When I finally got out for a hike one day this past Fall, after weeks of being mostly cooped up inside, I made a plan with my hiking partner that after the journey, we’d stop at a brewery for dinner and beer.
The hike was supposed to be my chance to move my body and experience the joy of being outdoors in a beautiful natural setting. And it did feel good. But the joy of it was diminished by my eagerness to get to the brewery. I found myself looking forward to the beer in a way that devalued the hike, casting it as a prelude to something I wanted more. I wasn’t able to “be in the moment” because I was anticipating a reward that would come later, once I had “gotten through” the present activity.
How could I prevent the phenomenon of tunnel vision from diminishing my time outdoors? I could remind myself to enjoy the beauty of the trees and the hills, but these reminders we give ourselves don’t always stick. I could cancel the brewery plan so that I’d no longer have something to distract me from the hiking experience, but this would leave me feeling disappointed and looking for justifications to reverse the cancellation.
I came up with a trick. I would find something else to look forward to, something that could take the place of the brewery as the target of my expectation, something that would reinforce rather than detract from the experience of the hike.
I said to myself, “I’m looking forward to the calmness and satisfaction I will feel as a result of each of the many steps I’m taking on this hike. I’m looking forward to the experience of having communed with nature, the experience of having put my body into action to follow the hiking trail, having ascended the hills and emerged from the valleys, having seen the late afternoon sun grow golder, having heard the birds and the wind, having taken deep breaths of the forest air. ”
And guess what? It worked.
My new, substitute expectation might be a mouthful, needing more words to describe than beer does, but “post-hike calmness and satisfaction” is a very real experience that I know from many hikes past – it’s an experience that’s tangible and specific enough for me that I really can “look forward” to it, in the same way I might look forward to a beverage.
The difference between these two targets of anticipation, these two available choices of how to set my expectations while I hike, is that one helps me enjoy each moment of the journey, while the other makes me want to get through with it so I can have what comes next. The beer is something different from the hike, something that “comes next,” while the post-hike satisfaction is something that derives from the hike, something that is inseparable from it.
Of course it would have been nice if I were such a Zen master that I didn’t need to have anything to look forward to and could simply appreciate the hike moment-by-moment. It would have been nice to not need a technique for embracing the present. But sometimes there’s no way to simply will oneself to “be in the moment” and we can benefit from a little trickery to help us achieve that state.
The trick I’m proposing is to choose something to look forward to that redirects your attention back to the present. By forming an image of post-hike satisfaction and looking forward to this image, it might seem that I’m sending my attention away from the present and towards some future state. But in fact, this image serves to reroute my attention back to the present, as if the image of the post-hike satisfaction were a mirror reflecting each of the moments that I experience along the way. The more I look forward to the post-hike satisfaction the more I realize that this desired state can only come from each step I’m taking, including the current one, and so the more I appreciate that current step.
As I write this essay a few weeks after the hike, I remember that day outdoors as a particularly wonderful, calming experience. And I wouldn’t recommend a technique without having tried it out and had success with it at least twice. So here’s my second success story for the expectation technique, the trick for being in the moment by choosing what to look forward to:
The holidays can be really stressful for reasons I won’t elaborate here. Earlier this December I found myself thinking “I can’t wait to get through Christmas and have it be over with.” But I knew that the anticipation of “being done” with Christmas would only intensify the stress of each moment prior to its being done. So instead I said, “I’m looking forward to the experience of having connected with my loved ones. I’m looking forward to the satisfaction of knowing that I did what was needed to help everyone be together and have a good time.” And guess what? It worked. I had a good Christmas, in large part because I wasn’t thinking about “getting through” the holiday to attain some relief when it would finally be over. I had a good Christmas because I chose to look forward to a post-Christmas experience that could only come about by my being present for each moment of the holiday itself.