Living in the Now
I am a work in progress. I have so many ideas that things I want to accomplish that each day is a delight. It is also a burden. I have become addicted to busy- ness and can’t seem to find a moment to just be in the moment. I have jumped on the hamster wheel and am running with all my might.
As I write my show notes for this week, I am torn between going out with my friends to a movie and dinner this afternoon or working on my book, or cleaning out the laundry room, or preparing for work next week. Which of these will bring me joy? Obviously, spending time with my friends. Why then do I let the beautiful moments of my life become drowned out by my endless list of things to do. I am so busy creating the life of my dreams that I am forgetting to actually live the life I have right now.
This week we are going to learn how to live in the now. To enjoy every speck of this moment, without the regret of the past of the anxiety of the future. We are going to learn how to just BE. We are human BEings not human DOings
Life unfolds in the present. But so often, we 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. We're always doing something, and we allow little time to practice stillness and calm.
When we're at work, we fantasize about being on vacation; on vacation, we worry about the work 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 don't appreciate the living present because our "monkey minds” vault from thought to thought like monkeys swinging from tree to tree.
Most of us don't undertake our thoughts in awareness. Rather, our thoughts control us. Ordinary thoughts course through our mind like a deafening waterfall. In order to feel more in control of our minds and our lives, to find the sense of balance that eludes us, we need to step out of this current, to pause, and, to rest in stillness—to stop doing and focus on just being.
We need to live more in the moment. Living in the moment—also
called mindfulness—is a state of active, open, intentional attention on the present. When you become mindful, you realize that you are not your thoughts; you become an observer of your thoughts from moment to moment without judging them. Mindfulness involves being with your thoughts as they are, neither grasping at them nor pushing them away. Instead of letting your life go by without living it, you awaken to experience.
Cultivating a nonjudgmental awareness of the present bestows a host of benefits. Mindfulness reduces stress, boosts immune functioning, reduces chronic pain, lowers blood pressure, and helps patients cope with cancer. By alleviating stress, spending a few minutes a day actively focusing on living in the moment reduces the risk of heart disease. Mindfulness may even slow the progression of HIV.
Mindful people are happier, more exuberant, more empathetic, and more secure. They have higher self-esteem and are more accepting of their own weaknesses. Anchoring awareness in the here and now reduces the kinds of impulsivity and reactivity that underlie depression, binge eating, and attention problems. Mindful people can hear negative feedback without feeling threatened. They fight less with their romantic partners and are more accommodating and less defensive. As a result, mindful couples have more satisfying relationships.
Mindfulness is at the root of Buddhism, Taoism, and many Native-American traditions, not to mention yoga. It's why Thoreau went to Walden Pond; it's what Emerson and Whitman wrote about in their essays and poems.
Everyone agrees it's important to live in the moment, but the problem is how. When people are not in the moment, they're not there to know that they're not there. Overriding the distraction reflex and awakening to the present takes intentionality and practice.
Living in the moment involves a profound paradox: You can't pursue it for its benefits. That's because the expectation of reward launches a future-oriented mindset, which subverts the entire process. Instead, you just have to trust that the rewards will come. There are many paths to mindfulness—and at the core of each is a paradox. Ironically, letting go of what you want is the only way to get it. Here are a few tricks to help you along.
1: To improve your performance, stop thinking about it.
I have always wanted to be a good dance – but I am too self-conscious. My movements feel awkward. I never know what to do with my arms. I look at the other people who are just feeling the music and moving fluidly. I want to let go, but I can't, because I know I look ridiculous, and I am a control freak who wants to be perfect. In my head I am saying "Loosen up, no one's watching you. Everyone's too busy worrying about themselves." So why do I feel so awkward and stiff?
This is why I signed up for Tango lessons with my husband. In our first class we all started by sitting on a bench and just tapping our feet to the beat of the music. We spent the rest of the class doing "isolations"—moving just our shoulders, ribs, or hips—to build "body awareness."
But even more important than body awareness, was present-moment awareness. We were instructed to “be right here right now and just let go and let yourself be in the moment." Easier said than done. But eventually we went from horrific to underwhelmingly adequate. More importantly, we learned to have fun in the moment and laugh at ourselves. We are still bad dancers, but we have a blast doing it.
That's the first paradox of living in the moment: Thinking too hard about what you're doing actually makes you do worse. If you're in a situation that makes you anxious—giving a speech, introducing yourself to a stranger, dancing—focusing on your anxiety tends to heighten it.
Indeed, mindfulness blurs the line between self and other. When people are mindful, they're more likely to experience themselves as part of humanity, as part of a greater universe. That's why highly mindful people such as Buddhist monks talk about being "one with everything."
