Living in the moment is not an easy thing to do. Especially if the moment you’re currently living in isn’t all that great, when it’s tempting to day dream about things being better. Conversely, if things are going well in the present it’s sometimes hard not to worry that they’ll go wrong in the future. But by always looking to the future we not only spoil our enjoyment of the moment, we also waste valuable time imagining outcomes that might never even happen – whether good or bad. So how can we break the cycle of future thinking and be happy as we are, right now?
Of the various techniques postulated for living in the moment, mindfulness is generally given the most credence, or at least the most airtime. I remember my first flirtation with mindfulness vividly. It was 2011. I was at Bangkok airport, half way through my travels, and had just said goodbye to the man who would later become my partner. At the time I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in a relationship, as I was still healing from the previous one and was discovering an independent side that had too long lain dormant. And so I had been shocked by the strength of emotion when he took his leave back to England. Predominantly I felt fear, though I couldn’t be sure if it was fear of being alone or fear of being without him. Either way, I was in a pretty sorry state, hot tears streaming down my face, my breath ragged. How would I cope? Where would I go? Would he be waiting for me when I got back? These were just three of the myriad questions whirling through my mind like gale force winds, beating down the shutters of my reasonable mind.
As I stood there feeling utterly hopeless, I saw a book shop at the end of the terminal and drifted across to it. There I idly picked up a book called Mind Management, written by a Buddhist monk called V.Vajiramedhi. I flicked through a few pages and decided to purchase the book, taking it to the neighbouring Dunkin’ Donuts where I duly sat down to read. Quite some time went by before I realised how long I’d been sitting there, absorbed in its pages. But when I did register the time, I also registered something else: I felt completely calm.
One of the insights in the book that helped to assuage my stress was entitled ‘live in reality and discard worries.’ According to V.Vajiramedhi, “the proportion of multiple sufferings in our lives may not be substantially that much. The reason we often feel the pain to be so excruciating is because we project it exaggeratedly and out of proportion.” He used the example someone who cannot sleep the night before a job interview because they lie awake, tossing and turning and running all the potential negative scenarios through their head. “We are afraid of a multitude of things,” said V.Vajiramedhi, “when in reality, among the tens of things in our fears, only one may indeed occur. This is suffering caused by our own projected fear. Hence, whatever afflicts you, just ask yourself if the worries are, in fact, threatening and agonising or whether they are only figments of your imagination.” From that moment I was hooked on the concept of mindfulness, and over the course of the rest of my travels I sought out opportunities to learn more about it wherever I went.
Living in the now is no doubt easier when you’re travelling, as you’re constantly bombarded by new sights and sounds that keep you grounded in the present and prevent your mind from wandering too far into the past or future. When you’re in a familiar routine in a familiar place, however, familiar worries playing on your mind – like whether you can afford to pay the bills next month or whether your relationship will go the distance. My own experience of returning from travelling to ‘normal’ life saw exactly this transition. And this is when I came to read my next mindfulness book: The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle.
The Power of Now is somewhat of a cult classic amongst those seeking some form of enlightenment, or just those looking for a way to escape from the constant chatter of their own minds. In the section entitled ‘Enlightenment: Rising above thought,’ Eckhart tells us that that, “to the ego, the present moment hardly exists. Only past and future are considered important. It constantly projects itself into the future to ensure its continued survival and to seek some kind of release and fulfilment there.” Even in the present our thinking mind misperceives the way things are “because it looks at it through the eyes of the past.” To become truly enlightened, therefore, we must rise above our thinking mind.
Meditation is one way to do this. For beginners it’s a daunting prospect to sit quietly observing one’s own thoughts for any length of time. But with continued practice it really can help to still the mind and push all worries about future outcomes to one side. In effect, it is creating a space in which to just be; with yourself, with your thoughts, with the world. You don’t have to stop all thoughts, but rather let them come and go, all the while viewing them as an observer. But it takes time and practice to master the art of meditation, and to get the best out of it you really have to practice regularly.
One free programme that can help to get anyone interested in taking up meditation started is Take Ten by Headspace, a ten day guided meditation practice. Or, if guided meditation’s not your thing, why not try it by yourself? Next time you find yourself worrying about the future, simply find somewhere quiet, close your eyes, take a few deep breaths in and out and try to observe your thoughts as they come and go. You might just surprise yourself with how easy you find it. But if not, there’s always Dunkin’ Donuts…