THE BLOG
10/12/2013 09:38 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The 4 Letter Word That Leads You Astray (And What to Do About It)

A recent clip that went viral featured Louis C.K. going on a rant about how he hates cell phones. I believe this video went viral not because we all hate cell phones but because Louis C.K. was saying something far more profound: that technology has the power to take us out of the present.

While technology obviously has the power to bring us together (see Jim Gilliam's powerful talk, "The Internet Is My Religion"), it also has the power to tear us apart by giving us such an easy escape route from the present -- the critical moments that allow us to connect as human beings.

This begs the question, of course, why do we want to escape the present?

As a clinical psychologist in private practice in New York City, I have come to believe that the reason that so many of us want to be absent from our lives is a four letter word: pain.

We are all, thankfully, wired so that when we experience pain we instinctively and instantly move away from it. Of course, this works well for physical pain. When your finger touches something intensely hot you immediately recoil without even thinking about it. This mechanism also works for psychological pain. When we experience psychological discomfort, or pain, we instinctively try to escape. But the problem is that we can't literally escape from pain that is inside of us, because, well, there's nowhere to go. Instead we escape psychologically to the past, the future or elsewhere.

Let's talk about each of these for a moment:

The Past

I have found that the people who I work with in my private practice who are more melancholy or depressed tend to be more anchored to the past. They often spend their mental energy:

• Trying to mentally "undo" events that have already happened,
• ruminating over sad experiences,
• and/or pining for the "good old days" and wishing they would return.

The tragic nature of melancholy thoughts of the past is that they draw you in because of the wish to undo or redo the past in order to feel better in the present. However, as we well know, without a flux capacitor and ample supply of plutonium for a round trip (I have heard that this last part is particularly important), it's just simply not possible to go back to the past and the attempt to do so leads us to feel depleted and ultimately powerless and stuck.

The Future

People who are anxious are afraid of what's next and in an attempt to escape their fears, they exit the present and enter an imaginary, distorted future. They try to escape the present moment by exchanging it for the future but get caught in an endless loop. They attempt to work through an unsolvable math problem related to the future, which is still, by definition unknown. The reason it is an unsolvable problem is that all of the variables don't yet exist -- the key variable, of course being the actual event.

This is the seductive, insidious nature of anxiety. When you are fearful of the unknown, your mind tricks you into thinking that you are preparing for the future by running through every possible scenario that you can imagine.

Elsewhere

Some people escape the present by going elsewhere -- which can really mean anything (or anywhere) that is not the present -- by thinking of people, places, or things not directly relevant to the present moment or by tuning out through as through technology, drinking alcohol or using drugs.

Most people go elsewhere during frightening, unpleasant or boring situations. In fact, some of you may be doing it right now. Mentally exiting the moment makes sense in certain situations, especially if it is during an overwhelming situation. When I refer to compulsively rehashing events of the past or spinning about events in the future, I want to emphasize that I am not talking about the deliberate decision to think about the past with the intention of learning from it or choosing to focus on the future with the goal of planning for it. And when I make reference to escaping to elsewhere, remember that we all do this from time to time and escape can be a great thing as long as you are doing it by choice. The problem of absence is when it is not a choice or when we choose to do it so often that the temporary escape becomes permanent avoidance.

Cultivating Presence

Pain is an inevitable part of life. There is no avoiding it, and trying to escape from it can lead to other problems. Instead of leaving the present when you experience pain, or as Louis C.K. calls it, the "forever empty," try cultivating a sense of presence in your life. This can be done in as few as 10 minutes a day, either through meditation, yoga, prayer or just taking time each day to be silent.

In order to endure the pain you must be able to sit with it, not avoid it. No one wants to be in pain, but remember that pain can also be a lesson, an opportunity to learn, grown and change. The only real way out is through. If you can sustain the pain you will live to experience the pleasure.

For more by Ben Michaelis, Ph.D., click here.

For more on meditation, click here.

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
Life hacks and juicy stories to get you through the week.