Living in the now may sound like a New Age concept for hippies, but it can be one of the most powerful tools for living your best life once you start to practice it. We are human beings, not human ‘doings’, and yet most of us, especially in the West, are constantly chasing after what we believe to be ‘success’.
Yet success is not a fixed concept. It is in the eye of the beholder. In the West, being a veterinarian, doctor or lawyer might be considered a sign of success, yet we know that there are many unhappy doctors. In fact, they have one of the highest suicide rates of any profession. (Veterinarians are actually #1 on the list of professionals most likely to commit suicide.)
The drive to constantly do something makes us distracted and keeps us so focused on the daily grind that we have little time for relaxation, de-stressing, or self-development. Even worse, it makes us feel stuck, as if we can’t change because we have no time, that the whole world we have created for ourselves will fall apart and more.
In this guide, you will discover the power of living in the now in order to achieve personal transformation, and how you can be more present in your life in every sense of the word.
Let’s look at one of the main reasons we fail to live fully in the present and sacrifice our personal power, the mistake of living in the past.
How to Let Go of the Past
Many of us think we are living in the present, day after day, but the truth is that we are often more focused on the past and future than on the present. We are plugged into a particular role in our family from the time we are born, such as the ‘good son’ or ‘little lady’ and our interests, even our clothing, are dictated by societal norms about what color boys and girls should wear and how they ‘should’ behave. Boys get blue, girls get pink.
Yet it is all a question of perception. For example, you may think that black and white are straightforward, but the truth is that they carry different symbolic meanings depending on one’s culture. White used to be the color of mourning in Europe in the Middle Ages, so the idea of a gorgeous white wedding dress would have horrified them. Similarly, a ‘sexy’ little black dress would horrify Buddhists, especially those in Japan, because black is considered to be an ugly color.
As we are thrust into societal roles and live them day after day in our parents’ house, it can be hard to break away. It’s easy to just do what you’ve already done, go along with what they want for the sake of survival and deny parts of your inner self. You might long to be a writer, and be very talented at it, but nothing will satisfy your parents except you becoming a doctor.
Old habits die hard, even when you long to make positive changes in your life. Sticking to your worst habits you know you should change is a lot easier than breaking them, such as quitting smoking or stopping overeating.
We also stay stuck in order to avoid conflict. No one wants to be alone in life, so we put up with certain situations in order to maintain the relationship. Why? Because change is scary. For anyone who has ever wondered how any battered wife would remain with the spouse who has been harming her, the truth is that the future is more frightening for her than her current situation, even though it is so terrible.
The past soon becomes a pattern. And If something traumatic happens to us, it can often cause us to ‘freeze’ in that moment and have trouble moving on, or changing. A death in the family might be one example. A bad break-up with a spouse might be another, causing us to have trouble ever trusting or loving anyone ever again.
Just a simple argument can cause people to get stuck in the past. They might hold a grudge and not speak to each other for years, to the point where they can’t even recall what triggered the disagreement in the first place.
Or they might say, “I’m a depressed person because X happened to me when I was 12.” That might be a good explanation when you’re 12, but when you’re 50, it sounds pretty lame, doesn’t it?
Living in the present allows you to create a new identity by releasing the pain and the self-limiting thoughts from the past, and taking things one day at a time.
Another reason we get stuck in our lives is because we get too wrapped up in the future and don’t pay enough attention to the present. Let’s look at this topic in the next chapter.
How to Avoid Getting Wrapped Up in the Future
Most of us are so busy chasing the future of our dreams that we overlook the joys of the present. Even worse, if we don’t get what we think we desperately want, our life might seem ‘ruined’. Look at all the pressure put on teens to get good grades so they can get into the college of their choice. If they don’t get in for any reason, they often feel as if they are failure or as if their life is ruined.
Happily married couples think kids and a home of their own will make their lives perfect, until they discover one of the partners is infertile and the roof starts to fall in due to heavy winter snow. It’s times like these that test a person’s character, and often make or break even the best relationships.
Outside stresses abound, but we place a lot of stress on ourselves due to all our expectations, thoughts and desires. We spend so much time chasing after the future we want, such as money for the down payment on that dream house, we fail to live in the now. We do what we have to in order to keep our jobs so we can keep on earning in order to pay the mortgage, but there seems little time for anything other than work and other commitments. Then we get frustrated and feel like a giant hamster running in a wheel all the time.
