A lot of us can experience a pretty particular problem: the inability to actually inhabit the stretch of time we call ‘the present’. Life unfolds in the present, yet often this is not where we are.
Perhaps we are at the beach on a lovely sunny day. The birds are singing. The sand is warm. The water is piercingly blue. But most of our being isn’t actually here at all. We might be at work or having an imaginary discussion with a rival or plotting a new enterprise.
Or maybe we’re at the birthday of a young child. It’s significant for her and we love her dearly. Our body is present and looks to be rooted in the now, but our mind is skipping to points in both the future and the past. What is it about the present moment – the only moment we ever have – that it makes it so difficult to experience properly?
When we are born, we are only connected to the present moment. Fully and wholly connected. At our young ages, we know who we are and where we are and we respond to what is happening in the present moment. As babies we are either spontaneously joyful or surprisingly upset, dependent entirely upon what is happening right now.
But then we grow up. And our minds become more cavernous and chaotic places. Our minds begin to let the present slip away, allowing time to rush past unobserved and unseized, and squandering the precious seconds of our lives as we worry about the future and ruminate about what’s past. When we’re at work, we fantasize about being on holiday; on holiday, we worry about the work that’s piling up on our desks. We dwell on intrusive memories of the past or fret about what may or may not happen in the future. We struggle to appreciate the living present because our complex minds, vault from thought to thought like monkeys swinging from tree to tree.
One of the benefits of the past is that it is a dramatically foreshortened and edited version of the present. Even our really good days will contain a range of dull and uncomfortable moments. But in our memory, like skilled editors, we focus in on the most consequential moments, constructing sequences that feel more meaningful and interesting.
We all experience pain in our lives. It might be the friendship with someone we still long for, the annoying jackhammer snarling across the street, or the sudden anxiety and panic when we have to get up and give a speech. The mind’s natural tendency when faced with pain is to attempt to avoid it – by trying to resist unpleasant thoughts, feelings and sensations. When we lose someone, we fight our feelings of grief and heartache. As we age, we work feverishly to recapture our youth. When we’re in the dentist’s chair, we wish to be anywhere but there. But in most of these cases, unpleasant feelings and situations can’t be avoided forever, and resisting them only magnifies the pain.
For a lot of us the biggest ruiner of the present is sheer anxiety. The present can always contain an enormous number of possibilities, but our mind can make them particularly catastrophic and our mind can keep us aware of these in the background. Anything could theoretically happen – an earthquake, a brain aneurysm, a rejection from a lover – which can give rise to the non-specific anxiety that follows us around in all our present moments; the simple dread at the unknownness of what is to come.
Most of us don’t undertake these complex thoughts in our awareness. Rather we can let our thoughts control us. And these thoughts aren’t engaged in the present moment. Yet still we respond to them regardless. In essence, we act on thoughts that aren’t even related to what might be going on around us.
For so many of us the stuff that courses through our mind has very little to do with what’s going on right in front of our eyes. Luckily though it doesn’t take much to bring us back to what’s actually happening in our immediate experience. We can do it right now – what is happening in this instant? Think of yourself as an eternal witness and just observe. What do you hear, see, smell? It doesn’t matter how it feels – pleasant or unpleasant, good or bad – we can just roll with what is present. Because really it’s all we have.