Who Tells Your Story: Cementing a Legacy Through Good Work

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Though I’m extremely late to the party, I’ve recently been absolutely enthralled by the incredible Lin-Manuel Miranda musical, Hamilton. Even though every number is pretty flawless from beginning to end, the piece that sank its hooks into my mind the deepest was the final number — particularly the first few lyrical lines of that piece as sung by the character of George Washington: 

Let me tell you what I wish I’d known when I was young and dreamed of glory —you have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.

The Legacy of Your Grandparents

I’m not sure why, but upon hearing these lines, I immediately saw my grandparents’ faces — most now passed away, only one still living. They are the source or subject of so many wonderful stories and lessons. Each of them was the embodiment of benevolence. 

While considering their legacy, I thought about how tragic it was that their names may be completely lost to history in a generation or two — with nothing more for would-be historians to find than a few photographs, home movies, obituaries, and official documents. 

Visualizing their faces fading like those of Marty McFly’s family members in his pocketed photograph in Back to the Future, my first instinct was to take to my computer and begin writing down every experience and anecdote of my grandparents that I could shake loose from my memory to preserve their legacy. As I sat down to do this, I looked down at my own two hands on the keyboard — hands that resemble those of my mother’s father. I started to remember all of the ways I am like him and why that’s so. I began to see that a legacy is more than a written story or a name on a plaque, but is instead one’s ability to reach through time and touch the future — even if in a completely unidentifiable way. 

Your Own Legacy

This ability to reach across time got me thinking about my own legacy. Am I currently doing enough to cement a legacy? Is this even a worthwhile goal? I mean, ole Washington said so in Hamilton — we don’t control who tells our story. 

The actual Alexander Hamilton was obsessed with his legacy. As the performers and historians alike have told us, Hamilton was constantly writing like he was “running out of time” — emptying his mind onto thousands of pages through his quill. Despite this and all of his efforts, his legacy was largely preserved through his wife, Eliza, who took up the task of making heads or tails of his copious writings. 

But is that what made Hamilton’s legacy so well preserved and acclaimed — Eliza’s dutiful archiving of his written works? Partially, but one may argue that Eliza preserved her husband’s legacy by perpetuating the momentum of his spirit — channeling it into the good work that she feels he may have pursued had the bullet of Aaron Burr’s pistol not sent Alexander to an early grave. 

After Hamilton’s death at around age 47 or 48, depending on who you ask, Eliza lived to be 97 years old. In the time between his death and her own, she worked dutifully to preserve her late husband’s legacy — not only establishing the first private orphanage in New York City, as the musical mentioned, she also established the Hamilton Free School — which offered free private education for the children from low-income families. Hamilton himself had been an orphan whose private education had only been possible by an endowment from those in his boyhood community of Nevis — an island in the West Indies. 

Had her husband not been a Founding Father of the United States, his legacy likely still would have been preserved through the acts of Eliza — who performed good works that ensured her lasting legacy as well. 

Good Work Not Forgotten

Though many of us will never have our names emblazoned on a monument, plaque, or in a textbook, history recalls fondly the impact of good work in the world. This good work can range from serving one’s community, raising children to be compassionate citizens, or other acts that positively inspire future generations.  Activists, artists, civil servants, educators, healers, scholars, athletes, parents, family, and friends — all of these possess the capacity for good work that namelessly ripples through the ages long after the writing has faded from the monuments and textbooks. 

The Reward for Good Work

So, is cementing a legacy the reward for good work? No. A legacy is never realized within one’s lifetime — again, as Washington sang — you have no control…who tells your story. This good work is not performed for a paycheck, award, acclaim, or even a legacy. A legacy is the byproduct of good work. No, good work is performed because it is what the worker must do to remain a human being — to warm their bones and fill their days with purpose. 

Simply put by one of my favorite artists, Tom Sachs — 

The reward for good work is more work.


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5 Reasons Why I Left Social Media (and 4 Things to Consider)

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My jar ain’t big enough. 

