As most of you know, I’m a planner. Not only do I find it enjoyable to research options and then chart a course forward, I’m a big fan of nexting. (Yes, there’s a blog post which explains nexting!) For the most part, planning benefits my life in many ways. It helps me to form great habits, examine different options in order to make good decisions, and allows me to anticipate the future with optimism. But as with most things, there’s a catch.
The “downside” to planning is that sometimes it locks me into a course of action that can be rigid if not downright obsessive. Even worse perhaps, it distracts me from being present in the here and now. The good news is that every new moment offers me (and all of us) another opportunity to practice being here now, to appreciate the beauty right in front of me, and to always remember that “this is it.”
When I first met my then-to-be husband Thom oh so many years ago, one of the first things about him that caught my eye was the fact that he owned a copy of Ram Dass ’s classic book, Be Here Now. Up until then, no men I knew, and few women, even recognized the name, let alone what being in the moment really meant. Did Thom and I understand what that concept meant? Not really. After all, if you’ve ever seen one of the original copies, it is very esoteric and filled with metaphor. And after all, we were only in our early 20’s at the time. But I believe both of us knew on a deep level that the truths contained in that book could serve to guide us through much of our lives.
I recently read a short interview of Ram Dass where he explains what inspired him to write the book in the first place. At the time he was traveling around India with a guy named Bhagavan Das looking for a guru. To pass the time, as they went from Buddhist monastery to Buddhist monastery, Ram Dass would ramble on about his previous adventures with Timothy Leary, or as he calls it the “railroad of his past.” And every time he headed down that railway, his friend would say, “Look at that beautiful flower by the side of the road. You should just be here now. Come on back here, back to the moment.” When Ram Dass finally found his guru in a man named Maharaji, he witnessed the intensity of that man’s “now power”, so much so that Ram Dass says upon meeting Maharaji, “He pulled me into the now.”
Another classic “be here now” book is The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. Tolle is convinced that it is our, “incessant thought that creates the mental and emotional pain we experience.” He believes the solution is to live fully in the present—rather than being stuck with regrets about our past, anxiety over our current situation, or worry about the future, Tolle recommends we live in the ‘now’ where he believe that problems simply don’t exist. That approach certainly applies if we regret or resist the past—OR if we are worried or anxious about the future. But what about those who enjoy looking into the future, or reminiscing positively about the past? We aren’t fighting with the current reality—we just aren’t living as fully and completely as possible right now—and that is where my particular problem lies.
I am very fortunate because during the summer Thom and I escape the desert heat and rent a home at the beach for several months. Because it is important to us both, we make it happen. However, last week, several days before coming, I caught myself counting the days until we arrived. I kept thinking how much nicer it would be to walk in cool weather. I daydreamed about walks on the beach, exploring new places, and fun with friends and family. And although that was all very pleasant, at one point I had to say to myself “Stop!”. I realized that I was missing the joy in that particular day, that particular moment, and neglecting the good right in front of me. So instead of fantasizing about what was to come, I reeled myself in and told myself, “This is it. Enjoy now. Savor now!”
The problem with contemplating the future or past, no matter how pleasing (or distressing), is that instead of living a meaningful life right now, we are living in a sort of matrix of the mind. Remember that movie? In The Matrix, everyone is suspended in an artificial limbo while their minds experience a fantasy world that they believe to be real. The main character Nemo, is soon offered the choice between the blue pill (continuing the illusion maintained by the matrix) or the red pill (where he wakes up and realizes the sometimes-harsh reality of the real world).
While most of us say we want reality, our choices on a daily basis are often more matrix than real. Any of us who stay lost for hours in our computers, our televisions or even our books are looking for ways out of reality—not necessarily the way in. Even daydreaming positives about the future, or longing for the past, is a distraction. When you think about it, aren’t our diversions, 24-7 technology, entertainments, and constant busyness just more ways to stay disconnected from the now?
While I seldom have the answers for myself, let alone others, I am pretty sure that staying present is far more important to a quality life than living in a fantasy, no matter how good that fantasy can be at times. That doesn’t mean that we get so fanatical about only talking and thinking in the now that we ignore the future. However, instead, we do our best to let the present moment be our primary focus and then act from there. I like it how Tolle says it, “ Whereas before you dwelt in time and paid brief visits to the Now, have your dwelling place in the Now, and pay brief visits to past and future when required to deal with the practical aspects of your life situation.”
I’m guessing that pessimists will benefit from living in the now by keeping their focus away from thoughts of worry, regret or anxiety. Yet, the benefits for optimists are equally important. Anyone who is saying to themselves, “I’ll be happy when…” or, “I’d be happy if only…” is just focusing on the future or some hoped for event rather than right now. My staying present in the now ensures that I won’t miss the joys of today while contemplating the joys I may (or may not) experience in the future. Be here now.
Since my sister passed away a couple of months ago I am much more aware of how easy it is to go on auto-pilot and miss the minutes of each day. Her passing is a sharp reminder that there are no guarantees that any of us will even be here tomorrow—no matter how pleasant we might imagine it. This, today, very likely might be IT. Grounding ourselves in our body, and focusing on what is happening right now, is the only way to savor the experience of right now. Sure, having a future that holds promise and adventure is important. And pre-planning can be lots of fun. But it is equally SMART to stop, embrace the moment, and remind ourselves, “This is it.”
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Okay, your turn. Do you live more in the past or the future than NOW? What works in your life to stay mindful and live in the present moment? Are you happy (or at least at peace) in the present moment or are you always looking for a way out? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.