When I was a wee one I used to wonder a lot about what life would be like 10, 20, 30 years down the line. Would I be a doctor? Running for office? Married to Britney Spears? (Remember that this was the late 90's, ok?)
I was always looking forward, focused on what was to come. While my mind was set on tomorrow, today was floating by. One day someone asked me for the time, and I drew a complete blank...I couldn't even remember month it was. Thinking about the future can quickly get you stuck in obsessing over it, and I did exactly that for way too long.
The same can happen when dealing with the past. While the future pulls you into tomorrow, the past drags you back to yesterday. You remember the mistakes you made, the glory you used to have. The past matters more than anything else, and so you spend days reliving it.
Whether you live in the past or the future, you are living in a time-suck limbo that robs you of the present.
Years ago I met someone who was way worse than I was at living away from the now. She was constantly worried about everything that just happened or was about to happen. She was stressed, anxious over her lack of control over time.
Until one day she bumped into the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, a leader of the mindfulness movement. She found an oasis within a thorny desert. She dove into the practice of mindfulness and saw effects almost immediately. She went from a wound-up stress ball to a quite calm, and even somewhat jolly person. Her frenetic energy was now a thoughtful drip, and she was using it all in the present.
I was in awe of the change, and so I had to discover this for myself. She recommended a few tomes to get me started, and I went to work. After many failed attempts, I finally stuck long enough with a meditation practice that I started to see results. The change I saw in her was very similar to the change I saw in myself: I became a lot better at keeping my focus on what was right in front of me.
My attempt at being present was not a zen thing, or a buddhist thing, it was a kindness thing. It's something I did because I tired of feeling exhausted after chasing my thoughts all around my head; I had had it with focusing on everything but the moment I was in. Not being present made me feel like I was skating over my life, rather than fully diving in.
I needed to be present, for my own well-being and fulfillment.
Being present means I can be fully immersed in the right now.
It means tomorrow is a ghost that will materialize based on what I do today.
It means having a clear enough mind to engage the world around me.
It means taking care of myself.
And it means appreciating this very moment because this very moment will never happen again.
Being present means being appreciative, thoughtful, focused, kind, and calm.
Is there a more present animal than the dog? [photocredit]
So how do you become more present?
I know of a few ways. There's the obvious one of meditation. You may think that it's not for you (even though science keeps building an ironclad case for why it's good for everyone), but I dare you to give it a shot. (I'll write on how to get started in a later post.)
But you actually don't have to get into a lotus pose to zen it out.
You can do things that put you in a meditative state--not the same thing as meditating. This means doing things that keep you "in the moment." This varies from person to person, so for you it could be cooking dinner, writing in a journal, running the lake, or talking to your friends. It's something that collects all of your attention and keeps it there for as long as possible (preferably at least 20 minutes). During this time nothing else matters, and everything else can wait.
Another way to be present is to study the moment you are in. Think of yourself as Sherlock Holmes, and your surroundings as a crime scene. Study the scene, the people, the clues. Notice the texture of the furniture, the smell of sweet mahogany, the clic-clac sound the keyboard makes as you type. Paying close attention to what is around you anchors you to that moment. When you do this you will feel like your eyes are more open, and the world is now in High Definition.
It's time to be fully honest: I've failed at being present recently.
I have been caught up in past mistakes and future worries to the point where my stomach churns and I forget what day it is. And that's probably how it's going to be for most of you.
You won't always be present, and you'll notice yourself drifting off into another time. It's hard to make that shift to the now, especially with our culture being so future-focused. What's the next goal on your list? What is our projection for next quarter? Where's the next shiny thing?
It's a process, and a rocky one.
But I've notice one very inspiring thing: I now know when I'm not being present. Before, I would go weeks without noticing the breadth of what I was missing. My default setting was to not be in the moment. Now, however, I feel like my mind alerts me when it is going somewhere else. I am recognizing the violations, I am throwing flags on the play, and because of that it's happening a lot less.
One thing you might hear from other people when you talk to them about your pursuit of presence is that it's great...if you are not an ambitious person. They see this life philosophy as being more appropriate for the surfer dude or the nun. Being zen and being striving don't seem to mix, right?
But you'll soon find out that in order to achieve you need presence. By being present you can fully grasp the situation and make clear-headed decisions that align with your values. By being present you are taking care of your body, heart, and mind so you can keep making progress on your ambitious life goals.
If this isn't enough, here's a list of some meditation practitioners:
- Steve Jobs
- Judd Apatow
- Jerry Brown
- Sheryl Crow
- Clint Eastwood
- Arian Foster
- Joe Namath
- Rick Rubin
- Martin Scorcese
- Tony Schwartz
- Kurt Vonnegut
- Jerry Seinfeld
Do you think these folks lack ambition?
Why do I pursue presence? In the end, I am working on becoming more present because I need to be kinder with myself. I am starting to realize that dragging the past and putting the future on my shoulders is not sustainable; I am a human being, not a Greek pillar. There's a very long list of other reasons to go after presence: enjoying your family time; truly being there for your friends; savoring the meals you in front of you; being fully engaged in the work you do.
Whatever your reason for seeking more presence, start now. Every day you carry on top of today adds to a load that you don't need to keep.
Onward. In mindfulness, thrive.
Some recommended readings for anyone interested in digging through this topic a bit more:
- The Power of Now: more on the New Age bend, but still very helpful in understanding the philosophy behind being present.
- Why Meditate?: it fully answers why meditation is so good for your well-being. Written by a neuro-biologist turned Tibetan monk.
- Work: focused more on thinking about your work in a mindful way. Provides a lot of helpful meditation prompts.
- Flow: not a book on mindfulness or meditation per se, but definitely important. It talks about the benefits of immersing yourself in what you are doing, and why that will always be more satisfying than passively watching TV.
- Mindfulness, Finding Peace in a Frantic World: a very good eight-week program to help bring mindfulness and meditation into your daily routine.