I’m at my happiest when I’m able to appreciate the present moment — completely immersed in the smells, sights, and sounds of everything that’s around me — but despite knowing this I spend so much of my time lost in my head, feeling like I need to dwell on the past or fixate on the future, feeling like the present moment isn’t enough.
When I’m at one with my lived experience, I’m not lost in my mind and subject to the various negative emotions that thinking about the past or the future can cause me. As Eckhart Tolle says:
“All negativity is caused by an accumulation of psychological time and denial of the present.” Eckhart Tolle (The Power of Now: A Guide To Spiritual Enlightenment)
“Psychological time” is rendered obsolete when I’m at one with the present moment; I just took a break from typing this article and sipped on my coffee, my mind drifted back to events that occurred earlier in the day, my sister had an epileptic seizure, sadness overcame me, I thought to the future; what if my sister’s seizures get worst? What if she has to be hospitalized or, worse still, she has a seizure that she doesn’t wake up from? My emotions oscillated between a sadness of the past and a fear of the future, my life took on a shade of grey turning to black as sadness and anxiety tore me in two equally uncomfortable directions.
I closed my eyes, took a few deep breaths, and looked up:
This tree in front of me, reaching out from the ground no more than ten meters away. Where had it been all this time? Or, more accurately; Where had I been to miss its presence?
The tree’s branches are swaying rhythmically in the wind as if they’re dancing. I open my ears, I can hear the tree’s leaves crunching and rustling as they sway, in the background I hear birds singing. All of this is basked in the late morning sun, myself included. We are all basking in the sun together as one. I feel a sense of peace, my previously anxious mind is calm.
Now that I’m calm, I can see my ‘problems’ from a different perspective; my thoughts about the past and the future are not real like this tree right in front of me is real. The tree, the wind, the birds, the sun, my garden, my pale hands that type these words — there is a sense of life and beauty to all of this which mere thoughts do not have.
Through my continual attempts to connect with the present moment I have learned an important lesson:
By dwelling in the present moment and removing myself from “psychological time” I access a sense of joy that is always there, irrespective of the hardships I might be going through.
I try to remember this whenever my mind is drifting into dark places. It has helped me in my ten year battle against chronic Depression and it has helped me to deal with the hardships associated with my job as Caregiver for my disabled older sister.
When the worst of your emotions have you trapped in pain and suffering don’t forget to look up, take in what you see, open your ears, listen to what you hear, draw in a deep breath and smell the reality that is right in front of you, the reality that your pain is leading you to ignore. Allow yourself to feel the joy of the present moment.
I offer this advice because I know I’m not alone in my struggles to stay rooted in the present moment — a 2010 study by Harvard psychologists which tracked the thoughts, feelings, and actions of its participants, found that they spent 46.9% of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they were doing and that they “were less happy when their mind was wandering than when it was not”. The results of this study echo the thoughts of Eckhart Tolle; spending too much time in our heads, in “psychological time”, will only ever make us unhappy.
So why are we all so inclined to keep doing this — why do we feel the need to spend so much of our time looking to the past or the future, at the expense of acknowledging the beauty that is right in front of us?
The temptation of looking to the past
The recollection of a joy long-since passed has a deceivingly warm embrace. Such memories are only a mirage wavering in our reflective minds, but they stir emotions, so strong at times, that makes us think they’re more than a mere reverie or just an idle wander down memory lane. This illusion has consequences, it tells us that happiness lies in the past, so we try to re-live the past, possibly try recreating it and we stop appreciating the joy of what is right in front of us; the present moment.
Recently, when I’ve been feeling low, I have started looking through the results of track races that I took part in when I was a ‘reasonably’ good runner in my youth. ‘Reasonably’ seems apt, I was never going to win the Olympics, but I competed at my national age-group championships in England and I could run at four-minute mile pace…for half a mile (800m).
I reminisce about my younger years when I’m feeling down because it takes me back to a time in my life when I didn’t have a worry in the world. A sense of nostalgia overcomes me as I dream of being transported back to a period of my life which seems preferable to where I am now. This sense of nostalgia only provides me with short-lived respite from my current worries and struggles. It isn’t long before I start to feel a mixture of regret and resentment for where I am now, compared to where I once was. Put simply; taking nostalgic trips down memory lane leads me to think that the present moment isn’t enough.
