Here I Was, Here I Am, Here I Will Be
“The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly.”
This may be a little surprising to you, but you are in the present. I say surprising because you probably aren’t fully aware of it, but you really are in the present. Despite thinking about what you will be eating for dinner, the vacation you’re planning, replaying that problem at the office, or wishing you had a better childhood, the simple fact remains you are physically in the here and now.
Stop and think about that for a moment.
Like most people, you’re probably constantly thinking about the past and the future, shifting back and forth between the two. Most of us are rarely in the present mentally. We are more concerned with what has happened or what will happen, than what is happening. We have hopes, fears, and anticipations that have nothing to do with what is going on right now.
We have regrets about a path not taken. We resent our parents for some perceived wrong. We constantly replay scenarios in our head of what we could have done differently, of what could have been. We reminisce about things we haven’t even done. We plan for vacations we never take. We believe we will get to do all the exciting things we have planned when we retire or reach a certain point.
The past is very powerful for most of us, more than is obvious at first. We are shaped by the experiences and circumstances of our lives. Our families and friends shape us through what they say and actions they take. Because family is significant to us, we incorporate their ideas and beliefs into our persona. We develop a story about who we are based on these inputs. Anything that is inconsistent with that story is filtered out, even if it might be true. The flip side is true as well. We incorporate ideas about ourselves that seem consistent with our story, even if it isn’t who we really are.
The tendency to accept and even identify with our “life story” severely limits our ability to know and experience who we really are. As we go through life, the disparity between our true self and the story that we are living grows greater and greater. Family and friends may even be working to reinforce that story, albeit unintentionally. Their life story is intertwined with ours—to accept that our story is wrong is to threaten their story.
Fear of change and the unknown keep us from exploring who we really are. This tension between who we really are—our true selves—and our life story often leads to unhappiness, dissatisfaction and a feeling that we are observing our life and not actively participating in it.
As a method of coping with this tension we turn to drugs and alcohol, go shopping, tune out by watching TV and spending all of our time online, eat, or all of these things at once. These are not solutions. They only aggravate the problem and often lead to stress, depression, isolation, and loneliness.
Instead of using coping mechanisms that are not effective, seek to rewrite your life story so that it works for you. Accepting that you live in the present is the first step in that process. Seek to understand how past events and actions have shaped you, but know that they are in the past and only have influence in the present only if you choose to allow it.
The future is not a forgone conclusion and can be changed. You have full control over how you live in the present, which gives you immense power to shape the future. Choosing to live in the present empowers you to have control over your own life and destiny.
Living in the present is simply a process of awareness. Be conscious of what you are thinking. If you find yourself focusing on past regrets or future fears, change your focus to the present. Keep in mind that the past is not changeable and the future is not set.
Let’s try an exercise. Grab a piece a paper and something to write with. Write down what you think about from the past and what worries you about the future. Just note a few of the main concerns, not everything. For those thoughts that are from the past, even thoughts about yesterday or this morning, note that with a “P”. Worries and fears about the future—again, even if the thoughts are about tomorrow or this evening—note with an “F”.
See if a pattern emerges. Are your thoughts about the past events that you cannot change? Are your worries about things that are out of your control? If so, cross those thoughts out. If you have no means of effecting change about these concerns, you need to let them go. They are no longer worth your time and effort.
With anything still left, write down different ideas of how you might reconcile the issue. There is no right or wrong way to do this. Be as brief or as detailed with this as you would like to be. If nothing comes to mind immediately, that is fine too. You can always come back later. Your goal is to consider options and solutions that might not be readily apparent when you are worrying.
Each time you have negative thoughts or worries about the past and future, go through this simple exercise. Try not to let these thoughts bother you. Know what you can and cannot control. Focus on the present and replace the negative thoughts with thoughts about the present moment, especially those things you are grateful for right now.
The Past Exists Only in Memory and the Future is Always Beginning Now
“We are always getting ready to live but never living”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
So many of us are thinking about things that have happened or things we wish would happen that we manage to completely avoid experiencing what is happening around us right now. Now is all we have, and only now, nothing else.
I am not suggesting that we can’t learn from the past. But if we dwell too deeply in the past and attempt to derive our sense of self from past experiences, we will never experience the present. The past cannot be changed. This is a simple fact. Getting wound up over something that happened that you cannot change is delusional thinking.
