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Presence vs. Pumpkin Spice

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September 11, 2023


PRESENCE VS. PUMPKIN SPICE: How do we stay in the moment if we can’t even stick to a season?

Talking about the weather in an elevator with a stranger is my version of one ring of hell. Another is people complaining about how far ahead the store displays are from reality—Sam’s Club is full on twinkly light Christmas by now; Walgreens has been deep into the orange-browns of Halloween/Thanksgiving for weeks. Labor Day, End of Summer, Back to School and sound the cliché alarms: the Age of Pumpkin Spice is upon us, no matter that I just washed the car in my bathing suit.

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Once when I was greener behind the ears and new to Sleepy Hollow, I slowly expanded my circle mile by mile to explore shopping strips in other towns like Hartsdale (since in villages such as Sleepy Hollow we like to keep our ugly strip malls at arm’s length in other towns). When I discovered the wealth of pumpkin spice items that is Trader Joe’s this time of year, I got overly excited. I love a theme, and eagerly complied with amassing a nutmeg/cinnamon spice-scented haul.

I’m allergic to small talk, so I’m not here to complain about the stores getting ahead of us, anymore than I will whine if it’s too hot and humid for September, but neither of these are elements out of our control (read: Global Boiling and our human-causality in this, or vote with your consumer dollars about what season you want to shop in). And it occurs to me we can make an interesting philosophical leap here to meditate on this a little more meaningfully. How can we resist the empty lure of future-shopping in order to better remain present when it seems the whole world is conspiring against us?

Everything—especially capitalism—is at odds with us being Buddhist and staying in the moment, let alone in the right season. In Cybersickness, I wrote about our phones/computers pulling us willy-nilly with the whims of each and every text/notification/email that directs our day into stupid submission. We supposedly check our phones 144 times a day, with an increase of screen use in general up 30% from 2022. This is a massive affront to our already depleted ability to remain present, as each phone-check invariably disengages us from something else. A 2010 Harvard study of 2,250 subjects found they were only “present” 47% of the time. I’m sure that percentage must be much less some 13 years and several near-armageddons later. We are continually driven to distraction, despair, depression in an empty dopamine-addled loop. We might find ourselves craving something-anything to fill the void of a spare minute rather than be left alone with our thoughts, like scrolling through celebrity sludge (what is Kanye’s “wife” wearing?), browsing for superfluous possessions in order to get a fleeting rush, winning the minor approval of “likes” to make us feel worthwhile for a second, getting an adrenaline hit from an incoming text from someone we don’t actually care about.

I’m learning as I do the post-mortem on my recent relationship that I have an “anxious attachment” style—shrink jargon for clinging desperately onto the idea of things at the expense of the reality. I’ll map out the whole future of a relationship before I’ve even met a person. Invariably I’m disappointed or overwhelm with the too-muchness of my high expectations and self-induced frustrations—all the opposite of course of staying present and letting things run their natural course in due time. I suffer the same plight in my parenting, escalating heated moments with my inability to step back and breathe, dreading things that haven’t happened yet and may never until I happen to make them so with my anxiety. More insight on this from the Harvard study:

And here’s the real kicker, the study further determined that a wandering mind is not a happy mind, as not being present in the moment was the cause of test subjects who reported unhappiness, not the consequence. As Killingsworth reported: “Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness. In fact, how often our minds leave the present is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we’re engaged.”

No matter, they add, that you may be sad (see: Crying) and you are trying to escape to the fake land of happier thoughts. Not staying present with wherever you are and whatever mood you need to wallow in, leads to further unhappiness! Mindfulness, or meditation, is experiencing where/when you are, noting how and what you feel, sensing all there is to sense. Be here now, mute the phone, buy what you need only when you need it, listen, learn. Ironically, the list I got for meditation resources from my therapist all involve beginning or ending my day by logging into an app for 10 minutes, when this is the space (my bedroom) that I aim to protect as screen-free for the sake of my mental health. So, can I just sit in my feelings in the present tense without the tech guiding me (and adding another layer of distance with a device that I don’t want)? I think yes.

“Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have.”
— Eckhart Tolle

Marketing is on a mission to scare and shame us into spending by making us feel insufficient; the devices are conspiring to make themselves indispensable. We’re not enough; we’re ill-equipped for what is required to be better, more beautiful, more successful, more lovable. We will miss out on these cheaply manufactured objects we never needed before if we don’t catch this urgent sale now (p.s. you’re not saving if you’re spending). We’re woefully late for holiday shopping months in advance of any actual holiday. Who came up with this list? Does anyone even enjoy pumpkin-flavor this much?

Here are three simple tips to try to remain present and resist this lure toward unconscious-absence from the same Inc.com article:

1. “Accept that multi-tasking is a myth” – sorry, but you really can’t glance at your phone and listen to the person talking to you in the flesh right in front of you at the same time—something has to give. Our concept of multi-tasking is actually rapid task-switching, since we can only attend to one thing at a time. Every time we task-switch we lose efficiency. Data claims that amounts to a loss of up to 40% productivity! Can you imagine how much more we moms operating under the myth that we are multi-tasking masters can achieve should we stay on a single-task track? I remember when I was a regional reporter with little kids with me at home and about 11 articles to produce per diem. The best I could do to survive that was ask myself constantly, “what’s the most important thing I need to be doing right now” and do only that. And that was it, on repeat, all day long. It helped tons; I want to get back in that habit of the attending to the foremost first, and with focus.

2. “Catch the drift” – recognize when you’re wandering off and remove distractions. Ask yourself what you’re attending to when you notice you’ve lost the plot. Flip your phone face down or leave it in the bottom of your bag. Put a sticky note on your workstation to remind you to return. The more you catch the drift, the sooner you can do this at the beginning of the drift, and then eventually maybe before it, and ultimately not float away into this deep sea at all.

3. “Act like a baby” – babies are nothing but present as they are aliens new to this weird planet and just want to admire all the sights and sounds. Babies don’t have any money, so won’t feel compelled to pull out their credit cards when teased by the smell of autumnal spices. They probably don’t like those spices anyway.

How do you stay present and resist pumpkin-pressure? Please share, especially ideas that are low/no-tech.

Krista Mad­sen is the au­thor be­hind word­smith­ery shop,  Sleepy Hol­low, inK., and pro­ducer of the Home|body newslet­ter, which she is sharing reg­u­larly with The Hud­son In­de­pen­dent readership. You can subscribe for free to see all her posts and re­ceive them di­rectly in your in­box.

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