I can’t really know whether my days spent as a competitive runner were any better than my life right now because when I look back I’m grasping at a truth that has been and gone, the best I can do is piece together partial memories;
I look at a race result, a fleeting image comes to my mind, I’m crossing the finishing line of that race, smiling, my teammates rush to embrace me.
But who was that smiling boy really? Who was I after the race had finished? What kind of person was I — did I treat others well?
These are important questions, but I can only guess at their answers. Nostalgia has a frustratingly good ability at making you forget all such things, and just telling you; That past time was good, wouldn’t it be great if you could re-live that now?! You’d think that it wouldn’t be so easy to be fooled into believing such a simple analysis of past life events, but nostalgia is like a drug which, when administered in high enough doses, will render your sense of rationality useless.
The only life I can truly know the value of is the life I am leading right now, in this present moment. This I can know fully. My past life has been and gone and I can’t know for certain whether it was better or worse than what I have now, and such things shouldn’t matter because each moment is special and has its own unique joys that we can experience — so long as we are present to experience them.
When I’m at one with the present moment I’m able to look at my life with a sense of rationality that deserts me when I’ve been cast under nostalgia's spell. I realize how grateful I am for what I have now, how much I have grown as a person since my days spent running around an oval track with little more than my post-workout meal to worry about. Allowing my self to be present in this moment, helps me to be thankful for who I am now, not wistful of what I once was.
In your attempts to be more present, be wary of nostalgia. Dwelling on fond memories from your past can make you feel like your present life is somehow inferior. Different periods of your life cannot be compared, only lived through. When we start comparing, we stop living and prevent ourselves from experiencing the joys that our present life has to offer.
Looking to the past with regret or sadness comes with just as many consequences as looking back with fondness. At such times it’s still important to reconnect with the present moment so that we can escape the negative head-space we find ourselves in. This is what I did this morning when, upon thinking about the sad memory of my sister having a seizure, I reconnected with the beauty of the tree right in front of me.
The temptation to look to the future
One of my biggest fears is that one day in the future I will regret having spent my life as my sister’s full-time Caregiver, at the expense of pursuing a career solely for myself. Perhaps I will be sixty-years old, still living with my sister, resentful that I’ve missed out on meeting a wife whom I adore, having children that I cherish, and a house that I could call my own.
When I dwell on these fears, my mind is fully absorbed in the “psychological time” that Tolle talks about and I’m not able to appreciate the value of my life right now — the joy of the present moment escapes me. I’m saturated with anxiety and fear, I panic and, looking for an escape, I start to make future plans, but I make these plans with an irrational mind; I apply for jobs I have no real passion for thinking ‘Any career that gives me my own life will be fine’, I go on dates with women I know are not my type thinking ‘I need to meet my wife-to-be now, my time is running out’.
At such times, if I can pull myself out of “psychological time” and root myself in the present moment, I’m able to feel a sense of appreciation for my life right now and the sense of panic I have, to change my life at any cost, goes away.
When I realize that the present moment can bring me joy — my sister’s smile when I make her breakfast, the beauty of the tree in my garden as it basks in the sun — I’m able to approach questions about my future life from a place of calm and I’m better placed to make rational and well thought through decisions. I’m well aware of what I could gain, or lose, from the choices that I might make. There is no rush or panic to my decision-making process because the present moment is enough to sustain me whilst I think on such things and keep me from feeling like I need to run from my current reality at all costs.
To make the best decisions about our future, we need to be completely aware of what we have (or maybe don’t have) now. By staying rooted in the present moment we gain this sense of awareness. Eckhart Tolle perfectly describes this positive effect that an appreciation of the present moment can have on your ability to make decisions about your future;
“In fact, you’re able to go on with your normal activity — and that’s where intuition comes in. Because when you connect with stillness, you also connect with a creative intelligence that is higher than analytical thinking. Very often, the right decision then arises spontaneously. It may not happen immediately. It may take your going back to your normal life, but this time period gives your intuition the room and silence it needs to surface” Eckhart Tolle (Interview with Oprah Winfrey)
As Tolle says, by making peace with what we have in the present and “going back to your normal life” we stop ourselves from rushing to make decisions about our future — decisions that do not truly align with our intuitions about what we want from life. By allowing our true intuition “the room and silence it needs to surface” we stand a better chance of making choices about our future that we are genuinely happy with.
