What about your goals and dreams?
Live in the moment.
Live in the now.
Stop to smell the roses.
We are constantly bombarded by these kinds of messages. Are you tired of hearing them? Do you think they’re overly simplistic and naive?
Doesn’t living in the moment sound like we’re supposed to ignore our pasts and neglect our futures? Doesn’t it sound like we’re supposed to give up making any sort of positive progress in our lives?
While we may think there is something attractive about living in the moment, we may also have the sense that it just isn’t practical. It sounds like a consequence of living in the moment is our stagnation.
Is it possible to reconcile these perspectives? Can we live in the moment without tossing aside the progress we desire?
And, if so, how?
Paying attention to the not-now
It’s obvious that we need to think about the past. If I’ve made a mistake, I’ll never learn from it if I don’t think about what I’ll do differently next time. Is this not considered being present?
It’s equally as obvious that we need to think about the future. If I have a goal or dream, I’ll never attain it if I don’t think about the steps I need to take to reach it. Is this, too, not considered being present?
If living in the moment means not thinking about the past and the future at all, then I say, No thanks. For me, this would result in an aimless and pointless existence. How can I have any purpose in a world where I don’t learn from my mistakes and strive toward a better tomorrow?
So, can living in the moment mean something else?
I think it can.
Joseph Goldstein, renowned meditation teacher and author, has something very interesting to say on this matter. He says (and I paraphrase), we should think about our pasts and our futures only to the extent that it is useful to do so.
So, what does this mean?
We know from experience that thinking about the past and the future can be useful. But, there is a limit to the usefulness of this kind of thinking. Beyond this limit, this kind of thinking — often referred to as rumination — is detrimental to us.
The wandering mind
How often do you find yourself lost in thought about your past, replaying an event over and over again? Or, maybe you imagine all the different ways the situation could have ended differently?
Ruminating about our pasts goes well beyond problem-solving and learning. It causes us to think about a negative situation over and over, which re-kindles our emotional reaction to it. So, instead of feeling shitty about a mistake for a couple of minutes or an hour, we carry that shitty feeling around with us for days or weeks.
And, what about your future? Do you ruminate about that, as well?
Of course you do. We all fantasize about what the future has in store for us — when we find that amazing partner, when we land that dream job, when we write our first book. It’s easy to start planning what we’d do in a life that doesn’t yet exist.
Unfortunately, studies have shown that fantasizing about the future is not only linked to depressive symptoms, but also to less commitment and effort toward goals. Research has also shown that, in general, we are less happy when our minds wander than when we are paying attention to the present moment.
It’s clear that ruminating on the past and future isn’t useful. It pulls us out of the present, away from whatever we’re doing, and leaves us stuck in an imaginary world, accomplishing nothing, except making us feel like shit.
So, what do we do about it?
Being present is about being intentional
When we’re ruminating on the past or future we’re not actively engaged in the present. We’re mindlessly floating down our streams of consciousness, allowing the eddies and currents to pull us this way and that.
Living in the moment means living intentionally. It means acting purposefully. It means knowing what you’re doing and why — including thinking. It means being honest with yourself about your behaviour, and admitting if some aspect of it is destructive.
Sometimes you need to examine the past. Sometimes you need to plan for the future. But you also need to be able to recognize when that behaviour has ceased being productive and has started causing you needless unhappiness.
This means you need to learn how to pull yourself out of your stream of consciousness so you’re not so caught up in it. You need to start moving yourself toward the shore.
It’s only from there that you’ll get a better perspective on things.
Mindfulness is the key
Pulling yourself out of your stream of consciousness is not easy. You have spent a lifetime developing the habit of getting lost in it. You have become so used to spinning and somersaulting down that stream that you no longer notice the discomfort. This is your norm.
How do you break this habit? By developing the skill of mindfulness. Only mindfulness can move you out of the centre of that rushing stream toward more calm waters.
Mindfulness works by giving you a new perspective on your mind. It allows you to see your thoughts rather than get lost in them. Ultimately, it will help you be more intentional in your behaviour.
How do you develop the skill of mindfulness? By intentionally paying attention to the present. A simple way of doing this is to sit with your eyes closed and try to bring your full attention to your breath. When your mind wanders (which it will constantly) your job is to simply bring it back to focus on the breath.
While this sounds easy, you will quickly discover that this couldn’t be further from the truth. It is one of the most difficult things you will ever do, but it’s worth the effort.
Breaking your habit of thinking unintentionally and developing your mindfulness will be life-changing. But, your mind will hate you for it. It will kick and scream and beg and plead. It will ceaselessly and tirelessly work against you.
All you need to do is continue to try.
Do you lose your future by living in the present?
By living in the moment, by being mindfully present, we don’t lose anything.
We only gain.
We gain peace from our past mistakes and embarrassments.
We gain enjoyment from what’s happening now.
And, because we can direct our focus to where it’s most useful, we gain the ability to move ourselves in the direction of our desired future.
Does that sound like a life worth living?
Thanks for reading!
Many of the ideas presented here come from thinkers like Joseph Goldstein, Sam Harris, and Eckhart Tolle.