “dissatisfied” or “unhappy” or “ungrateful,” I have called myself a “destination person” rather than a “journey person.”
This is particularly funny because my high school senior quote was something from Ferris Bueller about stopping to look around once in a while lest you should miss life.
Suffice it to say, while my appreciation of that quote persists, I’ve wished away many years of my life, occasion by occasion, in spite of it.
As I stare down middle age, I would like to think that I’ve gotten better at this, but that’s a generous, and perhaps inaccurate, assessment.
Truthfully, in spite of some progress, there are moments when I feel worse at being present than ever. But based on all the articles and podcasts and books on the subject, I do get the sense that I am in good company.
There are probably many reasons for this, but for me, personally, I would say that the greatest obstacle is the internet.
I mean, really, how does anyone ever get anything done while all the information in the entire world is at your fingertips?
Okay, so maybe the real problem is not the internet itself but rather its accessibility; maybe the real problem is smartphones. Or at least it is for me. Try though I may, I just cannot stay off of my phone.
It hasn’t always been like this. At first, my phone use was innocent, and in fact, I was late to get a smartphone. It was only when other people got tired of Google Mapping and texting me directions that I was forced to get my own.
And, initially, it held little appeal. I would sometimes even forget about it for long stretches of time. Hours would pass with it tucked away in a purse or in the pocket of a coat hung in the closet. It didn’t even occur to me that at some point it would become a drug from which I could not abstain.
Over time, however, my reliance and my attachment to my phone turned more habitual. Then it became compulsive. Today, I look at my phone every five minutes. That’s a lie. I look at my phone every 30 seconds—if I ever stop looking at it at all.
I know you know what I’m talking about, because it probably sounds vaguely familiar. Not you, of course, but maybe someone you know.
Someone you know who is more prone to the prowess of the smartest minds on the planet designing ways to grab and hold our attention as often and as long as possible, which, it turns out, is not all that difficult. As luck would have it, phones are fun and distracting and full of things that remind us that we are alive and important and connected. Staying on them isn’t hard at all. Getting off of them is.
Sometimes, I’ll take a stand and set some phone boundaries, like turning my phone off at certain times or turning off notifications—which actually just led to checking it more.
But even when I have managed to successfully separate myself from my phone, there is always a fearful little voice in the back of my head wondering, “What am I missing?” or, “Who might be trying to contact me right now?” or, “What if there is an emergency?”
Ironically, this possibility of connection keeps me tethered to my device, but sadly, it’s not the ultimate driving force behind my addiction.
While the illusory temptation of the phone is the way in which it connects me to the world, the reality of its appeal is that it provides me escape from myself.
In those brief moments when I might otherwise be quiet, still, and alone with myself, when I might finally get present and find contentment, my phone is there to provide the distraction and the escape that ensures that I do no such thing.
It pacifies me momentarily, giving me the illusion of solace, but ultimately preventing me from finding a deeper and more meaningful contentment. And try as I may to escape its spell, I always pick it back up, because, like it or not, my whole life is in that incredible little machine.
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