NOTE: Much of what I address in this blog is from Eckhart Tolle’s book The Power of NOW (Excellent book about this topic; I highly recommend it.)
This post is written for my Writing for Your Life workshop participants because there is a huge snowstorm today (a blizzard warning, in fact), so we canceled tonight’s session. (However, I hope anyone who reads it enjoys it and learns something.) For the workshop, I prepared a discussion about living more fully in the present. Carol, Iesha, Joel, Laura, and Becki, I want you to know that in preparing for this workshop over the past two weeks, I have been motivated to once again begin meditating regularly and to refocus on being aware of my behaviors and reactions. I thank you for this motivation.
Awareness is the Key to Living in the Present
It was the usual morning stampede through the subway to get to work. Hoards of seemingly unhappy individuals were making their way up and down the stairs and escalators, bumping into each other. As I stepped off the last escalator and into the 42nd Street corridor of Grand Central station, a large man stepped on the back of my heel causing my shoe to come off and me to stumble. He didn’t acknowledge me, he just kept going; not one word of “Excuse me” or “I’m sorry.” ‘Really?’ I thought, ‘how rude.’
I continued walking through Grand Central to the underground corridor that leads me to 48th Street, right where my office is located. The sad part is that during most of that walk, I spent it raging internally at this man for his rude and careless behavior. An intense monologue, sometimes even a dialogue with him, was being created as to how I would berate him. Finally, I took a deep breath and realized what I was doing; I became conscious of my harmful thoughts, thoughts that could only hurt me. I would never see this person again, so all I was doing was allowing his bad behavior to affect the quality of my life and disturb my emotional equanimity. I was giving another person power over how I felt and thus, removing myself from the present moment and dealing with a past action that truly had no bearing on anything in my life. So, I let it go.
Awareness is probably the most important element to being in the NOW or living fully in the present moment. In The Power of NOW, Eckhart Tolle writes that if you are experiencing anxiety, worry and unease, there is too much future focus; if you are experiencing guilt, bitterness and resentment, there is too much past focus. By focusing on the present, we can alleviate many of these harmful emotions. We can cope with the present, but we cannot cope with the future because it is illusory; it is only in our minds. Another way of avoiding the NOW is the barrage of thoughts the mind creates on a daily basis.
Most people have relentless chatter running through their minds; they never stop thinking. These thoughts are mostly about what they imagine will happen in the future or about past events and situations. The ego has a lot to do with this. It demands our attention; it identifies with external things like possessions, careers, social status, physical appearance, relationships, belief systems, religious, political and racial identifications, etc. And because it identifies with these things, it constantly needs to be "fed and defended."
These externalities are not you; they are your life situation. The ego can never get enough, so it continually demands more. This is why when you reach a certain income level, or get a promotion, or get that new car, you are happy for a brief time, but then the ego wants something more – the next big thing. This is also true of peoples’ problems. Some people are so attached to their problems, even their illnesses, that it becomes who they are. They may not like their situation, but they are comfortable with it; it is familiar. And the ego hates change.
Tolle says that: “once you are aware of this dysfunction, you can step out of it, you become present; and when present, you can allow the mind to be as it “is” and not get entangled in it.” This will allow you to function more effectively and calmly, with less drama in your life. To overcome the ego, he suggests that the next time you find yourself getting defensive about something to ask yourself: What is it that I’m defending?
He further gives some examples of how we avoid the NOW:
- Complaining – complaining is non-acceptance of what “is.” Once you can accept a situation, you can deal more effectively with it. Acceptance does not mean you agree with it or like it, just that you accept what it “is.” Once you have accepted the situation you have three choices: remove yourself from it, change it, or accept it. Then accept the consequences.
- Are you waiting to start living? Are you postponing something until you get that raise, the kids are in college, you buy that new home, you take that next trip, or you get married? If so, you are missing the present moment. Tolle suggests in this situation to switch your thinking to: what are you grateful for NOW in your current life situation and experiences? The NOW is where prosperity lies.
- Negativity – any kind of negativity is resistance to the now. And while there is negativity, use it to your advantage—as an opportunity to become more aware. Notice negativity in your life; don’t let it overtake your thoughts and emotions. You have control over this.
Lastly (and I think this is one of Tolle’s best suggestions), when you find yourself in an unpleasant situation, focus not on the 100 things you will or may have to do at some point in the future, but rather on the one thing you can do now. By doing this, you bring yourself into the present and you avoid being overwhelmed by so many tasks that may lead to inaction.
When I was going through cancer treatments, I read many books on being present, meditation, gratitude, and all of it was beneficial to me. In fact, at that time, I was more centered, calm and content than I ever was before or have been since. Much loss of that centeredness is definitely due to being out in the world interacting with others, not sequestered as I was during my illness; yet a good deal of it is due to the fact that as the leukemia experience recedes further into the past, I have gotten away from the meditation and awareness exercises that I regularly practiced during that time. I am now trying to reconnect with those practices.
I warn all who have the courage to start an “awareness regimen” that it is tiring. You will discover how often you react negatively to situations or engage in behaviors that aren’t so nice, but it will help you to change those behaviors and will definitely make you more conscious of the present moment. I discovered the benefits of it years ago. And while I am not as aware as I was in 2004 and 2005, I am much more aware, or conscious, than I was prior to cancer. To me, awareness is the most important way to become more present in your life and enjoy it more.
The NOW is all we have. The past is gone; the future has not arrived. No one is guaranteed tomorrow, so live for NOW.
(If interested in reading more about my exploration of "living in the present", see the May 3, 2004 entry.)