“There is nothing else than now. There is neither yesterday, certainly, nor is there any tomorrow. How old must you be before you know that?” ~Ernest Hemingway
It was a Wednesday afternoon, just like any other. I’d spent the last three hours bent over my laptop at a coffee shop, trying to nail down the revisions to a research report that was already three days late.
I’d been distracted all afternoon, checking my e-mail every five minutes for news about a proposal I’d submitted a few weeks earlier. When I’d found nothing to satisfy me in my inbox, I’d stumble over to Facebook, paging through memes about the world’s impending doom that seemed custom designed to me to make me feel as gloomy as possible.
Finally I called it quits and drove home in a funk. I walked into the kitchen, where my wife Lisa was cutting vegetables for dinner. She looked up when I walked in. “How are you doing?” she asked, reading my face.
I thought about that for a moment. I knew I had a happy life. There were a million things to be thankful for: a supportive relationship, fantastic kids, good health, and the fortune to live in a beautiful corner of a free country.
But I didn’t feel any of that just now. I felt just a vague cloud of irritation and impatience and stress.
“I’m feeling sort of blue,” I confessed. “I’m trying to make my company work and I don’t know if I’m going to get this project and the world is stressing me out.”
I looked up at Lisa, expecting her to offer me a word of encouragement or a reassuring smile. But her face did not show sympathy. It showed irritation.
“I’m tired of hearing about all the things in your life you aren’t satisfied with,” she said.
“What are you talking about?” I said. “I’m just feeling kind of blue. I’ll feel better when I get some more work and finish my book and maybe get to travel more, that’s all. Those are all normal, human frustrations. Then I’ll be perfectly happy.”
She raised her eyebrows skeptically. “You haven’t been happy since I met you.”
“I have too!” I listed a bunch of happy moments from our ten years together: our wedding day, our honeymoon trip to Spain, my fortieth birthday party. Of course I’d been happy. And I had every reason to feel blue right now. Lisa obviously didn’t know a thing about me.
“Fine,” she said. “If you say so.” We pretty much left it at that, and went on to our evening routine, eating dinner and washing dishes and reading bedtime stories.
But as I tucked the girls into bed that night, something about the conversation stuck with me. I knew she was by my side. I knew she supported me in whatever I did. And I knew, too, that she knew me pretty well. So why was she so wrong about me this time?
Two weeks later we flew with our two girls up to northern Idaho for our annual trip to visit Lisa’s family. We would spend the first two nights camping in a pine grove behind her dad’s log house, within view of Lake Coeur d’Alene. We set up our tent in the dappled afternoon sun, ready to spend a week as far as we could get from phones and computers and commuter traffic.
The next morning we walked down to the lake, arms full of beach towels and sunscreen. I held the girls’ hands as we walked over the slick rocks to a small stretch of sand beyond, and they darted into the lake, laughing and splashing.
The scene seemed picture-perfect. But I still felt that strange cloud, that feeling of not-quite-rightness. I was removed from the day-to-day stresses of work, but something was still off.
Maybe Lisa was right. If I wasn’t happy at work, and I wasn’t happy here, then where was I happy?
And then, in a flash of recognition, I saw what was in my way.
I was afraid.
I was afraid of being present in this moment, and only this moment.
When I was working, I was afraid to just be there, focusing on the task at hand, satisfied with wherever I was in the long process of building a career.
And now that I was on vacation, I was afraid to be here. I was afraid to stop worrying about work for a moment. If I truly allowed myself to acknowledge that all there was to life was to be found right here, right now, then what if that moment did not stand up to the hype? What if all I found here was emptiness, meaninglessness?
But when I looked right into that monster of fear, something surprising happened. It disappeared.
When I allowed myself to truly be in the moment, I saw that it wasn’t empty, but full. Full of the smell of sunscreen and seaweed and pine trees. Full of the sound of gulls squawking in the sky overhead, the rumble of a dump truck on the dirt road in the distance, the shrieks of kids’ laughter floating above it all like a melody line in a symphony.
It seemed too simple. It was a cliché I’d read a million times in mindfulness magazines and self-help books. Be Here Now. It made sense, but somehow had always remained at an intellectual level.
The “future,” I saw, will never really arrive. I will always be waiting for something, for some answer, some sign that what I’m doing is good enough and that I’m good enough. Ten years from now, I may be on the New York Times bestseller list and enjoying my vacations to Maui with Oprah, but I’ll still be waiting for the future.
In truth, I’d been dissociating from the present my whole life. It was a bad habit that probably began as a way of trying to avoid the trials of an often difficult childhood, and was only reinforced when I tried to evade the darkness of the depression I felt in my early twenties. Those hard times were far in the past, but I was still holding on to the patterns they helped create.
Lisa had been right after all. She knew me more than I gave her credit for. I had a happy life, I realized, but I needed to own it, to reach out and grab it by simply being here.
I stood for a moment watching the scene as the brisk lake water lapped at my toes. Then I held my breath and dove under, straight into the present.
Tips For Being Present
Changing a lifetime’s mental habits is an ongoing process, not a one-time quick fix. Our brains are built to reinforce behavior that feels safe and comfortable, even when that behavior hurts us more than helps us. Here are some tips that I’ve found helpful in the ongoing quest to live in the moment.
1. Look inward for reinforcement, not outward.
When you feel stress or anxiety, resist the urge to look for external reinforcement. External reinforcement is the sugar high of emotions; it comes in a quick blast and then fades, and then you need another hit. All those seemingly harmless behaviors—checking e-mail, reading news blurbs—are ways of leaving the present. They are ways of trying to get external reinforcement that this moment is okay.
The present lives in us, not outside of us. We do not have control over the outside world, but we do have control over what is inside of us. When you feel the need for reassurance, remind yourself that all the resources you need to be present and at peace are inside you. Remember that they have always been there, and they will always be there.
2. Control your information stream.
Put your news consumption on a diet. Put your phone away. Regulate your use of external information for emotional support, especially from social media. Facebook, Twitter and the rest can be wonderful ways to connect with friends. But overuse them and they begin to make you feel disconnected instead.
3. Write down your goals—and then throw them away.
Goal setting is a great way to prioritize what’s important to you. Just remember that goals are about the future. Once you’ve identified them, let them float away into the future, where they belong. The real rewards are not in attaining your final goals, but in working towards them. And that only happens in the present.
4. Embrace gratitude.
At regular intervals take a few moments out of your day and list five things you feel grateful for. Gratitude is an amazing weapon against anxiety, and it is a powerful way of reminding ourselves of the power and value of the present.
A great way to immerse yourself in gratitude is to perform acts that help other people. Volunteering and acts of kindness help us focus on others, rather than ourselves, and are an amazingly effective tool for living presently.
5. Practice mindfulness.
Develop a simple, repeatable mindfulness habit. If meditation is your thing, spend fifteen minutes each morning in quiet contemplation, simply being present. The core of my contemplative process is running. It’s my way of burning out the noise and anxiety of the future and the past (which do not exist) and bringing my awareness back to the present. Experiment and figure out what works best for you, and then make it a habit.
We sometimes get so detached from the present moment that it seems like foreign territory, and lowering our defenses to allow it in can seem scary. When we let go of the future and allow ourselves to be in the now, we are actually committing an act of bravery. Diving in may be hard, but it’s the only way to find the true richness of life.