Learning to Live in the Present Moment
“Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry – all forms of fear – are caused by too much future, and not enough presence. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, and all forms of non-forgiveness are caused by too much past, and not enough presence.” – Eckhart Tolle
Past, present and future. Any of the self-help books I’ve read, the autobiographies of happy people, most entrepreneur success stories, nearly all the religious beliefs and much research, tells us that we should focus on the present, the NOW. However, most of us tend to spend a disproportionate amount of time on the past or future, leaving very little time in the present, myself included.
As I have been working through the series on Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff… and It’s All Small Stuff, author Richard Carlson had quite a few tools/insights related to this guiding principle of Living in the Present.
Take a moment and think about these three items as they relate to your life. What percentage of time/effort/thinking do you spend on each; dwelling in the past, living in the present and stressing about the future? The experts suggest that we should aim to spend most of our time in the present.
Personally, I don’t dwell much in the past. I am an optimist and pride myself on looking forward. I think about the future often rooted in my constant need for a plan, my fear of missing out (FOMO) and my obsession with lists to get things done. I believe that my focus on the future leaves me little time in the NOW. What if I spent more time in the NOW, would I appreciate what I have and sweat the small stuff less? I am confident it would.
Value of the Past
As I mentioned previously, I don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on the past. Ideally, I enjoy remembering the past to invoke happy thoughts and reliving memories. For me, it is a database of information to call upon to improve the future and ensure I don’t repeat the past. I pride myself on not regretting what happened in the past. The past is past, I cannot change it. I will often console myself with the belief, “Everything happens for a reason.” I may not know that reason, but I trust that I will either figure it out in the future or it may be a benefit for someone else. I have had this capacity most of my life. My divorce best demonstrates how I manage to move on and not dwell in the past.
I had every reason to be angry at my ex, hold a grudge and never forgive him. When I look back now, I appreciate what I gained, rather than the hurt. I moved into NYC (a great desire of mine), I moved to England, took a year off to travel and met numerous lifelong friends. Oh, and I would be remiss if I don’t recall meeting the most amazing husband years later. I can’t say for certain none of this would have happened otherwise, but most likely not. I guess this relates to my ability to put myself in someone else’s shoes, which I discussed in my blog on No One Ever wakes up with Bad Intent. I believe my ex did not wake up with the intent to personally hurt me, he needed a solution to his challenges. Do I wish that he had gone about it a different way? Yes, most definitely. Did I hurt? Yes, most definitely. However, what value would I get from holding onto my bitterness.
As I look back now, I realize that I had adopted a form of meditation and mindfulness that helped me get through the ordeal. I recall going to church every day and praying. It was my way to surrender to something greater than myself. My prayer that I would recite continuously was, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” I also adopted a chant that many might recall me saying, that I still use to this day, “In with the good, and out with the bad.” I coupled this with breathing.
This was nearly 20 years ago. I was not into meditation, I was not overtly religious, but these were tools that I used to cope with the disappointment, the shame, the hurt that I was going through. One day, I was then able to pull up my bootstraps and move on. As I discussed in my blog, Fear vs. Freedom, overcoming this in my life, allowed me to focus on the future; knowing that with time, prayer and faith it would all work out.
I also chose not to regret what has happened even though it might have eliminated some pain, I would not have been blessed with the goodness that did exist in the marriage. I wouldn’t have gotten to know my in-laws, owned a house in Farmingdale, etc. just to name a few. I say the same thing when asked if I regret not leaving my last company earlier. I look at what I would have missed out on in the process. I met an amazing group of people in my different roles, learned new responsibilities, and most importantly, even in the worst situations, learned how I did not want to lead, which has now defined my mission in life. If you look hard enough, you can find good in every situation. I am a true believer that every glass is half full. To be fair, I would argue, that I am such the optimist that even if there is just a bit of water in that glass, it is better than none and if there is none, then it is an opportunity to get more.
Let’s jump to the future next. “Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry – all forms of fear” as Tolle points out in his book is where I can get caught up. I believe this can go in a couple of different directions. As I discussed in Fear Vs. Freedom blog, I don’t allow fear to keep me from doing something. I have worked hard not to let my fear of failure, loss, hurt, humiliation, etc. limit me. However, as discussed in my last blog, Lighten Up, my Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) and need to have a plan, can focus me too much in the future and not enough in the present.
Fortunately, I have a strong belief that with planning, visualization, positive thinking and hard work you can make most things happen. I am good at getting things done. My process is to visualize the future (or goal) and figure out what I (or anyone for that matter) want. I then work backwards to figure out what you need to do today, tomorrow and next week to make it happen. There is the optimist again.
I have been grappling with the concept of getting things done. Obviously, it is not focused in the past, but where does that fit in? The future? The present? The reason this question is pressing for me is because this is where I spend most of my time. I have my checklists and I am ultra-focused on all the things that are needed to accomplish the future state. I wish I could say that this is part of the present, but I don’t think it is. I think I spend very little time in the present. This time off has taught me to stop and smell the roses, spend more time with my parents, and appreciate the time to cook dinner for my husband, but has it really taught me to live in the present?
Living in the NOW
How do you relax? How much time do you spend by yourself? In the past, when I needed to relax, I would play a game on my computer, aimlessly channel surf and get lost for a few hours in my new logic puzzles. I thought this was healthy and something that was helping me. Truthfully though, I was avoiding quiet time. I have learned I didn’t like spending time with myself and just being.
I had the pleasure of spending a week in Rochester with my husband and his family. We had a week of minimal activities. Our “plan” was to relax, enjoy the company and appreciate our surroundings. I was loving life. I had finished a book, completed numerous puzzles and even worked on my networking plan. Even in the relaxed state, I was getting things done. I then had a thought. I was going to just sit on the back patio, by myself and watch the grass grow for a bit.
Can we talk about being uncomfortable? Sitting there, my chest was getting tight and I was out of my element. I was doing nothing. Can I do nothing? Apparently, not very well. But I persevered and kept watching the grass, enjoying the birds singing, noticing the greenness of the grass, the beauty of the trees, and the faint sound of the lawnmower. I was letting myself think, enjoy, feel. I am not sure how much time passed, but at the end, I was feeling so much more relaxed. It was a completely different feeling from spending an hour playing a game.
It dawned on me why I had always used the ‘games’ to quiet my mind. I was scared of being alone with my own thoughts. This was a skill that I had lost. I had mastered it while going through my divorce by going to church and focusing on building the strength to move into the future. However, I had stopped living in the present. It was time to start practicing.
A Plan to Smell the Roses
This concept that I would commit and plan time to practice being in the present seemed counter-intuitive to my therapist. As he said, the whole point is to just live in the moment and when it hits you, smell the roses. I couldn’t argue with him. However, I had a problem. I did not know how to be in the present, in the NOW.
Let me share with you, how bad I am at this. When I am getting a massage, I am focused on the outcome. Will they hit the right muscle with the right pressure to release all the toxins built up? Will I be able to relax? I am completely focused on the outcome, rather than enjoying each touch and each breath, as well as just being.
It then hit me that this may be the reason I cannot recall most of the holes that I have played on a golf course. I love playing golf. Although we don’t get out that often, we will often play the same courses. Ralph can remind me about each hole, where the tree is situated, the beauty of the next hole, and even how I played it last time. I just look at him in awe. I have no recollection. You know why? I am so focused on the talk track in my head, “How fast we are playing? What club I am going to use? Where are our partners? Can I get a beer? Do I need to pee.” Holy cow, I am forgetting to enjoy the course and take in all the nuances. I am focused on the outcome again and not the fun in getting there. No wonder I sweat the small stuff.
My sister-in-law then recommended reading the book, 10% Happier by Dan Harris. Only half way through, it has opened my eyes to the fact that I am not the only one challenged with this. Living in the present takes practice. Therefore, I committed to myself that I need to plan to spend more quiet time with my thoughts. Once it becomes a habit, then I won’t need a plan and I can spend more time appreciating the holes on the golf course and smelling the roses, unplanned.
As with most things I have focused on so far, I strongly believe that much of this is about reprogramming your beliefs. I want to live in the present. I want to enjoy more of what is here, rather than constantly focused on the outcome. Everyone has their own crosses to bear, their own demons to slay. Hopefully this blog will inspire you to figure out where you spend most of your time today (past, present or future) and how you can reallocate more time tomorrow to NOW. You can’t enjoy the past because it is already gone and tomorrow is not here yet. NOW is where we can be happy, because NOW is here.
“Breathe. Let go. And remind yourself that this very moment is the only one you know you have for sure.” – Oprah Winfrey