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    Is it Now, Yet?

    tomWariness is a kind of innate default setting in the human brain. To keep our ancestors alive, the brain evolved a “negativity bias”—an inclination to be constantly on the alert for potential dangers. Most of us continually hear an ongoing background whisper of unease that keeps us scanning our inner and outer worlds for signs of trouble. The result is that we’re biased toward exaggerating real dangers and imagining others that don’t exist (the national hysteria over Ebola is one obvious example).

    This background anxiety is so automatic that we can easily forget it’s there. Hyper vigilance may have been an adaptive way for our primate ancestors to avoid being surprised by predators, but it’s a painful and unnecessary way for modern humans to live. It exhausts us, feeds anxiety and depression, and encourages us to avoid risks and play it too safe in our lives.

    But there’s a lot we can do to counteract negativity bias. The first step is to tune into it. To do that, you just pay attention to the tension in the body, or the blocks you feel from completely relaxing and letting go. One instructive exercise is to try to walk through a familiar public place that you know is safe, and try to remain in a continuously relaxed state. You’ll probably be surprised at how hard it is to do. Or sit still at home for five minutes straight while trying to feel completely open, relaxed and at peace in the present moment. This may sound easy, but in fact most people can’t do it.

    Once you’re aware of how pervasive this background fear is, the next step is to focus your awareness on the present moment. When we think about the future, we worry and plan. When we think about the past, we resent and regret. Look again at the present moment, and ask yourself, “On present evidence, how safe am I right now?” Am I breathing? Is my heart beating? In all likelihood, no one is attacking you. You’re not in the middle of a hurricane. No one is shooting at you. In short, you’re not in danger. The present moment isn’t perfect, but you’re okay.

    We can do much to lower our anxiety and stress levels by taking mindful pauses several times a day. Simply stop being occupied with the past or the future, and rest for a few breaths in the simplicity of the present. It’s possible to do this even in the middle of a busy life. While driving or riding the bus, notice that you’re okay right now. While talking with someone or working at your computer, just notice that nothing is wrong right now.

    This doesn’t mean ignoring real threats or issues, or pretending that everything is perfect when it clearly isn’t. But in the middle of everything, you can usually see that you’re actually fine right now. You may be stuck in traffic. Your back may be hurting. You may want more money or love. But meanwhile, underneath all the wanting, all the striving, all the busy-ness, you can notice that, right now, the foundation of all your activities is an aliveness and an awareness that is doing fine. It’s a remarkable fact that, no matter how difficult our lives might be, in the vast majority of our moments, we are safe.

    Of course it’s true that sometimes you’re really not all right. Maybe your body is in acute pain, or you’re in the middle of a personal crisis. At those times you need to do what you can to ride out the storm. But as soon as possible, notice that the core of your being is okay, like the calm place fifty feet below the surface of an agitated sea. In time, it becomes possible to sense the place in you that is always deeper than fear, always alive and present and all right. Over time, it is possible to learn to feel at home in this place. With regular practice, it becomes possible to rest in the uncomplicated safety of the present moment while still getting things done and responding to problems.

    Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. For more information, please visit