By reducing self-consciousness, mindfulness allows you to witness the passing drama of feelings, social pressures, even of being esteemed or disparaged by others without taking their evaluations personally. When you focus on your immediate experience without attaching it to your self-esteem, unpleasant events like social rejection—or your so-called friends making fun of your dancing—seem less threatening.
Focusing on the present moment also forces you to stop overthinking. Being present-minded takes away some of that self-evaluation and getting lost in your mind—and in the mind is where we make the evaluations that beat us up. Instead of getting stuck in your head and worrying, you can let yourself go. Just like dancing the Tango!
2: To avoid worrying about the future, focus on the present.
In her memoir Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert writes about a friend who, whenever she sees a beautiful place, exclaims in a near panic, "It's so beautiful here! I want to come back here someday!" "It takes all my persuasive powers," writes Gilbert, "to try to convince her that she is already here."
Often, we're so trapped in thoughts of the future or the past that we forget to experience, let alone enjoy, what's happening right now. We sip coffee and think, "This is not as good as what I had last week." We eat a cookie and think, "I hope I don't run out of cookies."
Instead, relish or luxuriate in whatever you're doing at the present moment— what psychologists call savoring. This could be while you're eating a donut, taking a shower, or basking in the sun. You could be savoring a success or savoring music. Use all of your senses to savor the moment.
In a recent study, when subjects took a few minutes each day to actively savor something they usually hurried through—eating a meal, drinking a cup of tea, walking to the bus—they began experiencing more joy, happiness, and other positive emotions, and fewer depressive symptoms.
Why does living in the moment make people happier—not just at the moment they're tasting molten chocolate pooling on their tongue, but lastingly? Because most negative thoughts concern the past or the future. As Mark Twain said, "I have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened."
The hallmark of depression and anxiety is catastrophizing—worrying about something that hasn't happened yet and might not happen at all. Worry, by its very nature, means thinking about the future—and if you hoist yourself into awareness of the present moment, worrying melts away.
The flip side of worrying is ruminating, thinking bleakly about events in the past. And again, if you press your focus into the now, rumination ceases. Savoring forces you into the present, so you can't worry about things that aren't there.
3: If you want a future with your significant other, inhabit the present.
Each day my husband and I set aside one hour to reconnect. We shut out all other distractions and spend the time just focused on each other. No technology, no talk about work or the kids, just us. We are practicing living consciously. Th with alert interest has a powerful effect on interpersonal life.
Mindfulness actually inoculates people against aggressive impulse. In a study conducted at the University of Georgia, each subject was told that other subjects were forming a group—and taking a vote on whether she could join. Five minutes later, the experimenter announced the results—either the subject had gotten the least number of votes and been rejected or she'd been accepted. Beforehand, half the subjects had undergone a mindfulness exercise in which each slowly ate a raisin, savoring its taste and texture and focusing on each sensation.
Later, in what they thought was a separate experiment, subjects had the opportunity to deliver a painful blast of noise to another person. Among subjects who hadn't eaten the raisin, those who were told they'd been rejected by the group became aggressive, inflicting long and painful sonic blasts without provocation. Stung by social rejection, they took it out on other people. But among those who'd eaten the raisin first, it didn't matter whether they'd been ostracized or embraced. Either way, they were serene and unwilling to inflict pain on others—exactly like those who were given word of social acceptance.
How does being in the moment make you less aggressive? Mindfulness decreases ego involvement. So people are less likely to link their self-esteem to events and more likely to take things at face value. Mindfulness also makes people feel more connected to other people—that empathic feeling of being "at one with the universe."
Mindfulness boosts your awareness of how you interpret and react to what's happening in your mind. It increases the gap between emotional impulse and action, allowing you to do what Buddhists call recognizing the spark before the flame. Focusing on the present reboots your mind so you can respond thoughtfully rather than automatically. Instead of lashing out in anger, backing down in fear, or mindlessly indulging a passing craving, you get the opportunity to say to yourself, "This is the emotion I'm feeling. How should I respond?"
Mindfulness increases self-control; since you're not getting thrown by threats to your self-esteem, you're better able to regulate your behavior. That's the other irony: Inhabiting your own mind more fully has a powerful effect on your interactions with others.
4: To make the most of time, lose track of it.
Perhaps the most complete way of living in the moment is the state of total absorption psychologists call flow. Flow occurs when you're so engrossed in a task that you lose track of everything else around you. Flow embodies an apparent paradox: How can you be living in the moment if you're not even aware of the moment? The depth of engagement absorbs you powerfully, keeping attention so focused that distractions cannot penetrate. You focus so intensely on what you're doing that you're unaware of the passage of time. Hours can pass without you noticing.
