Yesterday was my weekly volunteer day for the local branch of The Ophelia Project. I’ve been involved in this organization for a year and a half and it is an opportunity to mentor and meet regularly with local disadvantaged teenage girls looking for extra support. As you might imagine it is valuable for the girls, and a rewarding experience for me. But yesterday I knew we’d be short-handed with a lot planned for our 90-minute meeting, and I was feeling a bit anxious. Before I even left the house I was running lists through my head to insure that everything would be handled, and found myself thinking what a relief it would be when it was all over. Then something clicked in my head and I realized that this was exactly what I wanted to be doing—in fact I’d actually gone out of my way and signed up for the opportunity. But instead of relishing in the current experience, I was worrying over details and longing for it to be over. In other words, I wasn’t “here”—I was somewhere else.
Now if you’ve read much of my writing in the past you know that I’m very much committed to the idea that life is a journey—not a destination. I believe (at least in my head) that life is a process, and that what we do and who we become in every instance is more important than what happens in the future. I also believe that the present and future are not bound by precedence. That means of course that it doesn’t matter what’s happened in my past, the now is always filled with new potential.
Even better, I happen to own one of the original paperback copies of Ram Dass’s book Be Here Now (okay it was actually Thom’s book first but it hangs out in my office) so I know how important that statement is. As Ram Dass says, “Early in the journey you wonder how long the journey will take and whether you will make it in this lifetime. Later you will see that where you are going is HERE and you will arrive NOW…so you stop asking.” But what he doesn’t say (or I routinely forget) is that even when you’ve been doing it a long time you must stay awake and aware to the temptation to constantly project into the future, or hang out in the past, rather than simply “be here now.”
Am I the only one who ever does this? Do you ever catch yourself saying, “Once the New Year comes, then I’ll finish that book I’ve been wanting to write.” Or what about, “When I start feeling better, then I can start doing more things I want to do.” Ever said, “When I get rich, or meet that perfect mate/friend/boss, then I can be happy”?
Of course, statements about the past are equally as detrimental. What about, “Once I can learn to forgive my parents (ex-spouse, ex-boss, children) for everything they did to me I can finally find peace.” So, any time I “forget” and start believing that something has to happen for me to be happy or peaceful or whatever (living in the future) or anytime I think I have to let go of or get over something (living in the past) then I am clearly not living in the now.
Why do we do it? There are several reasons. On the surface I think it is habit. When I get busy or go unconscious then I tend to start planning out details to get things done in the future. Just like with my Ophelia Meeting I start worrying about how things will turn out, rather than experiencing the now. If for any reason my body isn’t feeling good I might start deliberating on what I did wrong or what I should have done differently instead of being fully invested in the present moment. If I haven’t stayed awake and aware of my tendency to overlook the present on a regular basis, my mind goes there automatically. Making such a focus a new habit is an essential way to train our minds.
Richard Carlson, Ph.D. said in his classic book Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, that fear plays a big part of the reason. He says, “Many people live as if life were a dress rehearsal for some later date. It isn’t. In fact no one has a guarantee that he or she will be here tomorrow. Now is the only time we have, and the only time we have any control over. When our attention is in the present moment, we push fear from our minds.” It’s also likely that any time we are worried or afraid it is 99% possible we are projecting into the future.
Of course one of the more influential teachers in current times is Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now. Tolle teaches that the main reason we don’t live in the now is that we are too attached to our mind and it’s activity. Tolle says, “The compulsive thinker, which means almost everyone, lives in a state of apparent separateness, in an insanely complex world of continuous problems and conflict, a world that reflects the ever-increasing fragmentation of the mind.” He goes on to say, “Thinking has become a disease. Disease happens when things get out of balance…. it is not so much that you use your mind wrongly—you usually don’t use it at all. It uses you.”
Ouch! When you analyze it, all three of the above reasons lead us to living outside the present moment. At the very core of our living in the past or the future, is our mind’s attempt to distract us from living right here, right now. Tolle doesn’t suggest that the mind is bad in and of itself, only that we have so habitually allowed it to run around like a monkey-mind that we’ve lost control and it is “using us” instead of the other way around. It is also motivated by fear because it allows the ego part of us to convince us that if we don’t let it run around like a monkey-mind, then something bad might happen to us or those we love.
So what’s the solution? It’s critical to stay conscious and focused on the now. But that’s easier said than done. As Tolle says, “Most humans alternate not between consciousness and unconsciousness but only between different levels of unconsciousness.” If we want to stay in the now we must train our attention and keep it focused there. Obviously, meditation is one of the best ways to go about it. Meditation and practice. Practice and meditation. Now.
Once I caught myself yesterday I was able to go to my Ophelia Meeting and enjoy myself and the experience. With my focus on the present moment (instead of my fears or monkey-mind) I was able to laugh with the girls, appreciate my fellow mentors, and share the best of myself. I know that I know—I know that you know—that this moment, right now is all we have. Let’s just keep remembering to make it a practice we never forget.
Your turn: What do you do consistently that helps you stay in the present moment?