|This happened in the mad whirl before August: I explored Greenwood Cemetery with my family! But you shouldn't need photographic evidence to remember your life, right?|
It's not practical, or wise, to live in the present moment 100% of the time. Taking a vacation, savoring sweet memories, learning from past mistakes, avoiding problems in the future...it all involves taking a trip to a time and place different from the one we're in, and we'd have a really tough time being humans if we didn't do those things!
But, in our culture, the pendulum is swung pretty hard to rehashing the past and planning the future, to the exclusion of experiencing the present, more often than not!
Don't believe me? How many times have you posted a picture of your perfect brunch to instagram, super psyched for those likes and comments, but five minutes after leaving the table, you can barely remember what you ordered, let along how it tasted? How about the last time you had an important conversation in your future: how many times did you go over what you would say and how it would go before the big moment actually arrived? If you remember your last embarrassing moment, do you then spend at least several minutes berating yourself for whatever part you played in its occurring?
I'm not saying it's inherently bad to share that perfect frittata with your friends, or to consider in advance how you'll answer questions or share important information, but if you're getting a bigger pleasure surge out of your friend's approval of your order than the taste of it in your mouth, your wiring could use some tweaking, and those extra five-hundred mental dry runs of your meeting are just a big fast waste of your time!
To put it simply, if you have to do something unpleasant in the future, you're only extending the unpleasantness by focusing on it before it happens, and if you look for pleasure in a place where your'e not, you're missing out on actually experiencing it!
But there's a good chance you already knew that. The fact is, it's easier said than done. And, it's not helpful to beat yourself up for your lack of presence. So, what do you do?
Here's an idea: pick an experience: a weekly class you love to take part in, a phone chat with a friend you don't touch base with enough, your favorite pastry and coffee on a slow morning. Keep it to an hour or less, and make it something you LOVE. Schedule it. Let yourself look forward to it all you want to. When it arrives, turn off your push notifications, set aside your to do list, and just experience it. When you notice your attention is on something else, invite yourself to enjoy this amazing thing you're doing! If you realize it's not really that amazing...maybe you just thought it was, chalk it up to a lesson in the difference between anticipation and reality, and try something new next week.
Whatever your chosen experience for next week, when you find yourself fantasizing about it before hand, invite yourself to check into the now instead. Even if you're doing something you're way less than thrilled about, challenge yourself to just sit with it and experience every facet of it for just one minute. You may find you want to try for five, or even longer, but if not, no worries. A minute is just fine.
Along the way, take the time to really observe your reactions. This is an experiment, and you are the scientist. This is your chance to learn about your own tendencies, and whether your current way of functioning is serving you, or whether a new way of doing things is in order.
If you're enjoying the experiment, you can take it even further. Pick something you do regularly that you feel pretty meh about: you don't dread it, but you're not excited about it. Does your experience shift if you're present for that experience? Maybe it's actually more boring to pay attention than it is to let your imagination run wild. That's ok! Being present isn't always the answer, but you won't know when it is and when it isn't if you don't give it a shot. You can go really hard, and choose something you do dread doing. How does being present, even for just little short bursts, shift your experience?
If you really struggle to be present long enough to even get a bead on how you feel about that experience, it would probably behoove you to get some practice in. There are moments when we all want to pay super close attention, and lacking that skill can hold us back. There are lots of apps, websites, and books to help you sort out meditation, and there are lots of posts on this very blog, too! Just click the meditation tag to the right to get started!
If you find that being present is a great alternative to your usual mode, meditation can help you get better at it, so you can do it as long as you want, whenever you want...not overnight of course, and it's crucial to remember that a huge perk of the practice is the self compassion it encourages you to cultivate as you peel back the layers and learn more and more about yourself and your mindfulness skills (or for more of us, our lack thereof!).
Remember, it's possible to get trapped in the same old out of the present mode even with meditation: looking forward to when you can FINALLY sit down on your cushion, and totally spacing on that e-mail you've been meaning to send for days, getting so frustrated with yourself for mentally checking out of your spin class that you suck down you don't really hear the conversation you're having with your mom...and when those moments happen, being able to laugh at yourself is the difference between a downward spiral of frustration, and committing to giving it another shot next time and moving on.
No one has to meditate, ever. Lots of people go their whole lives barely ever being in the present moment. They're not bad people, and for the most part, they aren't miserable, either. But, I'm just saying, it's your life. Wouldn't you like to be there for it?