It was through using this patient approach to make decisions about my own future that I eventually decided to start writing six months ago. This decision, as Tolle predicts, did not “happen immediately” — I was at peace with what I had in the present moment, I did not rush the process and I ended up making one of the best decisions of my adult life, the enjoyment and sense of purpose I get from writing is evidence of that.
When you feel like your present life needs to change — maybe you hate your job and are desperate to find a new career to pursue, or maybe you would like nothing more than a new circle of friends who you truly connect with — try not to rush your efforts to change things and lose yourself in future plans. Root yourself in the present moment and look for the things that can bring you joy right now. It could be small things — on your way into work you make time to get that takeout coffee you enjoy, you drink it whilst sitting on a bench in your local park and taking in the beauty of its scenery — by making the effort to find aspects of your current life that give you joy, you will feel more able to give your intuition that time it needs to naturally steer you in the right direction regarding decisions about your future.
Decisions that are motivated by sadness, fear, or anxiety are rarely ever good decisions, we need to try and make important decisions from a place of peace and calm — connecting with the present moment will help you to do this.
Concluding remarks and advice
I have spent the majority of my life looking to the future or the past in search of my raison d’être, my reason to live, and for a lot of this time I was oblivious to the purpose I could find right in front; connecting with the present moment. When I am fully aligned, physically and spiritually, with the present moment, I stop asking myself what my reason to live may be, because I realize that the beauty and fulfillment of each passing moment is reason enough.
I hope that through reading this article you too have been inspired to connect with the present moment and experience some of the benefits that come from doing so. With this in mind, I would like to offer some advice — there are two things in particular that I have found to be helpful in my own attempts to stay anchored in the present moment, they may help you too:
Mindfulness and praying.
Mindfulness helps me to maintain an awareness of where I’m at mentally in my day to day life — what my thoughts, feelings, or motivations are at any given moment. From this reflective place, I’m able to notice when my mind is drifting to the past or the future and away from the present moment. Because mindfulness helps me to notice this drift in my mindset, I’m well placed to stop it in its tracks. To reconnect with the present moment, I use various “anchoring techniques” such as deep breathing and focusing on the sound of my breaths, or I will use visual anchors, focusing on an object that is near me and looking at its small details, trying to discover the beauty that lies beyond a superficial glance.
(To get a more in-depth look at how anchoring can help you to connect with the present moment I recommend reading Troy Erstling’s article on the subject “Anchoring To The Present Moment”.)
Praying helps to take away the sense of pressure I feel when I’m trying to reconnect with the present moment. When you’re feeling intense fear of the future it’s very hard to believe you have the inner strength to move beyond that fear all on your own. When I pray it is to a force greater than myself, I ask this force (for me; ‘God’) for help to reveal to me the splendor of the present moment and the joys that my present life has to offer.
If I am sincere in my prayer, it never fails to help me. Instantly I feel the sense of pressure lifted from my shoulders, my breathing slows, as does my heart rate, a calmness envelopes me. I will keep my eyes closed throughout this process and when I am calm enough I will reopen them, upon which the world always looks like a completely different place; colors are more vibrant, smells are stronger, beauty seems to be everywhere.
If you struggle like me to stay connected with the present moment, see if practicing mindfulness and praying can help you. You don’t have to be a follower of any particular religious faith for you to pray and still benefit from it. So long as your heart is fully invested in the process of praying to a force greater than yourself, you will still benefit from the sense that you are being helped in your efforts to realign your mind.
Now more than ever, in the wake of this pandemic we have been living through, it’s vitally important that we learn to reconnect with the present moment and reach a state of peace with our surroundings despite the hardships we’re living through. Have faith that the present moment is enough to give us joy. Even amid a nationwide pandemic, we can reconnect spiritually with the world around us and experience joy from having done so.
Thanks for reading,