Living in the Moment
(This is a bit longer read than usual but please be patient and take the time to get through it; the rewards can be life altering).
I was fortunate to be introduced to Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now early in my adult life. The book had a profound impact. While the concept is so basic – the moment we live in is all that is truly real; the past is just in our minds, and the future is unknown - it is nonetheless one of the most powerful and impactful abstractions in existence.
Our minds are built to mess us up. Our mental DNA was forged millions of years ago in the caveman era where the next threat was just around the corner. Thus, for its pure survival, the brain had to be on constant alert about what dangers lurked ahead based on past experiences. Simply put, the human brain spent most of its time, by necessity, either in the past or future, but rarely in the present.
Fast forward to today and our brains have not evolved much to meet our current circumstances. Our basic needs are largely taken care of by physical separation of threats from other species, we have a roof over our heads, and a refrigerator stock full of foods that will last us days if not weeks. Additional food is at most a couple minutes’ drive, or in some cases, a few taps of our phone away. As such the need to be on constant high alert, to remember what almost ate you for lunch yesterday, and what might make you their meal tomorrow, is no longer applicable.
But our brains never got the memo.
What hasn’t changed is the fact that this very moment, the present, is all that is real, all that you can truly control, and all that really matters. Our lives are ultimately a series of present moments strung together one after another after another. Yet for myriad reasons, in our brains, we are often lamenting the past or worried about the future. ‘But don’t I need to worry about the future in order to make sure I can take care of myself and my family?’ you ask? ‘And what about recalling pleasant past experiences? Are you saying any thoughts of the past or future are by definition bad?’
Great questions, and the answer is absolutely not. Remembering the past and anticipating the future can be very important to your mental, spiritual, physical, and financial well beings. But here is the subtle but powerful point: in 99% of cases, people’s brains are going into the past or future on their own, without your express intent (or consent). In other words, it is one thing to dedicate precious mental time intentionally planning for the future; it is another entirely to stress yourself out worrying about a litany of things that have not yet happened and likely never will. Further, it is one thing to consciously, with intention, recall past events – telling a friend a funny story, etc., but it is another thing entirely to lament the past and beat yourself up over mistakes made or recount some bad experience (a relationship break up, etc.) over and over. Case in point, often people wake up in the middle of the night, their brains racing with all sorts of thoughts about a work presentation they need to make in a few days. It is one thing to dedicate time in the middle of the day to preparing for the presentation. But that is not what you are doing at 3 in the morning. You are just letting your brain stress over something that is still in the future and that you are going to do precisely zero about (nor should you) at 3 am.
Many people are addicted to these behaviors – their minds need the constant drama of recalling past traumas or negative future situations that do not even exist in the real world. But just as if a friend tells you about some terrible accident where someone cuts their finger – and you experience physical pain (even though nothing has been done to you physically) – when you let your mind think negative thoughts constantly you are creating unnecessary stress that can actually create sickness, pain, and disease in the body. That is how strong the mind body connection is: just thinking about something bad can cause you harm (the reverse is true as well; it’s called the placebo affect and it is very real).
So, what to do about it? What is interesting is that you need your mind to heal your mind. If your fist shot out and hit yourself in the head (and you could ultimately control your fist), then your brain would instruct your fist to no longer hit yourself in the head, as your brain knows that is causing short term pain and potential long term damage. And if for some reason you could not control your limb, you would seek out a physical therapist to help you train your body to no long longer cause damage to itself.
You can train your brain just like you train your body. This is a concept I have been espousing over and over: people put way, way too little time and investment into their brains. Those who emphasize physical health may spend an hour or more several times per week on an elliptical or lifting weights, but little to no time ‘exercising’ their brains, or worse yet feed themselves alcohol or other substances which damage the brain’s ability to function optimally. Contact me to discuss in more depth ways to improve the health of your brain, but bottom line, make the time (even 10 minutes a day done consistently can have a dramatically positive impact) to enhance your brain’s health daily.
When you do, you will become more conscious and more aware of your thoughts (just like when you train your lungs and legs, you can run further and faster over time). When you become more aware of your thoughts, you will realize how much of the time your mind is meandering uncontrollably to the past or future in ways that do not benefit you. Once you realize that, you can choose to do something about it. Here is where it gets interesting: it takes very, very little – once you realize your brain is not in the present – to get it back to the moment. There are many techniques, but I simply call my brain out. ‘Silly brain, I see you are rehashing for the 10th time that argument I had with my son, but is that really a good way to spend your time and energy right now?’ Before you even get halfway through your thought your brain is back in the present. Your mind is now in the present talking to your brain about thinking past thoughts. Picture yourself standing over your mind. As it races back to the past or into the future in ways you are not intentionally having it go, just talk to it. Tell it you see it, you know what it is doing, you are smarter than it is, and that act alone will stop your mind in its tracks and keep it from going down some useless (and often destructive) rabbit hole for hours.
Life goes by quickly, we only have one shot at it, and there are a lot of forces out there making it more difficult than it needs to be. Don’t let your own brain be one of them. Gain control over it just like you would your body. The brain can be trained. Just as you will never achieve ‘perfect’ health, and you must continue your health journey for life (or else you will soon lose whatever gains you have made), so too will we never be able to fully control our brains, but you can improve your brain health dramatically, and get it to work for you rather than against you. The key is gaining awareness of when it is unintentionally drifting into the past or future and reigning it in to refocus on whatever it is in that moment that is most important to you. As you do this over time, you will find that you are ever increasingly present (which will help your productivity, your relationships, and essentially all areas of your life) and those times you need to tame the brain will become less and less. Don’t float through life letting your millions-of-years-old-brain dictate your life. Be the master of your mind, and live a joyous, healthy, present life.