The single most profound adjustment I’ve made in my life in the last few years has been learning to be present in the moment. And I still don’t entirely know what that means.
As I’ve mentioned before, I was influenced by Eastern philosophy at a kind of early age. “Going with the flow” was my lifestyle choice for decades. In a way, I’d been practicing for — albeit not actually practicing — mindful presence most of my life.
Accepting and being pleased with the present wasn’t natural for me, though. Even acting on impulse more often than not, I was nearly always more interested in the future than the current moment. Those impulsive decisions were more about getting somewhere else, creating new stories to tell, than celebrating where I was.
Generally, I lived expecting things, including myself, to be better and better in the time to come. Generally.
I suffered plenty of worry about the future too, though. Tons of regret, guilt, and issues from the past as well.
I’m no expert on being present, but I’ve learned a lot and become pretty good at it. Good enough to be happier than ever before. While I’m still developing stronger habits and skills to improve my mindfulness, here are a few things that I can share:
1. It ain’t easy. But it’s easier than you think.
Being present in the moment is challenging for us modern folks. There is so much to do, so much to see, so much to tweet or post or ha ha emoji to. Distractions are distracting. Then there are responsibilities. Stuff’s got to get done.
There’s just not enough time in the day, right?
It’s true that being present takes time. In fact, it’s all about time. But the present is never the present long.
Jerry Seinfeld did a bit about silver medal winners in the Olympics that illustrates how fleeting the present moment actually is.
This cracks Ashley up every time. How long is the present? “Now. Now. N-n-no, now.”
You might want to enjoy more than .03 of a second at a time, but, you know, the present moment IS only a moment. A few seconds pause is all it has to take to acknowledge what’s going on around you and how you’re feeling. In the time it takes to read the subject line of an email, you can re-center yourself and appreciate the moments you’re living in.
2. Being here, now doesn’t prevent you from being there, later.
In fact, I believe it provides powerful help to get you where you want to be.
This may have been the greatest misconception I’ve had to deal with. I’ve mentioned how I’ve always been sort of future focused. I believe in goals and taking methodical steps to achieve them. Settling for the present, it seemed to me, was at odds with ambition. Even going with the flow at least meant going somewhere.
I just made the point that the present moment can be an exceptionally brief time. Thing is, the present isn’t just that one moment that’s here then gone. The present continues to be the present, stretching on into what had been, a second ago, the future. In my mind, to concentrate on each moment as it comes meant not concentrating on the times yet to be. Like a twist on Zeno’s dichotomy paradox, I mistakenly assumed truly being in the ever changing moment meant never moving.
As with Zeno’s paradoxes, though, common sense and experience proved the theory wrong.
Being present is not being stagnant. Hardly. Being present is, believe it or not, an action. It’s not doing nothing. It’s being fully aware of… being. It means connecting to the truth of a situation, taking in reality as it is. It also means connecting with the truth of yourself.
Having that awareness of who you are, what your strengths and character are, being grounded in reality — that centers you on your best path forward. Outside influences will still require reaction, but a present state of mind can help you maintain focus. And that will keep you moving in a positive direction toward your goals.
3. Living in the present heals.
A couple years ago I struggled with a dangerous bout of depression. I was lucky to get some good help, starting with my loving fiancee and a couple of doctors. It took several different steps to escape that awful situation, but you probably don’t have to guess what I’m going to tell you was one of the most important.
In my case, the state I was in had roots in serious regrets about my past AND anxiety about the future. While there was a lot of good in my life at the time, I was also experiencing a horrendous time at work. I dreaded every day.
My present was terrible. Why would I want to dwell in it longer than necessary?
Because, more than anything else I did, that fixed me.
Focusing on the present helped me finally let go of the past.
Taking a minute to focus on my breathing calmed my anxiety.
Allowing full awareness of what I was experiencing at the time, of what people were actually doing and saying, of what I was feeling and thinking cleared up apprehensive assumptions and misjudged motives.
Reflecting on the present instead of the past opened my eyes to possibilities.
Greatest of all, being truly open to the reality around me helped me realize all the reasons I have to be grateful and happy.
Enjoying the present is great when the present is good. Even when it’s unpleasant, centering yourself in the actual here and now is healthier than getting lost in imagined fears.