A guide to living in the present

‘Torii’ by Ian Ho.
‘Torii’ by Ian Ho.

Often­er than we real­ise, we lose chunks of our lives to a nasty habit we are barely aware we have: the insa­ti­able, per­haps uncon­trol­lable, yearn­ing to dwell on the past. We feel a sense of con­tent­ment pon­der­ing over what could have been. It takes us to an altern­ate real­ity in our thoughts. Our real­ity. Like alco­hol, this offers an addict­ive sense of com­fort but prom­ises ill effects in the long term: effects that sneak up on us slowly enough that they are impossible to spot until it is too late.

The solu­tion to this is simple: live in the present, not in the past; stop wor­ry­ing about the future, work on it in the present instead. But, like many solu­tions, this is easi­er said than done. This is a short guide that takes on the ambi­tious task of sim­pli­fy­ing how one can learn to live in the present and do so con­sist­ently. It all comes down to keep a few things in the back of your mind.

What does not work

Ukiyo

Liv­ing only for the moment… and divert­ing one­self just in float­ing… buoy­ant and care­free, like a gourd car­ried along with the river cur­rent: this is what we call ukiyo.

Asai Ryōi in ‘Ukiyo Monogatari’ (Tales of the Float­ing World) c. 1661.

There is a word in Japan­ese that has no equi­val­ent in Eng­lish: Ukiyo means the float­ing world. It alludes to the prac­tice of going with the flow, liv­ing detached from the wor­ries arising from any­where but the present.

While I am fond of such a romantic idea myself it is not hard to see the prob­lem with this approach. Going after ukiyo makes it seem as though one ought to give up on life and get tossed around in the wind. It gives the impres­sion that liv­ing in the present means turn­ing a blind eye to the past and becom­ing a slave to cir­cum­stances. Worst of all, it makes liv­ing in the present seem like an imprac­tic­al approach to life.

Ukiyo, beau­ti­ful as it is, can only be appre­ci­ated after one has learnt to live in the present. We ought to seek a dif­fer­ent route.

Minimalism

The buzzword these days is min­im­al­ism which is fre­quently advert­ised wrongly as the tech­nique of solv­ing all prob­lems by redu­cing mater­i­al pos­ses­sions. This is a bit like not mak­ing friends because you might dis­agree on some­thing someday: elim­in­ate the sub­ject to avoid the prob­lem. Min­im­al­ism, in some form or anoth­er, preaches, among oth­er mind­less things, that ‘remov­ing items asso­ci­ated with past memor­ies… frees us up to stop liv­ing in the past and start liv­ing in the present’.

This notion is some­what like the clichéd scenes from tele­vi­sion and film where old pho­to­graphs are either burnt or flushed down a toi­let or both. This might help in the moment but it is akin to past­ing a bandaid over a cut while ignor­ing the frac­ture under­neath your skin.

It comes down to one simple argu­ment: you will even­tu­ally reach a point in your life where you can lit­er­ally not afford to throw away any­thing more but you will still find your­self liv­ing in the past and in the future more than in the present.

Like ukiyo embra­cing the min­im­al­ist idea that throw­ing away mater­i­al pos­ses­sions is the pan­acea to everything can be more dra­mat­ic than prac­tic­al. Unlike ukiyo I doubt it can lead to much even after one has learnt to live in the present but I digress because my oppos­i­tion to min­im­al­ism is not the pur­pose of this art­icle.

What does work

Stop distracting yourself

A lot of people I have come across tend to solve this prob­lem by seek­ing dis­trac­tion. Avoid­ing an issue this way not only fails to solve it but also lets it grow out of con­trol. Con­front­ing it is key, so sit idle for a couple of minutes and acknow­ledge that some­thing is draw­ing you to the past or future and then apply the oth­er steps dis­cussed below.

Unselfconsciousness

Not being self-con­scious is some­thing that can do won­ders. We live any­where but in the present simply because we are far too con­scious of our reac­tions from the past and of how we might react in the future.

Redu­cing self-con­scious­ness allows one to be more mind­ful of the present exper­i­ence rather than being dragged around by our feel­ings, self-esteem or self-con­fid­ence.

Breathe

This is prob­ably the only roman­ti­cised notion that actu­ally works. The reas­on so many people lose them­selves to the past or the future is because they seem to have noth­ing to hold on to in the present. Even if they do, the lack of some­thing con­stant over time weak­ens their will to hold on to it badly.

