[Image via aslis.com]
During a recent conversation with a friend, I was sharing some of my future plans. I have a habit of “thinking out loud” while my mind is in the process of working something through, and it wasn’t long before I was focusing on the challenges more so than the actual goals. My friend finally interrupted, stating that I was stressing myself by worrying about the future. I denied that I was worrying, and he firmly responded, “Yes, you are.” He then reminded me of the following quote:
Of course, I am very familiar with this quote; my friend was reminding me to focus on living “in the present.” But I never really accepted this as something realistic for my own life because I am an extremely goal-oriented person. If left to my own devices, I would create a flow chart and spreadsheet for every aspect of my life, with my focus always being in the future — so, present-mindedness was not an easy concept for me to grasp.
I read and study a lot. But, as I stated in an earlier entry, Celebrate Independence
, I really don’t accept anything as true without discerning for myself whether it actually makes sense. So, when my friend mentioned the concept of present-mindedness, I realized that he was the THIRD person to bring this to my attention. So, I started thinking about what it actually means to “be in the present.”
What does it mean?
On the surface, it means being mindful of the present moment – not ruminating over the past, nor worrying about the future. It means enjoying life as it exists in this
moment, and not as we wish it could, should, or would be. Okay, I understood this, especially about not focusing on the past; you cannot change what has already happened. But considering the fable, “The Ant and the Grasshopper,”
I am definitely an ant, and ants are always working for the future.
It wasn’t until several days later when I was discussing training for a mountain trek, that I had an “A-ha moment” which crystallized my understanding of present-mindedness. I was explaining that I really wanted to get serious about doing longer local hikes to prepare myself for climbing. Someone raised the concern that many people don’t complete the climb due to altitude sickness, and they would hate to go so far only to FAIL in the end.
I responded that I really didn’t look at it that way, and whether or not I reached the summit, I would enjoy the climb itself, being able to experience nature of a new environment, enjoy the challenge, and learn more about myself (insert “A-ha moment” here). I had unintentionally explained what it means to be in the present.
Yes, the goal is to reach the top. However, if our only concern is to reach the top (future event), and we focus only on the obstacles that may or may not be present, we create a sense of anxiety regarding our ability to reach it. Similarly, if we ruminate over an incident that occurred prior to starting the ascent (past event), then we create a degree of distraction from the present activity of the actual climb.
I enjoy hiking. I never go on a hike with only the end in mind. I enjoy taking in the entire experience of it – nature, wildlife, openness of the outdoors, novelty, etc. I don’t really focus on reaching the end of the trail, nor do I focus on anything that happened prior to arriving at the trail. I’m simply excited about being ON the trail.
Enjoying the climb/trail represents the concept of present-mindedness. If we are past or future thinking, it means we are ALWAYS somewhere else, not able to enjoy the present moments of life. We are either stuck in the past, or worrying about the future. Past/future thinking also means that happiness is connected with a time OTHER THAN the present; it is either controlled by the past (I could have been happy IF . . .), or is pushed to some future time (once I finish school, retire, etc.).
Does this means that we should not plan or have goals? Of course, it doesn’t. Being “goal-oriented” is not necessarily synonymous with being “future-minded.” While we are taking steps to attain a goal, it is important to intentionally give attention to what is happening in the present moment. It means being aware of every moment AS WE EXPERIENCE IT, accepting what is happening today as being most important, not what may or may not happen in the future.
Why is this important?
The past, present and future are all connected through present moments. The past was at one time a present moment, and our future will become a present moment at some point. Hence, life consists of living in a series of present moments. Though we should acknowledge the past and future, we cannot dwell in either; the past has passed, and the future has not yet occurred.
I find it enlightening to contemplate the idea that our control over the past and future lies within the present. The present moment is where all of our decisions are made, so it is important to always be present-minded. During the activity of life, we are creating present moments that will ultimately influence the future. Additionally, the present moment will essentially become the past; therefore the control of our “future past” is also in the present moment.
My conclusion . . .
Living in the present means accepting life as it is NOW and, most importantly, it is about not letting our lives go by without truly living it. Happiness occurs in the present, which will become the happy past, and will essentially affect our future happiness.
Regarding goals, it means looking back on the effort and being able to say, “Wow, I really enjoyed that!”
And regarding life, living in the present pertains to the ongoing events of living. In other words, in contemplating the journey of living, it is knowing this: “It is better to travel well than to arrive.” Siddhārtha Gautama (Buddha)
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