There’s a classic story told by Stephen Covey in his book First Things First entitled “The Big Rocks of Life.” In this story, a person speaking to a class of business students uses a gallon-sized jar to symbolize their schedule. He also uses various items to represent time on their calendar.

  • He first placed several fist-sized rocks in the jar till they reached the lip. He asked the class if the jar was full, to which they said yes. 
  • He then dumped in as much gravel as he could into the jar, shaking the jar, causing the gravel to fill the space between the rocks. He asked them again if it was full, to which they replied yes. 
  • He then poured in as much sand as he could into the jar — again, shaking it until it settled around the rocks. He asked the class if it was full. They said yes. 
  • He then poured as much water as he could into the jar. He didn’t even have to shake the jar to get it to settle. This time he agreed that it was, in fact, full. 

He asked if anyone understood the point of this illustration. 

“…no matter how full your schedule is,” one student shouted from the back, “if you try really hard, you can always fit some more things into it!” 

“‘No,’ the speaker replied, ‘that’s not the point. The truth this illustration teaches us is: If you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all.”’

As a husband, family man, employee, and just a human being in need of routine maintenance, I’ve come to realize that my jar is only so big. The more I’ve tried to cram into it, the more my big rocks have remained teetering above the lip—if not rolling out and landing on my foot with a thud. 

It’s for this reason that I was forced to take careful note of how I spent my time and compare that to how I wanted to spend it — as well as optimizing my own mental and emotional bandwidth.

Upon analyzing how I not only spent my time but also my mental energy, the total impact of social media seemed to clog up inordinate amounts of my attention and energy. Discovering this was akin to finding a minimized web browser loaded to the hilt with active tabs. 

So, what did I do? Over the past 2 years, I closed those mental tabs. I started by shutting down my personal Facebook account, then Instagram, and just a few weeks back — Twitter.

The following are a number of reasons why I quit using 98% of the social media platforms I had previously utilized, how I feel now, and four items to consider for those contemplating making the leap from the social media train.

Reason #1. I’m no match for the machine.

“Why do you make such a big deal out of social media? Why can’t you just treat it like a nice little escape and stash it the rest of the time?” 

Man, I wish I were one of those social media users who could just take a peek every Sunday afternoon for 10 minutes and then stow it away — not just physically but also mentally. But I’m not. 

I’m not sure why but whenever I use social media, my mind gives it permission to run in the background like a memory-hungry computer application. I find myself thinking about it and checking it as though I’d invested my life savings on a single tumultuous stock.

“I wonder if anyone has interacted with my post.”

“I wonder what so-and-so said about xyz.”

“I’m bored but I know where to get a dopamine bump…”

“Why did I automatically type in ‘twitter.com’ once I opened that web browser?” 

And was I ever fulfilled in my checking? Hmm…not really. 

Anytime I took the plunge down any feed, it felt like opening my own refrigerator in hopes that someone else had stocked it with ice-cold Hefeweizen and disembodied thumbs up. Ok, that last part sounded a little weird

I’m a simple dude. I’m no match for Silicon Valley’s algorithm-driven “advertainment” spoon perched atop the cigarette lighter of my own insecurities. As long as I’m logged on, they got me.

Reason #2. Acquaintances don’t matter. Like, at all. 

Some relationships are worthy of your attention and they should be preserved at all cost. Others should be allowed to wither, die, and decompose in order to nurture new and existing relationships.

If you asked me 15 years ago to describe my present self, such a reckless shot in the dark would have been investigated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms. While many aspects of my personality and interests have remained consistent over the years, much about me has also changed. And with these changes comes a shift in those who matter most to me. 

While I have preserved many important relationships and even fostered new ones, I likely could not tell you which members of my graduating class from high school are still capable of fogging a mirror. 

And if that sounds harsh, it’s really not. Why? Well, the reality is that those people don’t matter. To me — I mean. They don’t matter to me. My daily life. And they don’t have to. Why? Because I probably don’t matter to them. And that’s fine. 

According to acclaimed anthropologist Robin Dunbar, the cognitive limit of the human brain to adequately maintain social relationships is about up to 150 people. Called “Dunbar’s Number,” 150 relationships is where we, as a species, max out — or as he put it, “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.”

