It may also seem trivial and harmless to allow our minds to wander in the past or future at times, but for some, it can really have a major impact on the quality of life. Take for example the prospective college student who is so worried about the upcoming semester that they develop severe anxiety and spend their summer visiting doctors and hospitals trying to figure out if they have a major medical condition.
On the other end of the scale, there are many who, because of past experience, are held back in the ways they approach their life. An example is a person who had a bad ending to a relationship may conclude they are not good at making relationships work. This bad experience may lead them to live a solitary life in spite of desiring companionship. Sometimes past experiences lead people to draw conclusions about themselves that limit possibilities and restrict their potential. Singer/songwriter Stephen Stills described this well in writing the lyrics: “Don’t let the past remind us of what we are not now.” (“Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” Crosby, Stills and Nash). The lyrics imply that a person or a relationship can be different in the present from what used to be. People and relationships can change as long as they continue to strive to be better today. A constant strength of the human spirit lies in its capacity for change, and the way we live today is the realization of that ability. If any one of us were to define ourselves based on the past, it would not be possible to do what we do today.
To be present is to be aware of what is happening, and what ideas and feelings are occurring. It is being aware of your thoughts and focusing them on the present as opposed to letting them take you away. In this way you look at situations as they are, without coloring them with past experiences or expectations for the future. Living in such a way makes it easier to deal with whatever you are doing at the present moment. You see things as they are, without being influenced by fears, anger, or preconceived ideas and desires. This does not mean that we haven’t learned from experience or don’t have hope for the future. It simply means not letting past experience or future expectation blind us from today’s reality.
The problem is that too often our thoughts take us away from being where we are. When we’re at work, we fantasize about being on vacation; on vacation, we worry about the work piling up. We frequently dwell on intrusive memories of the past or fret about what may or may not happen in the future. We don’t appreciate the living present. This is sometimes referred to as having “monkey minds,” where thoughts randomly seem to jump from one branch to another; always taking us away from where we are and the only time we really have, which is now.
So how exactly is this achieved? How does one stay focused on the present and eliminate or at least tame the “monkey mind?” Like many other problems a good first step (and in some cases the only step needed) is awareness. Becoming an observer of one’s thoughts and simply watching how they flow will accomplish a great deal in reining them in. Notice the thoughts that flow through your mind, what are they? Are they trying to relive the past? Maybe they are reassessing past events and thinking how it might have been different. Are they taking you into the future? “Ordinary thoughts course through our mind like a deafening waterfall,” writes Jon Kabat-Zinn, the biomedical scientist who introduced meditation into mainstream medicine. Most of us don’t take our thoughts into awareness, and as a result they control us. Stepping out from the current to watch the flow allows us to be more present, regain a sense of balance, and have greater control.
We can also spend too much time thinking. A paradox about living in the moment is the more you think about doing something the worse it gets. Thinking too hard about what you’re doing can actually make it harder. If a person focuses on their anxiety, they will become more anxious.
The remedy is to stop thinking and start doing. Instead of worrying about talking to the boss, get something done. Doing something that takes your focus outside of yourself will bring you back to now. As the saying goes “move a muscle, change a thought.” To avoid worrying about the future, focus on the present. Do something positive today and the future will take care of itself.
Another tool to develop a greater capacity for being present is to practice thought stoppage. When an intrusive or unwanted thought occurs try saying your name to yourself followed by the words “stop it!” When you learn that you can stop the internal tape whenever it starts playing you may begin to realize that you are not your thoughts. Thoughts come and go, but who you are is determined by what you do with them.
Living in the now means appreciating and dealing with what is happening in the moment. This is likely to have the effect of reducing the turbulence within, allowing a person to become more present and effective in the here and now. Thoughts that are dominated by past regrets or future worries tend to fade.
The ability to put this into practice has been known to bring peace of mind and a greater sense of balance.
With the past, I have nothing to do; nor with the future. I live now. Ralph Waldo Emerson
Editor’s Note: Dario Lussardi is a licensed psychologist-master, providing therapeutic services and consultation at the Community Counseling Center in Wilmington.