Can't Sit Still? You Are Not Alone

05/19/2015 10:11 am ET | Updated May 19, 2016
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A friend laughed with relief when I told her how noisy my mind is when I step outside intending to sit and listen to birdsong. She thought she was the only one who could barely quiet her mind enough to sit still. I find that the fresh air, earth aromas, and the bird chorus are there for a moment or two and then all that I am trying to savor drops away, replaced by mulling over something that happened the day before or fretting over a conflict-laden meeting I have to attend the next day. I am in the past or future, but definitely not the present.

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We are told that meditation is one of the best remedies for fruitless rumination and incessant worry. "It's hard to block out things that are on your mind," remarked one 53 year old man frequently troubled by insomnia. He attempts various strategies, like focusing on breathing in and breathing out, but by the second set of breaths his thoughts have returned to what was bothering him in the first place.

Practicing mindfulness, the healthy-minded buzz word now, is a wonderful and elusive way to live. When you are folding the laundry, fold the laundry. Be there with the softness of the fabric, the satisfaction of the neat pile rising before you. When a thought or worry intrudes, cast it away and go back to that fluffy towel. This is where peace is located, not in hurrying on to the next task or doing a business call while folding. "But I have to do three things at once," insisted a midlife woman at the height of her profession. "There just aren't enough hours in the day."

We are busier than ever with all our time-saving conveniences and easy communications. We have far too much access to each other and hardly any to ourselves. Even though the best moments in life cannot occur while we are rushing around, cramming in all that we can, getting the maximum number of things done, this is the way most of us conduct our passage from morning till night, day after day, year after year.

Stop. Seize the day. Be here now. These slogans are actually correct, or you will reach the finish line with regret for how you lived your days in a blur. "Make your days worth remembering," advised Bill Milton, age 89:

To youngsters, I say, live hard. This is your one and only life, the only show in town. You can't get any of your days back. Live as if you are going to be old someday, looking back on everything you did. It's everything you didn't do that will bug the heck out of you.

How to do it, that is the question. It helps me to visualize my own death -- not the theoretical construct of dying someday, but the digging of my grave, the placement of my coffin above the hole, and the mourners gathering around. This silences my noisy mind like nothing else. If I do it well, my petty concerns retreat and the necessity for enjoying the day in front of me, here and now, takes the foreground. This is living hard, making it matter. I fold the towels and experiment with peace.

At 101, Edna Whitman Chittick told me the secret of life: "All that matters in the end is that you are loved." I was lucky to hear her take on what is important and what isn't when I was in my late twenties:

You spend half your life worrying about things that won't concern you in the slightest at the end. When you're lying in bed dying, you want people to sit by your side. That's it. It's easy to get tricked by dreams of money and success, but all the money in the world doesn't buy you kindness. You get that because you gave it.

Living to give kindness wherever you can is a different aim than the usual trajectories, but almost every person on their deathbed has told me some version of this advice. I am talking about people from all walks of life, people dying young and those leaving this existence after more than a hundred years. I can say now, at 61, that it is a good way to live. I think that tuning into this view of what we are here for is why imagining my death calms me down. I know what to do until my time comes.

By allowing ourselves an interlude of doing nothing, letting the wild horses run around inside our mind and then tire out, we open up the possibility of listening to the still, small voice within. I find this same voice when I write in my journal, once I'm done with the mere recording of doings and get to the person under all the activities and conversations. I resist getting to this depth, because sorrow may be hiding there, but once I reach it and let it be what it is, I feel a powerful and simple contentment. Here I am, alive right now.

It takes effort to push back against the tide of small worries, to-do lists, people to call back, emails piling up as fast as you can delete them. Trying to meditate or to take a few moments out on the porch when full of anxiety can be infuriating. The cart is placed before the horse, and you don't get anywhere at first. But if you persevere, if you say to your own crowded thoughts, "Hey, give me a break," and go back to the birdsong, you will seize some fine moments that do calm you down and put you in the aliveness that is the best life has to offer.

Copyright Wendy Lustbader. Adapted from What's Worth Knowing, Tarcher/Penguin, 2001.