We have to avoid investing events with power or meaning they don’t have. We must accept what happened, learn from it, and move on. We can’t change it, so we must own it. Maybe we could have done something differently. Maybe our parents could have been better. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
Fortunately for us, the past does not dictate the present. The only way the past can have any influence on us right now is if we chose to allow it.
If we let the past influence us, then we will be stuck in an endless cycle of reinforcing a life story that is incorrect and fail to fully experience and enjoy life. We have full control over how we interpret the past. No matter what difficulty life throws our way, we can seek to learn and grow from it and write our life story in the manner of our choosing instead of worrying and fretting over something that we have no control over.
Worrying about anything is a bit ridiculous since worrying accomplishes exactly nothing. Worrying about the future is exceptionally foolish. It hasn’t even happened! It may never happen!
Most of what we worry about never happens. We have a tendency to overestimate the amount of influence an event will have on our lives. We reinforce these poor estimates with negative thinking and continually build on false assumptions. Instead, we have to force ourselves to consider the alternatives. Realize that there is an equal possibility that none of what we imagined will happen.
So what if it does happen? Ponder this: Think of something bad actually happening—your worst-case scenario, such as losing your job. What if that actually happens? Really think about it. Consider all the terrible, horrible possibilities. What if it happened right now? How would you deal with it? How would you cope? If you really think about it, it probably isn’t nearly as bad as your worried mind makes it out to be. You would find a way to deal with it. We are more adaptable than we give ourselves credit for.
This is not to say we should not take the future into account. Only that the actions we take and the decisions we make directly impact us in the present. The future has not happened, so how we handle things in the here and now is what’s important. Our influence is limited to the present and only the present. Freaking out about the future just clouds our minds.
Most people are missing out on life because they get caught up in the future. They are rushing from one moment to the next, constantly desiring something else or thinking about something other than what’s happening around them.
So few of us immerse ourselves in what is happening right now, we miss out on very thing we are doing. When we are having sex, we are thinking about how sex could be better. When we are at work we are thinking about being at home. When we are at we are thinking about work. When we are having a conversation we are thinking about a vacation (or worse, the next thing we want to say). We cannot enjoy the simple things in life because we are never really experiencing them.
Try and enjoy each moment for what it is, not what will happen next. Doing something physically but thinking about something else is contradictory. Live in the present and you will experience more in that moment than most people experience in a lifetime.
As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Postpone the chance to live and it may slip away.
It is a guarantee that this moment will never be repeated again. This is it. This is all you have. The past is a memory. The future is always beginning now. As the old saying goes, “Today is a gift; that’s why it is called the present.” This moment is happening now and you can choose to live in it and experience it fully. Once you do that you will find that nothing is lacking.
Change, the Only Constant
“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”
We are not the same people today that we were 5 years ago. Dreams change. Circumstances change. Today everything is falling apart only to come back together tomorrow. Life is impermanent. (If you need proof of this, just visit a cemetery.)
According to the teachings of the Buddha, life is comparable to a river. It is a progressive moment, a successive series of different moments, joining together to give the impression of one continuous flow. It moves from cause to cause, effect to effect, one point to another, one state of existence to another state of existence, giving an outward impression that it is one continuous and unified movement, whereas in reality it is not. The river of yesterday is not the same as the river of today. The river of this moment is not going to be the same as the river of the next moment. So does life. It changes continuously, becomes something or the other from moment to moment.
You don’t need to become a Buddhist to understand this. Rather, simply accept that change is inevitable. There is nothing you can do stop it. You have no control over it. You may think you can change or control it, but that’s just an illusion. Life is a complex interplay of positive and negative, success and failure, pleasure and pain, happiness and suffering. There cannot be one without the other. That is what makes life to rich and beautiful, yet so disappointing and sad.
How to avoid being overwhelmed and swept away by the tidal wave of change? The key lies not in the circumstances, but in how you respond to them. It’s simply not possible to move forward with something you deny. Acceptance of change liberates you from its process.
If we try to force the world to stand still we will only be disappointed when it changes. When we dump all of our expectations, desires, associations, fantasies, and emotions onto the world we can only expect to be disappointed and hurt when life fails to live up to everything we have projected onto it. Instead of grabbing and holding onto our attachments with all our might, if we let go and accept their impermanence we can avoid all the attendant negative consequences of unrealistic expectations.
Consider the conversation Mark Epstein, in Thoughts Without a Thinker, recalls with a Thai mediation master named Achaan Chaa. “You see this goblet?” asks Achaan Chaa. “For me this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on the shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”
Approach life with the understanding that things change and you won’t be disappointed. Change is happening all around us all the time. Change can be unsettling and can sweep us away without our even being aware that it is happening.
We should instead slow down and pay attention to what is happening around us. Focus on what is at hand. Re-engage with our friends and families, and ourselves.
We need to lighten up a little. Not everything is so serious. Stepping back and realizing that the end of world is not upon us if the dishes don’t get done right this moment. We need to balance our lives. Western society is all work and no play. There is a middle ground. Be happy. Appreciate, respect, and love others.
Once you accept that change is inevitable you will be able to respond in a much more effective way to what life throws your way—good or bad. You will know that bad things are not permanent, so it will get better. Good things don’t last forever, so enjoy them.
Know What You Can Control, and What You Can’t
“The world owes you nothing; it was here first.”
Understand and accept this one principle if nothing else: some things are within our control, and some things are not. Perhaps you “know” this, but in the back of your mind you refuse to accept it. So often we go around trying to control what is clearly outside our control. We expend so much time and effort inserting ourselves into situations over which we cannot possibly hope to have an impact. When we fail, we are disappointed and upset.
Know what is and is not within your control. Within your control are your opinions, your beliefs, your desires, and your feelings. You have direct influence over them and you have a choice about them. You have control over how you interpret events in your life and you can choose how you respond to them.
Outside of your control are those things that you have no direct influence over. You have no control over who your parents were, how you look, other people and their actions. You may be able to influence indirectly, but you cannot control. You cannot change the circumstances of your birth or control others’ beliefs. Situations unfold how they will regardless of how you feel about them.
Attempting to control things not within your control leads to frustration and disappointment. Fear and anxiety are often the reason we try to control those things we cannot. Even if we temporarily succeed in controlling a situation or a person or a thing, it’s only an illusion. The threat of losing control will continue to fuel our anxiety.
The fact is our existence is punctuated by events and circumstances over which we have little or no control. We have control over how we interpret events in our lives, but not over the events themselves. Don’t expect or wish that events will happen the way you want them to. Accept that events will happen as they will.
Circumstances do not rise to meet your expectations. Accept reality for what it is instead of holding on to false expectations and unfulfilled wishes that ultimately lead to disappointment. It’s not circumstances or events or people who disappoint and upset us, it is our interpretation of their significance.
What Buddhists call “mindfulness” is the idea of living fully in the moment without judgment. Seeing life as it really is rather than what we want it to be frees us to actually experience and enjoy it to its fullest.
It would not occur to you deny gravity. You accept gravity and you live your life knowing its effects. Why, then, would you deny the reality you live in? I am not suggesting you shouldn’t try to change those things that can be changed. But if they are not alterable, then do not torment yourself. Accept things as they are; change them if you can, harmonize your existence with them if you can’t.
This is not only true for the world we live in, but for ourselves as well. We are constantly running around trying to live up to the unreasonable expectations of family, friends, society, coworkers, and even ourselves. We are disappointed when we fail. We don’t stop and accept ourselves for who we really are. Instead we are filled with self-doubt and loathing, despising the fact that we continue to fail to meet the goals that others have set for us. Accept you are the person you are; change if it makes sense or harmonize your existence with the reality of your true self if it doesn’t.
I am always sad to see people denying themselves the joys of life because they’re trying to lose weight or live up to some unrealistic social standard. Yes it is important to be healthy and active, but not at the expense of being who you are.
Not only do we deny our true self, but we deny the reality of the world in which we live. We complain that we deserve this or that. We believe that we are owed something. We hear, “I’ve worked so hard, they owe me a raise,” or “What did I do to deserve this?” You probably did nothing and the world doesn’t owe you anything.
Complaining about the lousy circumstances you find yourself in, resenting others that are more successful, or wishing things were different reinforces the false notion that you have control over these things when you don’t.
To put it simply, life is not fair and it will remain that way. Accept life’s limits and inevitabilities. Work within them rather than fight against them. Resisting reality only leads to dissatisfaction. Things are the way they are. You can choose to harmonize with reality or continue to push against it. But know that if you fight it, you will not be happy.