I’m not precisely sure why, but learning about Dunbar’s Number brought me immense comfort — as though someone relieved a pressure valve so as to say, “no, you’re not crazy. You’re just not built for this.”

In addition to not being able to maintain healthy relationships with so many people, I always feel my own sense of self begin to erode when held up to the scrutiny of the masses rather than how I perceive myself. I found myself attempting to impress people far outside my 150 relationships. Even worse, I was failing to impress the only person worthy of impressing — me. 

Over the years, I found that social media kept me beholden to a particular group of people — most of whom were acquaintances, lapsed friendships, or distant relatives. Though I initially tried to fashion the online version of myself to be consistent with reality, the continued preservation of that antiquated version of me started to hold me back from progressing into my perpetually changing, authentic self. Even worse, this avatar I constructed had deviated so much from whom I wanted to be now that I grew to question my own identity. 

Does my Instagram or Twitter self symbolize who I am or vice versa? Do I even know who I am anymore? 

The more I would strive to construct a social media manifestation of myself, the less I felt I knew about who I was. I feel that this was partially because I was aiming to impress or at least preserve a consistent image for those who matter very little to me now. Social media kept me believing that, like a company, I was a brand. But I am not a brand. I am a living organism — terms and conditions subject to change, some restrictions apply. See me for details.

Reason #3. Half-baked thoughts don’t need a venue

When I left Twitter, I saved all of my tweets. Looking back at them is, well, embarrassing. While I stand by much of the things I said, there are several examples of instances where posting a half-baked thought was likely not warranted. 

Why do we feel ok about saying things on our social media feeds that we would never utter in public? Social media accounts are virtual jumbotrons, yet little responsibility or consideration is made for quality assurance. We belch randomness into a box that then clogs the minds of anyone unfortunate to have it illuminate their face. 

Don’t get me wrong — I’m going to continue belching my nonsense into blog articles, essays, and even books for the rest of my life — but I’ll at least give you, the audience, the decency of mulling the contents over before hitting the “publish” button. 

Reason #4. Having my impulses continually prodded was exhausting. 

Now that I’ve covered how the social media version of myself was likely a confused, exaggerated, and vain attempt at presenting an interesting fellow to the world, the following statement is likely not very controversial — most information acquired via social media is…well, off

To keep people scrolling, the competition for eyeballs is fierce. The more outrageous the content, the more irresistible it is to consume. To maximize engagement, content creators frequently tap into our base impulses — fear, anxiety, outrage, sex, excitement, inclusion, insecurity — generally speaking, FOMO —  the fear of missing out

Reason #5. I discovered that I really don’t want to be famous. 

I don’t know if I’m just getting older but the idea of becoming famous sounds 10,000% more terrible than it used to than when I was younger. 

I used to imagine that being well known for something would make me feel more whole — that the idea of being recognized for a talent or accomplishment would be a delightful sensation. As a writer and a musician, attaining notoriety just seemed like something I should seek…right?

Then, something happened: I received acclaim from people I did not know…and I did not know how to handle it. 

In that moment, I discovered that I’m really not good at receiving praise or compliments. When I receive a glowing review, I experience sensations of what some call “imposter syndrome” — doubting that I am deserving of whatever praise is being showered upon me. I clam up and feel like saying, “Listen, you’ve got the wrong guy.” 

Imagine that you’ve been told you’ve definitely just won a Nobel Prize, but that your entire acceptance speech was just you murmuring, “I’m almost certain this is intended for someone with my same name. Have you confirmed our birth dates, social security numbers, fingerprints, and dental records?” 

A big reason why I was so active on social media before was the vain pursuit of some form of notoriety for a creative thought or idea. The moment I received a bit of it, my pupils dilated like a fugitive caught in a searchlight, and I dove into the safe embrace of obscurity. 

So, why do I still make art? Why do I write, record, or publish? Why do I make stuff? Well, mostly because I enjoy every step of the craft — of the process of sculpting an idea into a consumable piece for someone to enjoy. But when it comes to impressing anyone, the only person I work to impress these days is myself. 

