I don’t know about you, but I am a master at imagining and replaying conversations in my head. Past conversations. Future conversations. Conversations I will never have but could have in some alternate reality, I suppose. I imagine what I’m going to say in a particular scenario or go back over a conversation that I’ve already had. Over and over again. Judging, planning, scheming, worrying. Do you do this, too?
Some call this rumination, overanalysis, or even social anxiety. Whatever it is, I’ve had plenty of it in my life. It can be our misguided way of trying to control anxiety but this kind of rumination leads to more anxiety. I'm sure you've already figured that out.
When I get caught up in this mode, I can feel pretty stressed and even bad about myself. When I can bring my attention to what I’m doing, I notice that I’m going over and over something that doesn’t exist. A past conversation is over. A future conversation hasn’t happened, and it won’t. That is to say, there is no way to predict how a conversation will go. Ever. Trying to do so may give us an illusion of control but it’s still an illusion.
I was walking with Pedro today in the woods. No one was out there. I didn’t have Pedro’s comfortable harness with me so I took him off the leash in a place I won’t normally do so. As we were walking, all alone, I began imagining seeing someone in the distance approaching us. I imagined they would be angry to see Pedro off leash. I imagined quickly snapping the leash on Pedro before the person got close to us. I imagined her getting to us and fussing at me for having Pedro off the leash for even a moment. I imagined telling her that he is on the leash now and posed no threat. I imagined her going on and on and me defending myself. I imagined getting angry and impatient with her. Phew! That is just how creative I am!
I even began to feel a tad guilty and irritated! Of course I did, because we are always living in the feeling of our thinking. We create our reality moment to moment via our thoughts. That’s how powerful and creative the human system is.
The Pedro scenario happened quickly and I was able to realize what I was doing. Seeing that, I brought my attention back to the present moment and allowed the thoughts to move along, as thoughts will do when left alone. When we don’t allow them to move along by attaching to and feeding them, they can become overwhelming and can obscure us from what is present to us in the moment.
Pedro off leash was a silly example but it’s not so silly when I’m worried about a conversation with a challenging co-worker or family member or judging a conversation I’ve had in the past. I still remember a one sentence comment I made decades ago. One second too late, I realized that it was mildly insensitive though I didn’t intend it that way. I replayed that one sentence for years. Years! And that’s not the only sentence I’ve replayed. Can you relate?
I no longer torture myself with replaying past or imagining future conversations, for the most part, and I am much more relaxed which enables me to be more present in the conversations I have in the moment. When conversations are conducted in the present moment, we have more clarity and are able to access the wisdom we need for that conversation. In the moment.
That’s not to say that I can’t remind myself of a past conversation, note what I’d like to do differently, learn from that, and take that understanding into new conversations. It’s not to say that I can’t prepare for future conversations by being clear on what I want to convey and even outlining my points if I think that could be helpful. But in doing so, we could notice when we begin to feel ramped up, stressed out, or fearful. Those feelings of stress are useful because they can wake us up to the fact that we have become lost in the past or the future, neither of which exist.
The remedy? You could bring your attention back to the present moment. Often, a simple, “You can stop now, Carla”, is enough to bring me back to the present moment. Awareness, alone, can be enough to loosen the grip of stressful thinking. If it doesn't loosen its grip right then, it will. In time. Always.
In the woods with Pedro, all I needed to do was bring my attention to what was present, instead of to the made up woman. The beautiful live oaks. The curious anhinga. The mating cardinals. The call of the pileated woodpecker. Pedro’s wagging tail. The smell of the salty air and earthy mud of the tidal creek. I begin to settle.
When my attention is on the present moment, I find a clarity and wisdom available. I find that I have what I need for this moment. As Jamie Smart says, We are built for the reality of this moment. We are not built for the past. We are not built for the future. We are built for right here and right now. In this moment, you have all you need.
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