Ever since the 60s, catchphrases such as “be here now” or “live in the present moment” have been tossed about as clichéd ways to calm a worried mind, find fulfillment or be happier.
The funny thing about clichés, though, is that often they’re true. And so it goes with the benefits of being more fully present in our lives.
In fact, it’s striking just how many of our problems don’t exist in the present moment. Much of the time, our anxieties, fears and frustrations involve projections about the future or ruminations about the past. Worrying about your client meeting next Tuesday or the argument you had with your sister last night, for example, has nothing to do with what’s happening in this moment.
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In fact, right now, pause and take a breath. Notice what’s happening. In this moment, you’re reading this article. There might be a few other things going on. Maybe you’re aware of your breathing or sounds rising and fall in your environment as you read.
You might have few errant thoughts flitting through your mind: “What should I have for lunch?” or “I wish I slept better last night.” But that’s pretty much it. The meeting with your client hasn’t happened yet and the argument with your sister is over. It sounds reductive, but right now nothing bad is likely happening to you.
How Being Fully Present Helps Us
I once listened to a talk by the renowned positivity researcher Barbara Frederickson. Frederickson told her audience that the present moment was often a place of no problem. To make her point, she quipped: “I mean, no one right now is sticking forks in your eyes.” And if, by the way, they were you could immediately do something about it.
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Being more fully present can solve a lot of our problems. Of course, there are productive and necessary ways to think about an upcoming meeting or reflect on a sibling rivalry. At times, it’s helpful to project into the future and plan a course of action or rehash the past to better understand how to relate to each other. But incessantly doing so is stressful. Being present usually isn’t.
The other day I was wrestling with a worry. As I observed my thoughts go round and round like Ferris wheel, I shifted my attention to the flowers outside my window. Grabbing a pair of clippers, I headed out the door and into the garden. I kneeled down in front of a clump of hydrangea and started deadheading. As I took in the fading pink blossoms, smelled the damp earth and narrowed my focus to snip the stems at just the right spot, my worry evaporated in the evening dew.
I’m reminded of a quote from Master Oogway, a character in the animated movie Kung Fu Panda. (Wisdom can be found in surprising places.) Master Oogway said: “Yesterday, is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. But today is a gift. That is why it’s called the present.”
How do we Unwrap the Gift of the Present?
We train in being more mindful. Mindfulness is the art and practice of paying attention, on purpose to the present moment without judgment.
The more mindful we are the more capable we become of inhabiting the present moment. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to be present all the time. But practicing mindfulness helps us become more aware of where our attention is at any given moment and gives us the facility to bring our attention back, time and time again, to what’s happening now. Doing so not only allows us to let go of worries. It also allows us to find fulfillment in even mundane activities.
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One of my students once described how she transformed emptying the dishwasher into a life-altering event simply by being more present. My student suffered from chronic pain. During mindfulness class, she learned to bring her attention more fully to whatever she was doing in the moment.
One day in class she described how emptying the dishes had become a refuge from her pain. As she put away each dish, her attention focused on the task at hand rather than her pain. She delighted in how the glasses gleamed and how the plates clanked as she stacked them neatly into the cupboard. The more she attended to her chore, the more her pain faded into the background of her experience. Emptying the dishes became so pleasant for her that she got upset if another family member took on the task.
I can’t promise that being more present will turn every chore into a delight. But you might be surprised by how much stress can be reduced and how much joy can found by “being here now.”
Written by eM Life Teacher Kelly Barron.