And though I still scurry from the limelight, I am still filled with immense warmth whenever I discover that anything I’ve done or created has genuinely helped another person. The difference between this sensation and fame-seeking is that the created thing did the heavy lifting, not so much me as a person. In fact, the piece of my writing of which I am proudest — one that was published in a highly syndicated publication and that I’ve heard has touched many people deeply — was published anonymously. And I love that — it’s my little secret with anyone who has ever read it. And you’re just going to have to hope you come across it one day.

A Few Things to Consider Upon Leaving Social Media 

If you, like I was, are feeling overwhelmed by the size, speed, and recklessness of social media and feel like leaping off of this runaway train, there are a few new concepts to consider. 

A. You need to have replacement activity ready to go. 

For most social media users, scrolling timelines and newsfeeds is not something one blocks off an afternoon to accomplish. This activity is typically the sand and water in your metaphorical jar of time — slipping between the spaces in other activities. 

Because of this, if you disconnect yourself from social media access, you may feel a twitch — sometimes an actual physical sensation — to reach for your phone’s social media applications or to navigate to a particular website to bridge activities. Standing in line at the store, sitting in a doctor’s office waiting room, or waiting for leftovers to heat up — these are all twitch-inducers. For this reason, it’s important to look at how you will replace social media even before you ever do. 

My favorite social media replacements include: 

  • Reading books — digital or physical. My favorite device these days is my Kindle Paperwhite. It is a blissful escape from my phone or computer. It’s waterproof, contains my entire digital library, can receive articles I’ve previously sent to it, and has a battery that lasts for weeks on end. When I’m out and about, I can pick up reading a book or article right where I left off with the Kindle app. Also, did you know you can connect your Kindle account to your public library account and check out books digitally? And of course, there are always, you know, physical books as well. 
  • Journaling. Think of journaling like updating your social media feeds without ever hitting the “publish” button. It’s actually even better because you can also say everything you’d never say to your “friends” and followers. And with a digital journal, this feels damn-near like social media. Personally, I prefer an app-based service called Daybook that I can write to from my phone or computer, but any password-protected note-taking app will more than suffice.
  • Educational apps. Right now, I’m trying to learning Spanish with Duolingo so I can better communicate with my Hispanic neighbors. Mi objetivo es cambiar cervezas por lecciones de español … y amistad.
  • Arranging physical hangouts with friends. Increased vaccinations mean we no longer have any excuse not to hang out. If you have time to scroll a timeline or update a profile, you have time to arrange an in-person hangout — no phones allowed…unless you’re showing each other pictures of babies, dogs, or cats.
  • My favorite — consciously doing nothing. When was the last time you had a few minutes to kill and you didn’t fill them with anything? The next time you feel the twitch of boredom approaching, just place your hands in your lap and do nothing. Maybe close your eyes and feel your breath enter and exit your nostrils. Think about the wonderful people in your life. Daydream about an upcoming event you’re looking forward to. Listen to the birds or watch the way sunlight reflects off leaves. Simply observe the present moment. It’s just about the most underrated activity. 

B. You’re going to be seen as a weirdo. 

Are you going to miss out on some stuff by leaving social media? Eh, that depends. While you may miss out on a joke here and there or some breaking news as it unfolds, if there’s something you were meant to see or know, you will eventually. I personally found, though I did miss out on all kinds of information about aquaintances, news that mattered about people that matter to me eventually trickled into my orbit. I’ve yet to miss a substantial event or bit of news due to my absence from social media platforms. 

“Oh, I forgot — you’re not on social media” is something I hear on a regular basis whenever news of friends is discussed, but guess what? It’s discussed in person eventually — only I get to hear it in person for the first time rather than chew on a regurgitated version of it like everyone else who is living through the reruns. This leads to the next item…

C. You’ll find that in-person conversation is night-and-day better. 

One of the areas of my life that has improved immensely since leaving social media is one you wouldn’t imagine — socializing. Why? Because as briefly mentioned before — regurgitating timelines in person is about as agonizing as discussing the weather. 

“Hey, I saw that picture of your kid that you posted. He’s getting big.” 

