When I was a young adult, I took a job setting up a sound system for a rock concert. While working, I became acquainted with a guy who was so genuine and happy that I was instantly drawn to him. He asked me if I wanted to hear three words that would ultimately lead to a happy and fulfilled life. Struck by the idea that three words could be so profound, I agreed. He said, “Be here now.” I did not fully recognize the impact of these words at the time, but I now realize that they indeed helped me through some of the most difficult times in my life. Being in the present moment is the most powerful way to live with peace and contentment.
Anxiety is almost always caused by dwelling on past experiences or having fears about the future. While the past and the future are important, they really only exist in our memories or our imaginations. The past is gone and can’t be changed. The future has not happened yet and is only an idea. There is only one reality, and that is now–the present.
We Cannot Change the Past
When we concentrate all of our mental and emotional energy on things that have already happened, we are unable to enjoy the “now” or the “present moment.” I have adopted a term for people who are crippled by living in the past. I call them “Uncle Ricos.” If you’ve seen the movie “Napoleon Dynamite,” you know exactly who I am talking about. Uncle Rico, about age 40, spends most of his time lamenting his high school football career and how he could have won the State Championship if only the coach had let him play. His days are spent watching old football tapes, re-running pass plays, and dreaming of what could have been. Consequently, he lives in a van and makes a living selling tupperware. He is unable to tap the potential of the present because he is so focused on the past.
Like Uncle Rico, many of us stress ourselves out by placing too much importance on past experiences. Our friends from the animal kingdom do not do this. Animals only experience anxiety if there is a real threat in the moment. They do not torture themselves by replaying the past over and over in their heads. They do not try to rewrite the past by saying “I should have,” or “I could have,” done something different. If only humans could be so pragmatic. We imagine scenarios where we said or did something different. We run these scenarios over and over in our heads until we begin to experience anxiety. This is not a healthy or happy way to live. The truth is we cannot go back, so fretting about what “could have been” is a waste of energy.
The Future Only Exists in Our Minds
Our minds are truly amazing. We are capable of looking forward to future events, planning, and making things happen. This is another thing that separates us from animals. Animals simply do not have the capacity to create plans and then follow through with them. While man’s ability to think about the future is wonderful (look at all of the fantastic creations of mankind over the centuries), it also has the potential to limit our happiness. Focusing too much energy on the future limits our ability to enjoy the present.
Mark Twain said, “I have been through some awful things, terrible things, and some of them actually happened.” We can project the past into the future or imagine our worst fears coming to fruition. There have been times that I, myself, have been frustrated or anxious about an upcoming presentation or project. I’ve thought, “What if the equipment won’t work? What if I forget to say something important? What if I get bad reviews?” These thoughts are oftenaccompanied by visualizations of these things happening.
Many of us stress ourselves out with “what if” thinking. What’s more, our bodies tend to respond to our imaginings with stomachaches, headaches, heart palpitations, or other uncomfortable symptoms. These symptoms just make our fears more real to us–as if our imaginings were really happening at that very moment. When I catch myself in this cycle, I take a moment to stop and analyze my feelings. I then recognize that things are really just fine right now. It is my fear of what “might” happen in the future that is causing my problem. The truth is, I have given many successful presentations. Even if I make a mistake or there is a technical glitch, the presentation is usually over soon without my fearful imaginings actually happening.
Some of us put our happiness on hold by saying, “when I get the education, job, house or ____________ (fill in the blank), I will be ok.” We live in a society which sends the message that we must always have more in order to be happy. Television commercials or advertisements on billboards constantly tell us we need the most toys, the best job, and the nicest clothes to have a fulfilling life. The truth is that happiness is not about having more or waiting until things get better. You don’t have to wait for the future to be okay. You can be okay now. In fact, as long as you have food in your stomach and a roof over your head, you have everything you need right now to have peace and contentment.
I treated a woman in therapy who was very unhappy because she and her husband had only one car. I’ll call this woman Sarah. Sarah’s husband took the car to work–thus leaving her alone all day with two small children. She kept thinking if she had a second vehicle, she would be happy. So, being a problem solver, she surfed the web to find deals on cars. She found a used Honda Accord at a price that seemed too good to be true. All Sarah had to do was wire the seller $ 2,700, and the car would be delivered right to her door. She scrimped and saved and borrowed the difference from family members. Several days after sending the money, however, she discovered she had been scammed. Now, she didn’t have a car, and she had incurred debt for something she did not even have.
“I have been through some awful things, terrible things, and some of them actually happened.”
~ Mark Twain
Sarah had been so busy chasing an object she thought would make her life better that she failed to see happiness staring her right in the face–in the form of her two beautiful children. She has since learned that real happiness comes from enjoying her family every day, even in the hard times. She learned to appreciate every moment because life changes quickly. Children grow up, and those times will never come back.
The “Present” is a Gift You Give Yourself
Our desire for happiness sometimes causes us to pursue things that, in the end, we find were not what they appeared to be. Let us enjoy the journey of our lives without delaying our happiness hoping for some “better” future. Let’s learn from the past without becoming consumed with what “should have been.” When you live (or allow your thoughts to be) in the past or the future, you destroy the present moment’s ability to keep you centered in reality. When you live in the present, you have everything you need to be at peace.
While it may be difficult for some to really feel okay living in the “now,” Empowered Life Solutions offers tools to help you value living in the present. Using gratitude to recognize the things you are grateful for rather than focusing on all the things you don’t have can bring a new perspective to your life. Serving or helping others can help you think about other people rather than focusing on your own problems. It might be surprising how much better you will feel when you reach out to someone else in need. Practicing these skills will also help you focus on the present moment.
Why not give yourself the greatest gift of all–the present?
“Life is a series of surprises. We do not guess today the mood, the pleasure, the power of tomorrow, when we are building up our being.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson