What else is here now?
“What else is here right now?” It is a simple question that can help us broaden our awareness and avoid getting caught up in negative (self)talk and doomsday predictions.
It is January. When it is not dark it is grey, wet and freezingly cold. It is that time of year where we struggle the most. It is normal, I tell myself, but somehow, things seem harder than usual. When I am looking back at my week, I am seeing an unusual high level of low moods and negativity amongst friends and family. Fuses are short and I have found myself on more than one occasion lately getting carried away with negative (self-)talk and wasting time and energy venting my frustration.
It turns out, it is not just me who experience this. Our mental health and wellbeing is not doing well at the moment. The WHO estimate that both anxiety and depressive disorders rose by more than 25% during the first year of the pandemic, and studies prevail that a lot of us continue to struggle as we are trying to “get back to normal”. According to a McKinsey study for instance, 36% of employees report negative mental health effects after returning to on-site work. Student´s wellbeing is suffering after long periods of isolation. Add to this all the worries about climate change, and the current financial and political insecurity in the world. No wonder our fuses are short at the moment.
And it spreads. Emotions are contagious. If one family member´s mood is low at the dinner table, it tends to affect the rest of the family. If a colleague is aggressive and pessimistic at a meeting, it will influence the rest of the people around the table. Reading a lot of negative news, sometimes dubbed “doomscrolling”, will also take a serious toll on our mood and mental health. It is so easy to go along with the negative talk, because our brains are wired to pay attention to it. Tuning into potential dangers is what kept our ancestors safe and alive, because it allowed them to learn from their mistakes and avoid threatening situations. Today, however, the world is much more complicated, and although our innate negativity bias to a degree still prevents us from physical danger, our mental health is suffering from it.
So, what can we do? In my upcoming book Ageing Upwards, I talk about broadening the mind to allow ourselves to see and feel all that is present in the moment; the positive, the negative and the neutral. I use the analogy of accidentally dropping a large amount of salt into a bowl of tomato soup. Suppose the bowl is the size of an espresso cup. It is tiny. What do you think a spoonful of salt would do to your lovely soup in such a small container? Ruin it, right? There is pretty much nothing else but salt in there. Now let’s envision that the soup container is the size of one of those huge pots they use in industrial kitchens. That is a lot of soup. What would a spoonful of salt do to that amount of soup? It would probably still affect it, and you would probably rather this hadn’t happened, but if you take a moment to really taste the soup, there would still be sweet flavours of tomato left and you would still feel the creaminess in your mouth. The taste of the unpleasantness would be diluted.
My point is that we can stop focusing on all the negative and unpleasant in life by becoming bigger containers ourselves. Since life consists of pleasant, unpleasant and neutral sensations constantly coming and going, it is pretty much impossible to be in a moment without there being a pleasant sensation present. We just need to notice it.
The way I notice and become a bigger container is by asking myself “What else is here now?”. I practice this in my daily meditations by purposely scanning my body for physical sensations and emotions. Usually, I am not aware of them, until I take a pause and sit down with the intention to notice them. Suddenly I will feel the softness of the pillow, the heat from the cat lying next to me, the sound of the birds outside. Yes, there are unpleasant and neutral sensations popping by as well of course, but that is ok, as my focus of attention is zoomed our so widely that it includes everything. I don´t deny or run away from the unpleasant, but it is diluted. By practicing this way at home, I am able to also respond differently to negativity in everyday life. Sometimes it takes a while before I notice it, but when I catch myself going along with negative talk or getting caught up in doomsday predictions, I silently ask myself “What else is here?”
During meditations, I usually focus on noticing physical sensations, when I answer the question. It helps me step away from all the thoughts in my head and feel or sense whatever feels pleasant in that very moment. In other words, I use my body to dilute the negative thoughts in my head. It is a very efficient and fast way to calm down the nervous system (it might not always work, and it takes a bit of practice). But the question “What else is here now?” can also be used for intellectual reflection to broaden our perspective and mindset. It allows us to be grateful for all the things we have in life.
Have a go now, close your eyes for a few minutes and using first your body and then your head to answer the question “What else is here now?”