“He sure is. Hey, I’m glad to see that your mom is doing better.” 

“Thanks, she’s just had — ”

“ — hip surgery. Yeah, I saw that. You know, I’m going in for —”

“ — knee surgery, yeah, I saw that you posted about that. Let me know if you’ll be well enough to go to that —”

“—weekend street fair? Yeah, I saw that you discussed wanting to get a group of friends together to go to that. I know that Rick can’t go because he’s —”

“—moving to Canada. You saw that post, too? Sheesh, I mean, it’s cool that he scored that new—”

“—job with the solar panel technology firm. You saw post that, too?” 

If you’ve had a conversation with a friend who is also in your social media sphere, you know that this conversation isn’t that exaggerated, but is as equally soul-crushing.  

D. You’re going to feel great no longer being a product. 

Social media would have us all believe that we’re their target demographic. We’re not — or else they’d call us “members.” What do they call us? Users. Social media is not designed to connect long-lost friends, help maintain relationships or people explore new interests. It is a funnel used by advertisers to bypass our gag reflex. It uses psychological manipulation at every turn to get you to scroll, to react, to doubt yourself, and to believe that you need to buy more stuff. It’s not an accident that your timeline is referred to as your “feed.”

Believe it or not, there are ways to be just as informed and connected as those on social media — become a member instead of a user. Seek out products and services not funded by advertisers. While this means that you may have to start paying for certain things, you’ll find that paid memberships lack much of the addictiveness and psychological manipulation of ad-driven content. Because of this, you’ll also find that once you become a member and begin paying for services you once received for free, you’ll likely spend less because your experiences are much less controlled by advertisers. 

My challenge to you is not to terminate all of your social media accounts, but simply to gauge your dependence on them and how they actually make you feel. Maybe it’s time for a break…before you break.


Choosing Your Shovel: A Field Manual to Leveraging Fear & Managing Anxiety

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Quick disclaimer: There is a significant difference between sporadic spells of anxiety and a chronic anxiety disorder. This piece is meant more to aid with periodic anxious spells rather than treating any condition, which should be addressed by a mental health professional.

Two emotions. Endless misinterpretations.

Fear and anxiety are two of the most perplexing emotions one can have. Both can overtake you and result in a miserable daily life. Conquering fear and anxiety is the work of life and not a life hack that can be acquired by reading a short online essay or listening to a podcast episode. This being said, I’ve personally found the following mindset shifts to be immensely helpful when attempting to control or even leverage fear and anxiety. When these mindset shifts are combined, they may even be able to help the average person pull themself from the occasional bout of anxiety. 

Mindset Shift 1: Fear can be useful when correctly identified.

Fear — ”an unpleasant emotion caused by being aware of danger.”
– Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary

Though fear can be debilitating, it is an instrumental emotion. Without fear, we might find ourselves attempting to cross busy highways on foot, coming too close to the edges of steep heights, or petting dangerous creatures. Fear is a mechanism to protect us from many of the dangers of life.

While this is true, fear is only helpful when it can be leveraged or applied — when it results in a discernable behavioral shift. When it cannot be, it ceases to be fear. It is, instead, anxiety. 

Mindset Shift 2: We frequently confuse fear with anxiety and vice versa.

One of the biggest reasons we cling to debilitating anxiety is because we confuse it with helpful fear. As we’ve discussed before, fear is instrumental. Anxiety, however, is not. 

  • The shovel of fear can dig us free from a situation.
  • The shovel of anxiety only deepens our rut. 

For this reason, it’s crucial to correctly identify the shovel of fear and the shovel of anxiety. So, the first step out is knowing when you’re clutching the wrong shovel. 

Mindset Shift 3: Becoming mindful of anxious thoughts can help you manage them. 

You are not your thoughts. If this were the case, you would be incapable of thinking about your thoughts. Humans are unique from other creatures on this planet in that we are capable of offering the Director’s Commentary of our own thought process. 

Most of us, however, can rarely distinguish our thinking from thinking about thinking. This thinking about our thoughts can be referred to as “metacognition” but is most commonly referred to as “mindfulness.” 

