Last week I went to Disneyland with my family. I was dreading it. I know it’s the happiest place on earth, but I just wasn’t looking forward to big crowds, long lines, bad food. . . scratch that. . . expensive bad food, and exhausting days. But oh well. I recognized I had a pretty bad attitude and I was putting a stone around the neck of the vacation before it even had a chance of jumping in the water, and yet I persisted.
I half-heartedly gave myself a pep talk. . .
“Maybe the crowds won’t be so bad,”
“Maybe the food has improved,”
“Maybe I’ll enjoy being on my feet for 16 hours straight.”
I even consulted one the of the Disney crowd calendars, which predicted: “Hey, it’s alright” which was a far sight better than the weekend predictions of “Yup, it’s packed.” I was cautiously optimistic until I was informed that two other crowd calendars predicted big crowds and long lines. So much for optimism.
As I begrudgingly packed for Disney, I was also listening to one of my favorite books, The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle (1999) for the second time (some of us are slow learners). It’s an incredible book about the power of being, about leaving thought and entering presence—the here-and-now groundedness that connects us to others, to ourselves, and to peace. I had Eckhart on double speed while I buzzed through the house, throwing things in my suitcase and fretting about how sore my feet would be at Disney.
The irony of this scene is not lost on me. Did I mention I’m a slow learner?
On with the trip. . . or not. I had the pleasure of driving in stop and go traffic from Las Vegas to Anaheim. That’s right, stop and go traffic with an interstate closure and top speed of 25 mph for 85% of the trip. That was fun. I hadn’t even seen Mickey yet and I was already miserable. But I was also in a well-functioning air-conditioned car with my family and we were mostly getting along. Although it took some time (i.e., slow learner, see above), I recognized that I needed to find a way to enjoy this trip and find it fast as my family was soaking up my pessimism.
I considered the words I was hearing—albeit at double speed—from Eckhart. I considered the fact that I had my family all together (sans one in Jolly Ole’ England) for a week away from daily obligations, and I decided to start practicing what I preach every day in session. I would embrace the present moment and let it be what it would be. I would not fret about my achy feet. I would not complain about long lines. I would happily pay $8 for a churro, because hey, it’s Disneyland. I would embrace the now. Now.
Eckhart counsels: “Be present as the watcher of your mind—of your thoughts and emotions as well as your reactions in various situations. Be at least as interested in your reactions as in the situation or person that causes you to react. Notice also how often your attention is in the past or future. Don’t judge or analyze what you observe. Watch the thought, feel the emotion, observe the reaction. Don’t make a personal problem out of them. You will then feel something more powerful than any of those things that you observe: the still, observing presence itself behind the content of your mind, the silent watcher” (Tolle, 1999).
Tolle’s description of the silent watcher is the same as the curious observer I talk about with clients. Be a curious observer of your emotions, your reactions, your thoughts. Stand back in order to see better. Don’t be fooled into believing that the thoughts, emotions, or reactions are the sum-total truth of who you are. They are not.
Knowing this is one thing, yet practicing it is an entirely different thing. And yet, it is not that difficult. It requires attention, curiosity, observation. It requires us to step outside of our heads and into our bodies so that we may better observe the present moment. In Disneyland. While standing in line for Space Mountain and being told it’s broken and they don’t know how long until it will be operational again. It takes that kind of presence.
With Eckhart as my guide, my intention was to observe each moment without judgment and without complaint. I required a lot of redirection (again, see slow learner above), but I found that reminding myself of my intent was usually enough to help me step back from my mind and into presence.
This is some of what I learned. Long, winding Disney-like lines are perfect for people watching. I saw families laughing, playing games, strategizing their next moves. I saw my family laughing, playing games, strategizing their next move. I met a lovely man from San Diego who told me all about his horses. I sat with a bright young girl who told me just how bright she is (134 on her most recent IQ test in case you were wondering). I discovered that my daughter has an uncanny ability to match my rock paper scissors moves despite my best efforts to outwit her. I discovered that my stomach cries foul after six rides on the roller coaster.
I found that the universe has a way of giving you what you need. As I wound my way through a particularly long line, I was thinking of my oldest, far from home and I was missing him terribly. And then my attention was caught by a young girl doing her best against a giant Disneyland corndog while her dad leaned down to help her. It was such a simple moment, but a tender one nonetheless. Then I noticed that the dad was wearing a t-shirt with the name of my community on it. We visited and I soon discovered that he was my oldest son’s history teacher last year. In that moment heartache turned to joy as I was connected to my boy across the world through a stranger in a line at Disneyland. Perhaps it is the happiest place on earth.
Presence requires us to be real. It requires us to be in touch, not only with ourselves but with those around us. It requires us to trust others and trust that there is something to be learned in each moment, each exchange, each connection. Presence matters and is worth cultivating. In this way, wherever you are now becomes the happiest place on earth.
Tolle, Eckhart (1999). The power of now: A guide to spiritual enlightenment. Namaste Publishing: Vancouver, B.C., Canada.