Flow is an elusive state. As with romance or sleep, you can't just will yourself into it—all you can do is set the stage, creating the optimal conditions for it to occur. The first requirement for flow is to set a goal that's challenging but not unattainable—something you have to marshal your resources and stretch yourself to achieve. The task should be matched to your ability level—not so difficult that you'll feel stressed, but not so easy that you'll get bored. In flow, you're firing on all cylinders to rise to a challenge.
To set the stage for flow, goals need to be clearly defined so that you always know your next step. It could be playing the next bar in a scroll of music, or finding the next foothold if you're a rock climber, or turning the page if you're reading a good novel. At the same time, you're kind of anticipating.
You also need to set up the task in such a way that you receive direct and immediate feedback; with your successes and failures apparent, you can seamlessly adjust your behavior. A climber on the mountain knows immediately if his foothold is secure; a pianist knows instantly when she's played the wrong note.
As your attentional focus narrows, self-consciousness evaporates. You feel as if your awareness merges with the action you're performing. You feel a sense of personal mastery over the situation, and the activity is so intrinsically rewarding that although the task is difficult, action feels effortless.
5: If something is bothering you, move toward it rather than away from it.
We all have pain in our lives, whether it's the ex we still long for, the jackhammer snarling across the street, or the sudden wave of anxiety when we get up to give a speech. If we let them, such irritants can distract us from the enjoyment of life. Paradoxically, the obvious response—focusing on the problem in order to combat and overcome it—often makes it worse.
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 a love, for instance, we fight our feelings of heartbreak. As we get older, we work feverishly to recapture our youth. When we're sitting in the dentist's chair waiting for a painful root canal, we wish we were anywhere but there. But in many cases, negative feelings and situations can't be avoided—and resisting them only magnifies the pain.
The problem is we have not just primary emotions but also secondary ones— emotions about other emotions. We get stressed out and then think, "I wish I weren't so stressed out." The primary emotion is stress over your workload. The secondary emotion is feeling, "I hate being stressed."
It doesn't have to be this way. The solution is acceptance—letting the emotion be there. That is, being open to the way things are in each moment without trying to manipulate or change the experience—without judging it, clinging to it, or pushing it away. The present moment can only be as it is. Trying to change it only frustrates and exhausts you. Acceptance relieves you of this needless extra suffering.
Acceptance of an unpleasant state does not mean you don't have goals for the future. It just means you accept that certain things are beyond your control. The sadness, stress, pain, or anger is there whether you like it or not. Better to embrace the feeling as it is.
6: Know that you do not know.
You've probably had the experience of driving along a highway only to suddenly realize you have no memory or awareness of the previous 15 minutes. Maybe you even missed your exit. You just zoned out; you were somewhere else, and it's as if you've suddenly woken up at the wheel. Or maybe it happens when you're reading a book: "I know I just read that page, but I have no idea what it said."
These autopilot moments are mindlessness—times when you're so lost in your thoughts that you aren't aware of your present experience. As a result, life passes you by without registering on you. The best way to avoid such blackouts, is to develop the habit of always noticing new things in whatever situation you're in. That process creates engagement with the present moment and releases a cascade of other benefits. Noticing new things puts you emphatically in the here and now.
We become mindless because once we think we know something, we stop paying attention to it. We go about our morning commute in a haze because we've trod the same route a hundred times before. But if we see the world with fresh eyes, we realize almost everything is different each time—the pattern of light on the buildings, the faces of the people, even the sensations and feelings we experience along the way. Noticing imbues each moment with a new, fresh quality. Some people have termed this "beginner's mind."
By acquiring the habit of noticing new things, says Langer, we recognize that the world is actually changing constantly. We really don't know how the espresso is going to taste or how the commute will be—or at least, we're not sure.
Don't Just Do Something, Sit There. Nothing happens next. It's not a destination. This is it. You're already there.
Until next week,
May 28, 2018
Join me every Wednesday on my podcast “Unlocking the Secret to Living Rich”.
If you have questions or comments you can contact me at my email firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram @cindybbrown777
Who is Cindy B. Brown? Cindy is a CPA, MBA, CFO, mastermind facilitator and board member of public and private companies, business consultant, entrepreneur coach and a foremost expert in the field of business mastery. Cindy’s purpose is to motivate, educate and inspire people to live their richest life. She is the host of “Unlocking the Secret to Living Rich”.