We’re all time travellers.
Many of us live our lives in the past. We fret about something stupid we said yesterday, we’re plagued by guilt about an event from years ago, we relive a harm done to us by a friend, we’re depressed about the path our life has taken.
Many of us live in the future. We’re anxious about tomorrow’s performance review, we think about what we’re going to eat for dinner, we get worked up about a tough conversation we’re planning to have with a spouse, we become overwhelmed by an ever-growing to-do list.
Day in, day out, most of us are a soupy blend of anxiety and fear and depression. Media doesn’t help much: what if war comes knocking at our door? Looks like the planet’s going to burn up! The economy is in ruins! Protests have erupted! There’s no end to the problems of the world, and just as one story fades, another tragedy materializes to take its place.
Our lives have become complicated beyond our capacities. What to do about it?
In my experience, the solution boils down to Live in the moment, drop the rest. It sounds naive and hopelessly optimistic, the answer espoused by hippie-dippie bullshitters and spiritual mumbo-jumboists the world over. But hey, the alternative is living anywhere but the moment. How’s that working out?
At the core of this idea of “living in the moment” is a profound clarity or awareness: seeing things just as they are, right now. We strip away the layers of complication we bring to just about everything: the guilt that we’re not doing more, the fear that we won’t get the job done on time, the worry that someone won’t like our ideas, the righteous indignation that someone did us wrong. We have a tendency to conflate matters, to take reality and pile on all sorts of baggage. Free from all of that baggage, situations become much more straightforward and manageable.
A Quick Mindfulness Exercise
That’s all easier said than done, of course. Let’s do a quick exercise to demonstrate how our thoughts run rampant: Sitting comfortably, just close your eyes. Focus on your breathing. Count each breath as it comes in and goes out–breathe in, breathe out–that’s one. Keep going like that. When a thought arises and you find yourself thinking about something other than your breath and the counting, just note it gently, and start your count over. Continue counting your breaths until you can reach 10 without a thought arising. Easy enough!
Not so much. If you’ve never practiced this sort of meditation or mindfulness, odds are you’ll struggle to get to five, or even two. Maybe you can’t even get to your first out-breath without your mind veering off track. You may soon find that you’ve completely run off with a thought, totally forgetting what you were doing and spinning a grand tale about topics as varied as… what you ate for breakfast? How your boss should have appreciated your work more than she did. That ornery community member who remains a constant thorn in your side. The chorus of Take On Me? Sure, why not.
Each time you notice you’re off track, just come back to breathing and counting. That’s it. You’re just trying to concentrate on one thing. It’s hard, but I’m sure you can think of all sorts of situations where you’d love to just focus instead of being in your head: when you’re under deadline at work and just need to get it done; when you’re playing with your kid and your mind is racing about an errand you need to run; when you have ten projects on the go and you feel overwhelmed by all of it; when the world seems to be falling apart and you feel like you can’t do anything about it.
Reclaiming Control of Thought
Thoughts arise, and they go away. They can seem very real, very heavy in the moment. Where our mind and our thoughts go, so goes our attention. And then you snap back to reality–I’m just sitting here, counting breath (or working, or whatever)–and they vanish (and they come back, and they vanish again). When we indulge those thoughts, we can spend hours or days angry, anxious, frantic; amid so much noise in our lives, it’s important that we can just say, “stop.” This exercise, for now, can merely demonstrate how our thoughts are ephemeral, and to help you work on your concentration when you find yourself caught up in your head.
As you do this exercise, all of those worries you have, the problems in your life (real or imagined), the troubles of the world, and even thoughts about positive things will continue to arise and pull you out of the moment. The idea is just to let them be, not to indulge those thoughts constantly. Those things are always there, and always will be. And we can train ourselves through gentle reminders to drop those storylines and to reclaim some control over our thoughts–and through those thoughts, to live our lives, rather than letting our lives live us.
It’s all well and good to be able to focus when you’re sitting quietly with your eyes closed, but when you open your eyes, that ornery community member or unappreciative boss or sniffling toddler will still be there. They’ll test you. And each time, you can benefit from simply dropping all the baggage and focusing your attention on reality.
When your mind is agitated and clouded with emotion or mental activity, you don’t think straight, you respond in ways you might later regret, or maybe you just shut down and make things worse through your own inaction. So you need to be able to remind yourself that running off with those mental projections doesn’t really help, and find a way to bring yourself back to a calm, focused state. Think of your mind like a body of water: when the water is agitated, waves rippling endlessly, you can’t see the bottom. You can’t see through all the turbulence and the silt that it churns up.
Only when the waters of your mind are calm can you see through it all. From there, you can act according to how you want to be, how you want to live. I need to get this project done to the best of my ability, and hopefully my boss will like it. I am going to play with my kid now because she’s important to me, and then I’ll run that errand. That community member might be trying to get under my skin, so I’m just going to refrain from responding. I’m going to avoid posting a hot take to Twitter because I realize I don’t need to tell the world my opinion about this thing. That doesn’t mean I minimize the problems or pretend they don’t exist. I just know that fretting about them or getting wrapped up in a story I’ve told myself won’t help, and may actually create more difficulties.
But Don’t Take My Word for It
I should say: realizing this—writing a whole-ass blog post to share my thoughts—doesn’t mean I’m perfect in my responses to life. I react to situations in ways that don’t serve me and that I later regret. I find myself getting agitated about things that happened at work last week and are no longer even relevant to my life. I respond to tweets from strangers with petulance and self-importance. I look at my phone when I should be paying attention to my family. I descend into bouts of self-loathing and anxiety about the future.
But I can confidently say that I’m better at pulling myself out of that bullshit than I once was. Every day, I feel that I get better at dropping storylines and just seeing the reality of situations. I get better at letting things be, at letting people act of their own volition rather than telling them how they should do something. And I still can’t get that damn Take On Me chorus out of my head.
Let’s face it: the world can be scary, rampant with tragedy. People do terrible things to each other. Anxiety about the future and about our jobs and our children and our health and our planet chokes us. Those things are very much real, but they’re not real. Conversely, there’s a lot of good in the world, too; we would do well to think about that once in a while. If we can accept the good and the bad in our lives and learn to live with all of it, we might feel more open, less constricted.
But hey, life isn’t about always being happy; in fact, by expecting life to be happy, we invite disappointment and unhappiness. Without the sad and awful things, we’d have a tough time appreciating the good. But the good and the bad, all of it happens, and we can’t predict what tomorrow will bring.
All we can do is try to make the most of the time we have. And the only time we really have is now.