In my long and often futile search for answers I frequently encountered some version of ‘it’s all about living in the present’. And I had no idea what that meant. What exactly was living one day at a time? Why did I get nothing from ‘The Power of Now?’ How long did the present last? 5 minutes? An hour? Today? What happened to future planning? And if the present was so great, why was one of my most enjoyable activities on a day off, sitting with calendar, phone and laptop making plans about spending time with family or friends or booking fun activities.
Yet living in the present is a remarkably consistent suggestion across many spiritual and psychological traditions. So I persisted. For one period of a few months I avoided future planning at all. Far from making me happier I felt rather depressed by this approach. As a working single mum I had limited free time. If I waited until my kids left for their father’s to see what popped up it was usually, nothing! Having no nights out, holidays, visits to distant friends or major events on the calendar wasn’t soothing or pleasant. My life felt emptier and more lonely, without a forward focus. Eventually I realised that this wasn’t working and reverted to having my dreams and plans.
And in doing so I had stumbled upon what has become an important truth for me: it’s better to follow my own instinct than to try to shoehorn myself into someone else’s advice.
Yet the nagging doubt remained that I could be missing something. Surely all these people couldn’t be wrong. It was only after – actually quite some time after – I discovered the 3 Principles that I began to understand what people might be talking about when they referred to living in the present. And it had nothing to do with time at all. In any event I got my own understanding of it. For me living in the present is being absorbed in whatever I am doing, without any awareness of time at all. It is similar to the Flow state described by Csikszentmihalyi. I’ve come to see it as my default state, which I can fall into whenever my mind isn’t full of busy or negative thoughts. It can occur when I’m reading a book or writing (eg this blog), doing housework, walking, sharing with a friend, working, watching a film or anything. Or indeed nothing. There’s no technique required to get there. Like falling asleep, falling into the present is completely natural. Everybody experiences it from time to time. And it’s also completely natural to fall out of flow at times into more anxious or busy thinking. This is just the human condition.
So ironically, while I was sitting with my calendar I was completely present and deeply content, absorbed in my task, moving from one inspired thought to another as I made plans. I was not conscious of time passing or of external concerns.
I experienced a clear example of falling in and out of flow at my Pilates class yesterday. It was quite a hard class and at times I’d find my self looking at the clock, thinking things like ‘How much longer?’ Then I would become totally absorbed in the moves focussing on muscles and bodily sensations, or simply experiencing the free flow of thought through my mind as I exercised. Only to come back to the clock a bit later, and more discontent thoughts. Then once again I’d fall into flow. As you can imagine the flow experiences were a lot more pleasant.
Having this insight into ‘the present’ has led to a subtle improvement in my quality of life. I’ve been able to let go of the notion that I can’t get what seems self evident to everyone else. Perhaps more importantly, because I’ve got some clarity about what ‘the now’ is I can look more in that direction especially when I realise I am caught up in speediness or anxiety. And I can experience the lovely flow feeling doing even the most mundane activity. Who knew that future planning could be a completely present experience?