We’ve heard some variation of it a million times: live in the present, stay in the moment, be in the now, etc. As much as it is a cliche, as with most cliches, it’s quite valid. The problem is that most people think, “Yeah, yeah, live in the present, I get it,” but they don’t get it.
Most of our stress in life comes from worrying about the future, and some of it comes from regretting the past. How am I gonna pay my bills, what if she moves on, what if an asteroid annihilates the planet, I can’t believe I’m gonna die someday…or I can’t believe I did that, I can’t believe she left me, why did I invest in that, I wonder how my life would be IF ____. None of these things are good, and when we fixate on these future negative potentials and past failures, it causes us to be stressed. Being stressed reduces our happiness, and also hampers our performance in doing whatever it is we’re doing at the moment. It also literally makes us less physically healthy.
What does it actually mean to live in the present? Basically it means to pay attention to what you’re doing. I mean really pay attention to each detail of everything you do.
For example, when we eat, we almost never actually think about the act of eating. Often we’re eating while performing some other activity. We just put the food in our mouths, chew, swallow, repeat, until either we’re full or there’s no food left in front of us. Usually the latter, which usually occurs after the former. Slow down. Pay attention to how you grab the food with your fork (or chopsticks or hands or whatever), look at it, appreciate how it looks, smells, how it tastes. Chew it fully, slowly, savor the taste, notice when you get the urge to swallow it, notice how it feels when you swallow it. Bask in the afterglow of a delicious bite of food for a couple seconds before your next bite. Don’t think about the mortgage or wonder if your kids are safe or worry about your doctor’s appointment tomorrow. Just focus on the food and the act of eating it.
When we drive, our minds are usually elsewhere, especially if we’re taking a route we know well, or are traveling a long distance on a highway. Often we’ll realize we’re spacing out and feel a bit strange about not remembering anything that happened on the road in the past ten or so minutes. Try to notice how your hands automatically adjust to keep your car in the center of the lane (unless you’re an Asian woman or a New Yorker, in which case you don’t give a shit about lanes), how your foot automatically adjusts to maintain your speed. Notice the sound and vibration of the engine, the bumps in the road, the sound of the wind outside. Marvel at how amazing it is that you’re cruising along at 70 mph, with a bunch of other cars going the same speed, and you’re perfectly comfortable and at ease. Notice all of the details of the driving experience and enjoy them all.
As you can guess, if you’re not used to living this way, truly paying attention to everything you do is exhausting. And difficult. Try eating a full meal, staying in the present throughout the entire meal. I doubt you’ll be able to. But the closer you come to it, the more enjoyable the meal will be, and that goes for any activity.
The benefit of this is that you have full, conscious control of your actions, meaning you’re actively controlling your life with your intelligent mind, not letting your auto-programmed subconscious run your life. You won’t be living on autopilot anymore. And the more you consciously control more and more aspects of your life, the more you live the way you want to, and the more your subconscious is programmed to operate the way you consciously would want it to, so if you do slip back into autopilot, you act the same as you would if you were acting consciously.
The more you live in tune with your intelligent mind, the more your life starts to resemble the ideal life you have in your head, and the happier you’ll be. The vast majority of what we do is performed by our subconscious. The key is to try to shift away from that, towards living deliberately and really thinking and focusing on what we’re doing. In short, living in the present is a fundamental key to a happy life.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t think about the future. We should and we must. It’s an essential part of being a person. But don’t dwell on the future any more than is necessary to plan your present actions. And don’t think, “If only I can get to _____, then I’ll be happy.” Be happy now. Enjoy the process of achieving your goals. If you have a goal that requires you to sacrifice years of your life doing something you’ll hate, it’s a shitty goal. You could die tomorrow, or next year. Happiness is there, right in front of you. You just have to choose to grab it, and it can’t be done on autopilot. Stop delaying your happiness for some future event which in all likelihood will never come, and even if it does come it won’t be all you hoped it would be.
That reminds me of the old story of a rich businessman visiting a tropical fishing village. He speaks with a local fisherman, who finished fishing at 11 am. The businessman asks why he doesn’t catch more fish, it’s so early. The fisherman answers because he caught all he needs to feed his family, so he’s going home to spend time with them and relax on the beach. The business man tells him he should catch more fish, then he can make more money, start a fishing business, grow it into a fleet of boats and make a ton of money. The fisherman asks why he should go through all that hard work, and the businessman says, well, so you can just kick back and relax with your family on the beach.
I don’t know if it’s realistic to aspire to live completely in the present, with every action a deliberate, conscious one. I’m nowhere near that point, nor will I probably ever be, but I’m much better at it now than I’ve ever been and improving all the time. In the end, this is a personal choice, with personal results. If you can’t be bothered trying to live in the present, at least make a conscious decision to not make the effort, and be aware of the fact that you’re living mostly in autopilot. If that sounds terrible to you, change it. If it sounds fine, then by all means, cruise on brother, but you’ll lead an existence not much different from that of a housefly.