The past and the future
Many people are occupied with the future. If I have that new job / if the renovation of our house has finished / if I get pregnant, then I’ll be happy. If, if, if … And when they finally get what they desire, they want something else. They postpone happiness and never feel truly happy. Instead of postponing happiness, try enjoying the moment. You don’t know what the future will bring.
In order to enjoy the moment, you have to be aware of this moment, you have to experience this moment, be aware of what’s happening, and be aware of your feelings. That’s problematic for many of us. People often are in a hurry, they don’t stand still, they are on automatic pilot. Have you ever experienced driving somewhere and suddenly noticing you’re there already? The miles in between totally escaped your conscience.
Are you letting your responses and reactions to life’s circumstances and events be dictated by your previous values, attitudes and beliefs or are your responses a result of living in the present? When you react without getting conscious, when you don’t live in the present, you risk saying or doing things you’ll regret later. When you react from your history, from your learned attitudes, beliefs, expectations, prejudices, values or historically directed emotions, you risk overreacting, not reacting appropriately, reacting too slow or too fast. This is likely to cause continued stress, anxiety and continued unresolved personal feelings. When we are on automatic pilot, we miss out on big chunks of life. We are not fully present to ourselves—physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Living in the present, in the moment, is a state of consciousness called mindfulness. The first component of mindfulness involves the self-regulation of attention so that it is maintained on immediate experience, thereby allowing for increased recognition of mental events in the present moment. The second component involves adopting a particular orientation toward one’s experiences in the present moment, an orientation that is characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance. Self-regulated attention involves conscious awareness of one’s current thoughts, feelings, and surroundings, which can result in metacognitive skills for controlling concentration. The orientation to experience involves accepting one’s mindstream, maintaining open and curious attitudes, and thinking in alternative categories.
Mindfulness can be used as a psychological tool capable of stress reduction and the elevation of several positive emotions or traits. Human response to stress factors in the environment produces emotional and physiological changes in individual human bodies in order to cope with that stress. In modern society however, much of the stress felt is not beneficial in this way. Stress has been shown to have several negative effects on health, happiness and overall wellbeing.
Mindfulness deepens the experiences of daily life. It’s about really tasting what you’re eating, instead of mindlessly chewing away your dinner, perhaps in front of the television. It’s about kissing your partner in a conscious way, making kissing far more intimate. It’s also about not worrying about later on. About not feeling pressure of modern life. You don’t have to call that acquaintance just because you think it’s expected. You don’t have drive to work in a hurry, stressed out about traffic. You can drive there consciously, only focussing on the ride. It’s the moment that counts, life is good this very moment.
Although it sounds simple, living in the moment really isn’t . Try focussing on an object, for example the pen on your desk, or a single flower, and see how long you can keep that up. Probably no longer than a few seconds. Your attention probably keeps getting sidetracked by the numerous thoughts in your head.
Standing still can also be very confrontational. You might notice you feel sad, or tense, uncomfortable or stressed. As you don’t want to feel that way, chances are you will quickly focus on something else. Pushing away thoughts and feelings isn’t helpful though. The more you push away a thought or a feeling, the stronger it will come back.
Meditation – standing still
How can you learn to live in the present? The answer is meditation. Most people picture themselves sitting in lotus position on the floor, eyes closed. That definition of meditation is too narrow though. Meditation is about standing still and being present, that’s all. You can meditate while riding your bike, peeling potatoes, or walking the dog. It’s a matter of focussing on what you’re doing, be it doing the dishes, putting your child to bed or folding laundry.
When you’re doing the dishes (by hand, not using a dishwasher machine), feel the temperature of the water, feel the structure of the foam, and the form of the cups you’re washing. Feel drops of water slide over your hands, feel the muscles you are using, …
The only way to do something consciously is to do one thing at a time. Don’t watch television while eating, don’t read the newspaper while someone is talking to you.
When you often get sidetracked by your thoughts, try observing your thoughts. Close your eyes and see yourself as the blue sky. Your thoughts are like clouds floating by. Watch your thoughts coming and going, like clouds: the grocery shopping list, a melody of a song, something you have to do later today, … Don’t judge those thoughts, just let them be.
When you practise observing your thoughts on a regular basis a phenomenon called cognitive dissociation appears. While in psychology cognitive dissociation can refer to a process you don’t want, in this context it’s actually a good thing. By observing your thoughts and feelings, you’ll notice those thoughts and feelings come and go, like clouds in the sky. You’ll realise you are not those thoughts and feelings, you just have them. When you feel miserable or sad, you’ll know those feelings will pass. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Handling your thoughts and feelings this way also is called thought surfing or emotional surfing. You don’t try to escape those feelings, but you also don’t let them drag you down. You’ll experience those feelings without feeling out of balance. This makes it easier to stand still.
Freedom of choice
This also creates freedom of choice. If you’re not conscious, and living on automatic pilot, your previous values, attitudes or beliefs dictate your life. When you think you’ll have to work in the garden, because the neighbours’ gardens all look fantastic, even though you’re exhausted, you’ll start working in your garden. When you’re aware of the fact this is just a thought, a belief, you can choose to do something else. Take a warm bath or go for a relaxing walk, instead of working in the garden, for example.
From driving on automatic pilot you can change to driving a stick, and make authentic choices for certain behaviour. You don’t let yourself be dictated by obligations, expectations or habits.
Is driving on automatic pilot all bad? Of course not. You don’t have to be aware of what’s happening around you all the time, it would drive you crazy. In order to experience the benefits of mindfulness, you don’t have to experience every single moment of the day in a conscious way. It’s enough to build in a couple of anchor moments, moments where you consciously choose to live in the moment. When you have to wait for a red light, or in line at the supermarket, try focussing on your breath. Feel how your feet touch the ground, relax the muscles in your face. Stand still. Tell yourself: “This is it, I might just as well enjoy it”.