If we are to examine our beliefs, our values, and our goals for the future – and do so effectively – the first thing we must do is pause our hectic, “24/7” lives and make time for deliberate reflection. The need for deliberate contemplation nudges us toward the first principle that the great sages taught: presence. Many of us miss out on life because we spend too much time not being present.We occupy our minds with thoughts of the past or the future.
We spend far too much time dwelling on regrets of past actions or missed opportunities. Or we lament about how our current situation is not as good as in the past. Thoughts of the past have long-term effects. So much of our self-image is not from “ourselves.” It is the product of the opinions and projections of others – beginning with our parents in childhood, then on to our peers, coworkers, and so on. We permit our self-image, and our self-worth, to be shaped by others, subconsciously, until the image we have of ourselves doesn’t reflect our own beliefs at all. Our beliefs are subconsciously molded by others. How many of our political, religious, and social views are the product of others’ indoctrination? We reflect the beliefs of our parents, our friends, and our community. We rarely stop to assess whether the beliefs we possess are really ours, or are simply a reflection of one or more collective identities.
Living in the past produces regrets: regrets that good times have passed, regrets for actions we have taken or regrets that opportunities have been missed. It is nice to occasionally relive pleasant memories, or to critically assess past actions so that we can learn from our mistakes. However, when we constantly chastise ourselves for our shortcomings – whether induced by us or by the previous opinions of others about us – we are living the past. In this way, it is quite possible to live an entire life without ever mentally leaving our childhood.
Obsessing over the past is counter-productive; the past cannot be changed. The past is history. We can change our lives now, start from this point to change whatever we’d like to, and move forward. We can create new good times, take better actions, and create new opportunities.
Similarly, focusing on the future can paralyze us or prevent us from engaging in beneficial actions because we focus on the twin distractions of hope and fear. Fear can hinder us from taking the necessary actions to reach our goals. Fear has been described as an acronym for “Future Events Appearing Real.” Fear always involves an outcome that has not yet happened. If we examine our fears objectively, we realize that while negative outcomes are possible, they are most likely not even remotely probable. As Mark Twain said, “Some of the worst things in my life never happened.”
Likewise, hope is a negative feeling inasmuch as this state of mind convinces us that anything positive that may occur is outside of our control. We give up our life to fate. We convince ourselves that there is nothing that we can do directly to positively alter our circumstances. Hope can paralyze us as much as fear. Indeed, hope can be much more negative because it teaches us that peace and happiness are only possible through random external events, and we are not in control of our own lives.
It is essential to dream about our ideal future, to set goals aimed at realizing those ideals, and to act to achieve them. But we must focus our efforts on the present moment. By occupying ourselves with thoughts of the past and the future, we deny ourselves the only time when we can take positive action to accomplish our goals: the present. We cannot live our lives in the past or in the future; we can only live in the present. The only way to transcend our regrets, overcome our fears, and eliminate our reliance on hope, is to take action now. Focusing on the here and now produces results.
The past no longer is.
The future has not yet come.
Looking deeply at life as it is in the very here and now,
the practitioner dwells in stability and freedom.
On a practical level, presence describes our state of mind at any particular moment. We deny ourselves the power of the present by allowing our focus to become diffracted. We delude ourselves into thinking that we are much more productive by multitasking. Multitasking is a myth. We believe we are multitasking, and much more effective, when we engage in multiple activities at the same time. But when we multitask, we constantly shift our attention from one activity to another, giving none our complete attention. This is how mistakes – and mediocrity – occur. Even our leisure and “alone” time is ripe for distraction – most particularly from the media. When our attention is diffused, dissatisfaction not only overshadows the present moment, but accumulates to produce malaise over the course of a lifetime.
It is worse when we attempt to multitask with people. When we participate in a telephone conversation while working, for example, we cannot give our undivided attention either to the person on the telephone or the work being performed. Each task suffers from our divided attention. When one of those “tasks” is a person, our relationship may suffer as well.
To practice presence, we need to recognize that our hectic lives, filled with opportunities for distraction, are running on autopilot, and this automaticity is never conducive for proper life management. From time to time, we need to take time out from our frenzied lives and reflect on what’s really important, and evaluate whether our lives are still on the course we want to traverse.
We need to periodically reflect on our ideals and our values to determine whether they are really ours, or just the sum product of what others want them to be. If we fail to do this, then sooner or later – most likely, much later – we will wake up one day and realize that our lives have been headed in the wrong direction.
We need to resist the tendency to multitask and perform everything we do well by concentrating on the present. To be fully present, we need to focus on one task at a time – doing it well, and doing it to the best of our ability, without mentally dwelling on how we may have succeeded or failed in this effort in the past, and without the expectations of what will occur in the future if we succeed or fail this time. We engage in what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihhalyi calls “flow.” According to Csikszentmihhalyi, happiness is found by being fully involved with every detail of our lives – good and bad – not by trying to find it directly. Flow is presence.
The most important step in emancipating oneself from social controls
is the ability to find reward in the events of each moment.
If a person learns to enjoy and find meaning in the ongoing stream of experience,
in the process of living itself,
the burden of social controls automatically falls from one’s shoulders.
Power returns to the person when rewards are no longer relegated to outside forces.
– Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
In wisdom literature, focusing on the here and now is called mindfulness. We have a natural tendency to eschew mindfulness because it is opposed to thinking. But most of what occurs in our heads every day is mind activity – and mind activity is not the same as thinking. We can accomplish mindfulness through meditation or prayer or yoga. We can practice mindfulness by reminding ourselves periodically throughout the day, and throughout our lives, to stop, take a break – a deep breath perhaps – and focus on the here and now.
Each moment is all there ever is. Once it is gone we can never get it back. It’s not possible to live our lives in the past or in the future. There is only the present moment. The present is all we have. We need to stop missing it.