This constant doing instead of being, of living in the future, instead of living in the now, can cause anger and frustration to build. Very few of us are at our best when we are stressed and angry. It can cause us to do something we will regret; such as do or say something to our partner that might be very hurtful. Once or twice might not be a deal-breaker, but if you find yourself arguing about the same issues over and over again, it’s time to look at your present if you ever intend on having a future with that person.
The #1 cause of divorce is money trouble. Money can’t buy happiness, it’s true, but it does give you a lot more choices than being poor. The important word here is choice. Do you find yourself just doing the same thing over and over because it is easier than trying something different? Or ignoring opportunities because they don’t fit in with what you picture your future to be like?
The truth is that your life unfolds moment by moment in the present. In the time it’s taken you to read that sentence, about 10 seconds have already passed into the past. By the time you finish, which might take about another 10 seconds, those future seconds will become the present, and then the past.
Understanding this can help you realize just how precious your time is, and how each present moment is the foundation to a happier future if you take time to live in the now. Let’s look in the next chapter at some of the ways to free yourself to live in the present.
How to Live in the Present
There are many ways you can train yourself to cut links with the past and stop chasing the future so you can live in the present. This will mean some focus and effort, but the results will be well worth it.
- Try meditation. Meditation takes many forms, but the most popular one in the West, which is ideal for living in the present, is mindfulness meditation. Start with simple breathing meditation, focusing on your breathing and not following any thoughts that arise, until you can count 60 breaths without getting distracted.
- Practice mindfulness. Once you have done this, try being more mindful of what is around you, the thoughts in your mind, the breeze in your hair. Try to push all other thoughts aside that don’t relate to the thing you are focusing on. (More about mindfulness meditation in the next chapter.)
- Don’t follow your thoughts. One of the most important lessons that meditation teaches you is how to distance yourself from your thoughts and simply observe them rather than get caught up in them. You may suddenly recall something that upset you last week, or a scary experience from 20 years ago.
What you do with these thoughts is up to you. Either observe them and think about what lesson you learned from the event at the time, or simply allow the idea to go back into the vast ocean of your thoughts just like a wave falling back into the sea.
- Give up the myth of multitasking. Multitasking is a dangerous myth that prevents people from practicing mindfulness and working effectively and efficiently from moment to moment. The truth is that the brain can’t work on 2 things at once. All it can do is switch back and forth between the 2 or more tasks really rapidly.
However, this means that at the end of an hour, for example, you’ve got 30 minutes of work done on 2 tasks, and they are likely to be half finished, compared with having worked on one thing at a time and completed it, then turned your full attention to the next chore on your list.
Multitasking is a time eater, and a time waster, that prevents you from living in the moment. One could even argue that it damages your chances of a better future because few of us do our best work when we are distracted.
- Don’t follow your fantasies. When you’re at work, don’t spend your time thinking about what you are going to do with friends and family at the weekend. Get the work done. Then spend your free time on meditation and on things you like and which recharge your batteries. Treat yourself to a bubble bath before bed, or the latest novel by your favorite author. Take a walk in nature and observe everything, trees, flowers, the sounds of birds and so on.
- Stop thinking the grass is greener. Many people fail to live in the now because they are constantly chasing after the future life they want and not making the most of the present life they have. It’s easy to envy others, or try to keep up with the Joneses, but the more you have, the more cluttered your life can become. It gets focused on things rather than people, or your own self-development.
For example, it is nice to have a lovely lawn, but it requires work and ongoing expense. And after all your efforts, you might still look over at your neighbor’s lawn and decide that their grass is somehow greener. It may be, but in the end, it’s all just grass. Make the most of the life you have, and love the life you live. It’s unique to you, because you are unique.
- Cultivate an attitude of gratitude. If discontented thoughts start to creep in, think of 5 things you are grateful for in your life. You could be happy that your mother is such a difficult person because she helps you practice patience, or thank your boss for showing you how NOT to run a company.
You can also focus on positive things in your life, such as your wonderful spouse or the joys of chocolate ice cream.
- Just do it, and pay attention while you do it. Don’t put off until tomorrow what you really want to do now. Sadly, everyone in the world dies with a to-do list. Carpe diem, as the Ancient Romans said. Seize the day. Grab the opportunity and make the most of it. Feel the fear and do it anyway. Eat the chocolate ice cream and savor every mouthful. Delight in the way it feels so cool on your tongue, and so on. And if you are worried about your weight, walk around the block a few times to burn off the calories.
- Set your intention for the day and for each action. This may sound like goal setting or living in the future, but it is actually a way of focusing the mind to keep it going in the direct you wish. If your intention for the day is to get through it without strangling your boss, great. It’s a start. If your intention is to benefit all living beings by heading off to the nearest soup kitchen to help cook the daily meal, do all your work joyfully.
- Stop judging. Humans tend to slap labels on things, good, bad, black, white, up, down. It is all a question of perspective. If you and your friends are each standing on a different floor in the house, for the person on the top floor, up would be the ceiling or sky, and down would be the next floor. For the person on the bottom floor, down would be the basement, or the ground.
Accept that things are neither good nor bad, they just are. This is particularly important in relation to your thoughts. Don’t judge, just observe. There’s no need to feel guilty about how much you detest your aunt. As long as you aren’t mean to her or say anything nasty, no harm is done. On the other hand, you could be grateful to her for presenting you with problems that enable you to learn and grow as a person.
- Always begin where you are. The path of self-improvement can be a long and winding one. If you are lacking in self-confidence, you may feel like a complete mess that needs a great deal of work. You might even be told what’s ‘wrong’ with you by (not so) helpful and kind relatives and so-called friends. Choose one area of your life to focus on, being more present and mindful. If you struggle with overeating, for example, studies have shown that eating without the TV on ensures you focus more on the food you are eating, and eating slowly, chewing and really tasting every mouthful, will make each meal more satisfying and leave you less likely to overeat.
- Your best is good enough. Most of us dread public speaking, but the truth is that the only way to get really good at it is to practice, to keep doing it over and over again until you improve. With each opportunity for failure comes a chance for success, and a teaching moment, that is, a time in the present when you can learn valuable lessons and use them as the foundation for doing better next time.
You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to try your best. If you procrastinate at work because you are a perfectionist or worry about getting judged, remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be completed by your deadline.
- Stop watching the clock all the time. Of course we have to stick to our timetables, but we should not be a slave to our schedule and not leave time for things that will rest and rejuvenate us, including things that we love, and savoring those things in the moment.
- Go with the flow. Most people have trouble going with the flow, that is, living life moment by moment and seeing what will happen. Type-A personalities and real control freaks will actually try to do the opposite. Instead of going with the flow, they will try to re-direct the river. They might succeed up to a certain point, but the effort will be exhausting and the stress of trying to hold everything together so it doesn’t all just wash away can be overwhelming.
As the famous quote by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr says, “…grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
- Divorce yourself from media. It is true that cellphones are very convenient, but studies have shown that they eat up a lot of time with talking and texting, checking emails and so on. Cut the calls and cable and try to have a technology-free weekend in which you get away from the computer, mobile, DVDs, video games and so on, and get back to basics.
- Make regular time for loved ones. One of the greatest things you can ever give to a loved one is the gift of yourself through the quality time you spend with them. If you’re all acting more like roommates than a married couple or a family, schedule family time regularly and enjoy it moment by moment.
Dinner is a great time to connect, catching up on each other’s day and discussing a range of interesting topics, which fosters open communication and enjoyment of the present moment. Studies have shown that families who eat dinner together regularly are a lot closer than those who do not. They have also shown that the children in those families tend to be a lot less likely to experiment with alcohol, drugs, tobacco, and sex.
There’s really no greater gift we can give a loved one that to be present for them, listening supportively and relaxing together, even if it just for a few moments each day. As American cartoonist Bil Keane said, “Yesterday’s the past, tomorrow’s the future, but today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present.”
Being present is a gift that will keep on giving, to your family, and above all, yourself, as you discover the power of living in the here and now.
So, what’s the best way of practicing living in the now? Let’s look at mindfulness meditation in the next chapter.
Mindfulness Meditation for Living in the Moment
Mindfulness meditation is the most common form of meditation in the West because it is easy to do and gets rapid results. It can also be done at any time, anywhere, as often as you like. It can best be defined as a state of active, focused attention on what you are feeling or doing in the present.
To begin practicing mindfulness, start small. Check your body to see if there is any pain or tension. Notice the feel of clothes against your skin. As you go through your day, don’t just wolf down your food, stop to savor the flavor. Don’t just gulp down your coffee. Notice what it feels like on your tongue, the difference between skim milk and cream in it, and so on.