The term “mindfulness” is meant to be used to contrast our default mode — mindlessness. When our thoughts are allowed to ricochet in our heads without control, the result is a dangerous rumination and can culminate in severe anxiety and depression.

Mindset Shift 3: Mind control is an obtainable superpower if it’s your own mind you’re controlling.

Like stopping a ricocheting bullet, catching a mindless thought before it tears through our emotions can feel like a superpower. Mindfulness, however, is not the act of catching speeding bullets but rather slowing them down to the point of plucking them out of thin air. When a thought or reactionary emotion can be slowed down, its details can be more objectively analyzed, its intent considered, and the most appropriate response deployed. 

Examining Fear vs. Anxiety in Practice

The next time you experience the frantic gloom of fear or anxiety, as soon as you can identify the sensation, do your best to cease what you’re doing and take hold of the moment for yourself.

  • Focus on the raw sensation of your breath entering and exiting your nostrils. This present action will help pull the emergency brake on your thought processes.
  • Once grounded in the present, aim to perceive this negative emotion as though belonging to someone else. Aim to observe it as objectively as placing a glass slide under the lens of a microscope for examination. 
  • Carefully inspecting this thought or feeling, ask yourself, “What action is this sensation prompting me to do?” 

Leveraging Useful Fear

If this sensation has practical next steps that can prevent ailment or injury, whether of your body, relationships, career, or overall wellbeing, this is valuable fear. Consider how these steps can be positively applied to the betterment of your daily life. Break each action into its tiniest achievable steps — with no effort too small as long as you’re moving forward. Construct a plan for following these steps with scheduled times and deadlines. 

The following are a few examples of how to possibly leverage useful fear to help resolve a fearful state.

  • If a bodily symptom is fearfully weighing on your mind, an executable action is to present your concern to a doctor. If this action feels daunting, break the activity into smaller parts. Perhaps, start by sending a message to the doctor through email or your health care provider’s online portal. Maybe even start as small as scheduling a time to make an appointment with a deadline for the completion of this action. If even this feels like too much, perhaps your first step is looking at yourself in the mirror and saying out loud, “tomorrow, I’m going to call my doctor’s office.” Again, no step is too small if it means moving forward from your present fearful state.
  • If you’re fearfully concerned about the future of your job, whether due to your performance or the support of your employer, an executable action would be to make a list of actionable items you can take in case your fears are founded. If the fear is performance-based, identify your weaknesses as an employee and develop ways to strengthen them — even little by little. Asking colleagues, even superiors, for constructive criticism can help in this matter and express your dedication to your duties and role. If your fear is with your employer’s support, you can either bring these fears to your employer to quell or confirm them. If you don’t feel comfortable with the potential confrontation, consider taking tactful steps toward securing employment elsewhere.
  • Suppose you’re fearful about the deterioration of a relationship. In that case, an executable action may be to identify why you feel this way and what actions you can take to nurture or remedy said relationship. If, upon closer analysis, the relationship does not seem salvageable, begin devising steps to end the relationship on agreeable terms. 

Quelling Pernicious Anxiety

The sinking feeling in your gut and increased heart rate are helpful biological responses to approaching the edge of a dizzyingly high cliff. Such sensations are your mind’s signal to your body to be fearfully conscious of impending danger. However, the same sensations while simply lying in bed can be immensely hazardous to your mental and physical health. These are not leverageable sensations but rather potentially debilitating ruminations. 

As previously discussed, properly identifying fear versus anxiety is a practical means of quelling either. When fear is appropriately identified, actionable steps can be executed to leverage and squelch such sensations.  

But once anxiety is identified, then what?

Once anxiety is correctly identified as such—as a senseless nuisance—we can begin to leverage the lack of teeth in these ruminations — aka no discernable executables — to shift our minds to efforts worthy of our attention. We do this by pivoting our thought process from anxiety to the raw perception of the present moment. 

“If you are depressed, you are living in the past.
If you are anxious, you are living in the future.
If you are at peace, you are living in the present.”

