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By Owen O’Brien
How much of your life do you spend in the present moment? How much time do you spend daydreaming, ruminating about the past, or worrying about the future? How much of your life do you miss by getting lost in thought?
In his book, The Power of Now, author Eckhart Tolle explains that learning to exist in the now frees us from pain while connecting us to the infinite calm of our essential being. He attributes human suffering — depression, anxiety, guilt, worry, fear, and more— to our tendency to live in our minds instead of in the present. If you take time to examine your thoughts, like I did, you might notice that they are very often related to the past or future and are rarely focused on the now.
Tolle argues that time, or “psychological time,” is essentially a construction of the human mind. In other words, the future — whether it’s work on Monday or a beach vacation in two weeks — exists only in our heads. Similarly, the past is simply a collection of memories. The only thing that ever truly exists is the now. By always thinking about the past or the future, we are ignoring or resisting the now. In essence, we are denying reality and, in doing so, causing ourselves a great deal of pain.
The Past Produces Pain
Tolle explains that too frequently ruminating on the past causes feelings of depression, guilt, and self-loathing. The following are examples of past-oriented thoughts that are likely to cause pain:
- “I should have asked her out! I’m such a coward. I am never going to find my soulmate.”
- ”I shouldn’t have said that in front of my boss. Now, I am never going to advance at my job.”
- ”I wish I hadn’t eaten that piece of cake. I feel fat and undisciplined.”
Even letting your mind drift back to happy memories can create sadness about that period of time being over, which can result in feelings of emptiness, loss, and general dissatisfaction with the present. For example:
- ”In college, I felt so free. I had a million friends, zero wrinkles, and boundless energy. I guess I will never feel like that again. My life is basically over.”
The Future Forges Fear
On the flip side, Tolle explains that regularly thinking about the future causes worry and anxiety. For instance:
- “I have to go to the store, call the doctor, finish up three reports at work, and pay for a bunch of bills I can’t afford. I am so stressed out!”
On a Sunday afternoon, instead of enjoying the walk you are taking outside, you might find yourself thinking…“Oh my gosh. I have work tomorrow. The weekend is basically over. I am dreading tomorrow.”
Even habitually thinking about positive future events, which may initially cause feelings of excitement, can eventually cause dissatisfaction with the now, as you may deem the present inferior to your idea of the future event.
- ”I cannot wait until my beach vacation — warm sand, margaritas, time without work. Too bad that, until then, I am stuck with work and cold weather.”
Even worse, habitually living in the future prevents you from ever actually experiencing and enjoying these positive events when they do arrive. You will always be looking forward to something bigger and better.
- While on the beach on that beach vacation, instead of enjoying the sun on your face and the sand between your toes, you might be thinking… “I can’t wait until the shrimp dinner tonight! Only 3 more hours!”
*Disclaimer: Tolle grants that sparingly thinking about the future is acceptable insofar as it allows us to plan for the next step in life but argues that most people spend far too much time doing so. I am definitely guilty of this and have too often ventured from “sparingly” thinking about the future to constantly thinking about the future.
Luckily, there is an escape from the pain caused by the mind’s continual creation of and rumination on psychological time. If we embrace the present moment, we unchain ourselves from this suffering and are free to enjoy the peace of true existence — the joy of the now. Don’t let the fear of the
Easier said than done. How do you live in the now?
Tolle teaches that the easiest way to start living in the now is by noticing the sensations in our bodies and by paying attention the world around us as it unfolds. I like to pay attention to my breath while also noticing my surroundings — non-judgmentally observing the color and shape of the clouds, feeling the sun on my face, noticing my diaphragm move up and down with each breath. This every mindfulness can be practiced while:
- Driving — feel your hands on the steering wheel and your foot on the gas pedal while gazing through the windshield at the road ahead.
- Cleaning – feel the warmth of the towels fresh out the dryer, hear the quiet popping of soap bubbles, and smell the lavender scent of cleaner on the sponge.
- Walking — notice the quality of your breath, the feel of the ground beneath your feet, observe the sights around you, and listen to the sounds of birds, car horns, and other ambient noise.
Whenever you find your mind drifting to thoughts of the past or future, gently redirect your focus to the present moment. On days that I am too far gone, I find that yoga helps me — and sometimes forces me — to reconnect with the moment. Matching each movement with an inhale or an exhale requires that I stay focused on the present. By the time we lie back in Shavasana (corpse pose), I use my here-and-now momentum from the class to stay centered in the present. Afterwards, I am able to attack the day with a greater foundation of calm and less needless stress.
Tolle’s Secret Weapon:
In The Power of Now, Tolle provides a trick to help us avoid unnecessarily stressing out over psychological time. He instructs the reader to ask him or herself “Do I have a problem right now?” whenever they start worrying about the past or the future. The answer should almost always be “no” (unless a rabid bear is chasing you right now!). For example, although, tomorrow, in a single workday, I need to figure out how I am going to complete lengthy treatment plans for each one of my clients on a new electronic client-information system while also fulfilling my normal work duties as a Crisis Social Worker, I do not have a problem “right now.” Right now, I am sitting on my back patio enjoying the first warm day in a week, and the only thing I need to be doing is typing out words on this keyboard — not preemptively worrying about a task I cannot start addressing until work tomorrow. Before reading The Power of Now, I might have considered this work task a “problem.” Now, I know that the issue is just a “life situation” as Tolle calls it, and I will address it when this task enters into my now. Because right now, I only have to devote my mental energy to the moment. Right now — and for the next 100 million “nows” — I am free to live in the peace of the present. You can even take this a step further by developing a fear of missing out of the now.
Interested in more? Pick up a copy of The Power of Now or check out this video of Eckhart Tolle talking about how to break the habit of excessive thinking:
Breaking the habit of excessive thinking can be a tough task to tackle on your own. Attending a meditation group or a yoga class and working with a counselor can be great ways to catalyze your foray into a present-oriented life.
If you liked this post by Owen O’Brien, you might also like her blogs on The Simplest Way to Overcome Anxiety and Depression and her post Develop Fear Of Missing Out Of The Now.