When you become mindful, you switch from doer to observer and can watch yourself from a distance, as it were. You can stop following your thoughts as they jump around in your head, but simply enjoy the experience in the here and now. Whether stopping to listen to birds singing in the trees or giving your complete attention to the mundane chores of washing the dishes that you usually ‘zone out’ when you are doing them, mindfulness helps make the world come more alive, moment by moment.
All forms of meditation have many health benefits, such as:
- Reducing stress
- Boosting the immune system
- Easing chronic pain
- Lowering high blood pressure
- Improving the quality of life in people who have chronic illnesses, even cancer
- Improving mood
- Reducing anxiety
Even a few minutes of mindfulness can make a big difference. Those who practice mindfulness have been shown to be happier and more empathetic, while also being more secure within themselves. They tend to have higher self-esteem and are more tolerant of their own ‘weaknesses’ and a better judge of their true strengths.
Focusing awareness on the here and now rather than past or future cuts down on the ‘automatic’ reactions many people engage in as so-called coping mechanisms, such as overeating, smoking tobacco, or indulging in other forms of impulsive or risky behavior. They are less defensive and feel less like a victim and more in control of their own lives. They also manage their emotions better, being less argumentative, which means they are able to form a wider circle of happy, supportive relationships.
Living in the moment can be paradoxical, however, because you will be starting the practice under the assumption that you will gain those kinds of benefits from it in the future. So rather than push for a better future, learn to enjoy the moment and you will soon notice how much smoother your life is becoming. It’s like learning to let go in order to keep what you want most. It’s learning to control your mind in order to gain freedom from the negative thoughts that have been holding you back.
If this sounds like just the opportunity you’ve been looking for to get out of a rut, try it now. Scan your immediate area to look at something beautiful. Don’t look around the room and think. “Oh darn, better get up to dust it.” Instead, look at the dust, the way it dances in the sunlight streaming from the window, the patterns it forms. Next, enjoy the sunlight. How does it look, feel on your face?
Mindfulness meditation helps you feel at one with the universe. If you feel at one, there is no separation between self and other, which means more harmonious relationships and a sense of connectedness, which will make you feel you are never alone even if you are by yourself in the middle of a wilderness.
Look at one of the pictures on the wall. Notice the details, skill that created it, the frame, and so on. Think of all the people who created it, the artist, person who make the frame, the glass, and so on. Think of all the people who contributed to building your house or apartment building, how skillful they were and how much you are enjoying the results of their skills.
Focusing on the present moment is like a mini-vacation from all the thinking and overthinking most of us tend to do. Mindfulness draws our attention back in from all the distractions that surround us every day. It keeps us in the moment so we don’t dwell on the past, however terrible or great it was. There’s no need for nostalgia when you can enjoy a great present if you are simply more mindful of it and take the time to enjoy it.
Mindfulness also cuts back on worry because it builds confidence that you can cope with anything that comes your way. Problems that used to seem like obstacles are now just challenges to be overcome. You’re more in control of your mind, and therefore more likely to make smart decisions, not impulsive ones.
If you feel your emotions trying to take over, breathe and examine at them. Where are they coming from? Is it a reaction to the moment, or something triggering a feeling from the past? Breathing will focus your attention on the present moment and long deep breaths will calm you so you can deal with the issue skillfully.
Finally, being mindful builds your confidence because your focus on what you are doing will give you a sense of skill and mastery. If you’re washing the dishes, try to wash each one with your full attention, and admire how you do it. Think how rewarding it is to have clean dishes, and how fun and effortless it can be. Blow bubbles, splash, have fun with it. If you stop treating it like a chore, especially one to be fought over with your spouse, it can transform your entire outlook so you will live a greater life of ease moment by moment.
If you’ve been doing nothing but chasing promotion, looking after your family day after day with no time for yourself, or stressing over money worries all the time, try mindfulness meditation starting today, and see what a difference it can make to your overall feeling of well-being.
Living in the modern world in the West is full of challenges and stresses that many people in the East can’t even imagine. Depression, low self-esteem, feeling trapped in the past, being stuck in the rat race, are all concepts that most Eastern people who practice meditation would not understand.
Life is all about choices. A calm, peaceful mind is a mind that has choices and is able to choose with wisdom, not emotions such as anger. You can act through careful consideration, not fury or panic. Practice mindfulness several times a day every day, and see how enjoyable each moment can be. Cut the bad habits that don’t serve your higher self, and cultivate new ones that will help you live your best life as you discover the power of living in the now.
To your success!