― Lao Tzu, author of Tao Te Ching

Mindset Shift 4: Simply sensing the present is your oasis from pernicious anxiety. 

Upon realizing that a particular mental and emotional sensation is harmful anxiety rather than helpful fear, there is a place we can go to manage such disturbing thoughts—the present moment. 

In the present, there is no fear or worry—there is only the moment itself. At this moment, all that need exist for us is the space we occupy and our body’s involuntary biological function. 

  • Our heart beats in our chest, sending blood throughout our body. 
  • Our skin forwards data about the temperature of the airflow of the space. 
  • Our eyes perceive the shapes of objects and the flow of light around us.
  • Our nostrils detect the coolness of inhaled air and the warmth of exhaled air.

None of these sensations of the present moment require thoughts of the past or future. In fact, they can only be perceived clearly once we’ve shelved non-present thinking. 

We can access the escape hatch from anxiety through any of our sense perceptions of the present moment. Tapping into the present perception of our bodies and surroundings rather than our mindless ruminations is immensely useful whenever anxious ruminations seek to creep into our thought process. A constructive way to do this is with a method that I’ll call the Monitor Technique for the sake of this piece.

The Monitor Technique

Unlike a full camera or audio recorder, a monitor—whether a camera’s viewfinder screen monitor, a musician’s stage monitor speaker, or even a medical heart monitor—has the singular job of sharing what exists in real-time. It cannot store sights or sounds. It cannot recall past moments. It cannot process data. Even though it is called a “monitor,” it is usually a secondary computer system or a user that is actually doing the monitoring. In this sense, it should be called an “allows-you-to-monitor.” But for the most part, monitors are nothing more than vehicles for capturing present data.

When you have become more acquainted with the mental and physical sensation of anxiety, instead of attempting to process your way out of such an episode, become a monitor of your present surroundings. Do not attempt to consider how any of these make you feel. Rather, simply observe them as objectively as possible. This is quite literally what many mean when they use the expression, “stop and smell the roses.” 

Here are a few monitoring techniques that have worked for me: 

  • Observe the shapes, slopes, angles, and colors of objects in your vicinity. The arm of a chair or couch. The rise of a window sill. The angles in the edges of the leaves on trees. The sunlight against the backside of a curtain.
  • Close your eyes and allow your ears to absorb the mosaic soundscape around you. There is always sound — from birds chirping to air vents, the whirl of distant lawnmowers, airplanes, cars on a nearby highway, a humming refrigerator, a computer fan, and beyond. You can either let all of the sounds swirl together as one at the front of your attention or isolate one sound to savor. 
  • Sit with your eyes closed and focus on the raw sensations of your breath. Feel the cool and warm air passing through your nose, the rise and fall of your chest, or the space between breaths.
  • Sit with your eyes closed and simply experience the sensation of the surrounding air on your skin. If the air is moving, notice its direction, intensity, and texture. Even with eyes closed, attempt to feel the shape of the space. 

While practicing the Monitor Technique, your anxieties will likely attempt to breach the doors of your focus. Your first impulse will be to fight them, but this too is a mindless reaction. When this happens, simply observe the anxiety itself as its own entity, mindfully note its existence, and then return to practicing the observation of the present moment via the Monitor Technique. 

Choosing Your Shovel

A fearful mindset tends to result in reaching for one of two shovels. 

The first shovel of pernicious anxiety resulting in aimless rumination is sharp and only capable of digging downward—creating ruts and holes in which to hide. Though seeming like a helpful refuge, the occupant of these ruts or holes will soon find themselves unable to climb out. 

The second shovel of useful fear is broad, better able to dig oneself out from psychological and even physical harm. Though it is a heavier shovel to wield, the more efficiently it is utilized, the sooner it can be stowed until needed again. 

Distinguishing fear from anxiety is not a life hack — it is a skill that requires perpetual sharpening. Honing of the perception of our mental state is aided by regularly “checking in” with ourselves in ways that pull the emergency brake on rumination and align our awareness with the present.  As we sharpen this tool of discernment, we must also remain mindful of which shovel we choose to sharpen — that of useful fear or useless anxiety.


Reminders: