Why is it so hard to live in the present moment?
Yesterday is history. Tomorrow’s a mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present.
If only we’d heed these wise words from cartoonist Bill Keane, we could experience such contentment in our lives! When you’re depressed, it’s because you’re living in the past. And when you’re anxious, it’s because you’re living in the future.
We’ve all heard about the power of the present moment and the benefits of “living in the now.” Everything from reduced blood pressure to a richer tapestry of life. I doubt any of us would naturally choose to ruminate over the past or worry about the future. And, yet, our minds are often filled with chatter that’s a direct reflection of these automatic tendencies.
Past and Future
Much of this is rooted in pain from the past and fear of the future. We spend so much of our time thinking about what we didn’t get done yesterday – or what we need to do tomorrow – that we lose sight of today. As a result, we’re very rarely fully present in our lives.
One of the biggest reasons we don’t live in the present is because we never shut up. We constantly talk to ourselves. As philosopher Alan Watts put it, “If we’re talking all the time, we never hear what anyone else has to say. In the same way, if we’re talking to ourselves all the time, we’re never listening — and never in a relationship with reality.
It’s All In Your Head
“All fear resides in memory.” Whoa – I remember hearing that at a seminar, and it really hit me hard.
Our mind is constantly toggling between two opposing tendencies, according to Dr. Rajeev Kurapati. First we fear the inevitable brought by the “who-knows-when” tomorrow. Tomorrow can be risky and frightening.
On the flipside, there’s the powerful tug of hope that lies beyond today. Hope that tomorrow will be better. Our mind teeters between fear and hope. As a result, it performs a dance between these polarities, constantly looking for a natural resting place.
Whew – this can be exhausting. So, how can you solve this dilemma of your ever-frenzied mind?
That’s where the concept of mindfulness comes in – cultivation of the present moment. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance without judging. As John Adams once said, “A man who knows himself can step outside of himself and watch his own reaction.” But most people achieve such clarity for only fleeting moments.
When you become mindful, according to author Jay Dixit, you’re able to be with your thoughts as they are – neither grasping at them, nor pushing them away. Instead of letting your life go by without living it, you awaken to a richer experience.
Mindful people are generally happier, more exuberant and more secure. They have higher self-esteem, decreased ego involvement and are likely to have less chronic pain and increased immune systems.
Don’t Believe Everything You Think
Thoughts are just thoughts. You don’t have to believe them – and you don’t have to do what they say.
I learned a helpful technique awhile back. When a disturbing emotion comes in, just acknowledge to yourself, “I’m having a thought I’ve labeled as sad/anxious/etc.” and then let it go on by. Acceptance is the key.
I also use a few quick questions as touchstones to get me back to neutral:
Is this true?
How do I know it’s true?
What other explanations could exist?
You Are Not Your Thoughts
Do you find yourself being distracted and fragmented on a regular basis? When you’re at work, you fantasize about being on vacation. When you’re on vacation, you worry about the work piling up on your desk. And then you lose your current experience.
Well, you’re not alone. We often don’t appreciate living in the present because our “monkey minds,” as Buddhists call them, vault from thought to thought like monkeys swinging from tree to tree.
If you just “survive” the work week – constantly waiting for the weekend to get here – you’re wasting 71 percent of your life (five out of seven days). Yikes!
You may be familiar with the book and movie, “Eat, Pray, Love” in which author Elizabeth Gilbert takes several months to travel to Italy, India and Bali to heal from a painful divorce.
Gilbert talks about how we unintentionally miss our lives. She writes about a friend who, whenever she sees a beautiful place, exclaims in a near panic, “It’s so beautiful here! I want to come back here someday!” “It takes all my persuasive powers,” says Gilbert, “to try to convince her she’s already here.”
We can get so trapped in thoughts of the future or the past that we forget to experience – let alone enjoy – what’s happening right now. We sip coffee and think, “This is not as good as what I had last week.” Or we eat a cookie and think, “I hope I don’t run out of cookies.”
Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness, expands on the concept of savoring — involving your senses in whatever you’re doing in the present moment. Savoring forces you into the present – so you can’t worry about things that aren’t there.
When her research subjects took a few minutes each day to savor something they usually hurried through – eating a meal, walking to the subway, drinking a cup of tea – they began experiencing more joy and other positive emotions and fewer depressive symptoms.
Wherever You Go, There You Are
This is actually the title of a book by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He’s the founder of MBSR, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, and a pioneer in this field.
Research has shown that anchoring awareness in the here and now reduces the kinds of impulsive actions that underlie depression, binge eating and attention problems. Mindful people can hear negative feedback without feeling threatened. As a result of being less defensive, they often have more satisfying relationships.
There are lots of simple ways to quiet our minds. You don’t have to sit cross-legged for half an hour, chanting a mantra. Check out these quick fixes:
- Nature – go for a five-minute walk
- Candle – stare into a flame for two minutes
- Breathe – close your eyes and take three deep breaths
- Music – put on a three-minute piece of music that soothes you
Have you ever had the experience of driving along a highway only to suddenly realize you have no awareness of the previous 15 minutes? Maybe you even missed your exit. Or, you may have been reading a book and needed to come back to a page several times because you zoned out.
These autopilot moments are what Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer calls mindlessness – times when you’re so lost in your thoughts you aren’t aware of your present experience. As a result, life passes you by without registering on you. The best way to avoid such blackouts, Langer says, is to develop the habit of always noticing new things in whatever situation you’re in. That process creates engagement of the present moment.
We become mindless because once we think we know something, we stop paying attention to it. We go about our morning commute in a haze because we’ve taken the same route a hundred times before. The world is constantly changing, though, so challenge yourself to notice new things.
Once you recognize you don’t know the things you’ve always taken for granted, it becomes an adventure in noticing. The more you notice, the more you see. And the more alive you feel.
Are We There Yet?
Here’s a key insight. Mindfulness isn’t a goal — because goals are about the future. You do have to set the intention of paying attention to what’s happening in the present moment, though. As you read the words printed on this page – or on the screen – become aware of your senses and your breath as you take in the information and savor the experience.
If you’re aware of that feeling right now, as you’re reading this, you’re living in the moment.
As poet Emily Dickinson puts it, “Forever is composed of nows.