How­ever, there is some­thing that is etern­ally con­stant and that one can hold on to. The rhythm of one’s breath. When you feel you have noth­ing to focus on, or when you feel your­self focus­ing on the past or future, quickly start observing your own breath. Notice when you start breath­ing in, how long you keep breath­ing in, when you start breath­ing out, and how long you keep breath­ing out — and then repeat it.

Be Stoic about it

While the above two tech­niques come from mod­ern psy­cho­logy there are older ideas that come from Stoicism, which has been my per­son­al favour­ite philo­soph­ic­al approach to life since as long as I can remem­ber, and which I con­stantly attempt — not always suc­cess­fully but I keep try­ing non­ethe­less — to employ in my daily life. Stoicism offers beau­ti­ful insights that can prac­tic­ally help you live in the present.

While there are sev­er­al Sto­ic philo­soph­ers one can think of in this regard it is Mar­cus Aure­li­us who comes to my mind now. There are two notes from his Med­it­a­tions that are espe­cially worthy of our con­sid­er­a­tion. In the first (Book VIII, no. 36) he speaks of why liv­ing in the present is so import­ant: by focus­ing on the present we lim­it what weighs us down and leave ourselves with enough that we can tol­er­ate and over­come. By think­ing of the past or future we weigh ourselves down with more than we can handle and enter the so-called neg­at­ive thought spir­al.

Don’t con­found your­self, by con­sid­er­ing the whole of your future life; and by dwell­ing upon the mul­ti­tude, and great­ness of the pains or troubles, to which you may prob­ably be exposed. But ask your­self about such as are present, is there any thing intol­er­able and unsuf­fer­able in them? You’ll be ashamed to own it. And, then, recol­lect, that it is neither what is past, nor what is future, which can oppress you; ’tis only what is present. And this will be much dimin­ished, if you cir­cum­scribe or con­sider it by itself; and chide your own mind, if it can­not bear up against this one thing thus alone.

From Book VIII of ‘The med­it­a­tions of the emper­or Mar­cus Aure­li­us Ant­oninus’, trans­lated by Fran­cis Hutcheson and James Moor.

In the second (Book VII, no. 29) he speaks of how we can let go of the past. Adopt the philo­sophy that a fault should lie where the guilt lies.

Blot out all ima­gin­a­tions. Stop the bru­tal impulses of the pas­sions. Cir­cum­scribe the present time; and appre­hend well the nature of every thing which hap­pens, either, to your­self, or, to oth­ers. Dis­tin­guish between the mater­i­al and the act­ive prin­ciple. Con­sider well the last hour. The fault anoth­er com­mits there let it rest where the guilt resides.

From Book VII of ‘The med­it­a­tions of the emper­or Mar­cus Aure­li­us Ant­oninus’, trans­lated by Fran­cis Hutcheson and James Moor.

The same idea holds for the future too.

More Stoicism

There is a lot more besides Aure­li­us to Stoicism and, for effi­ciency, this is a sum­mary of ideas.

First, Stoicism teaches that think­ing about the past and future is nor­mal. Indeed it teaches that think­ing about the past and future is wise and prudent. On the face of it this might seem like an argu­ment against liv­ing in the present but there is more to it. What Stoicism asks next is what one does after hav­ing thought about the past or future because that is what mat­ters most.

In case of the past, real­ise that there is noth­ing you can do to change it. You can reflect on it but when that reflec­tion takes a toll on your present is the reflec­tion still worth it? By dwell­ing on the past you are los­ing the present and, in turn, deform­ing more of what will soon be your past. This gives you even more reas­ons to dwell on the past that seem — at least on the face of it — to stem from a legit­im­ate con­cern for self-improve­ment. This leads to a vicious cycle.

In case of the future, real­ise that you will get there even­tu­ally. You cer­tainly should plan reas­on­ably well ahead, but when you obsess­ively focus on the future you might find your­self even­tu­ally stum­bling to some point hav­ing lost all the wis­dom a mind­ful jour­ney to that point might have provided.

The present is the only place in your con­trol. The present time, the present place, your present situ­ation are what deserve your full atten­tion. You can do this by observing your mind. Stoicism encour­ages prac­tising step­ping out of your own mind and examin­ing it, observing it, and record­ing its pat­terns without ever judging it.

Keep in mind, you will not make it in one fell swoop but you will get there if you keep try­ing. Start by first brin­ing your mind under your con­trol whenev­er you notice it rush­ing away from the present; then keep try­ing to con­sciously notice your mind every now and then to keep track of it; keep work­ing on this until you gain enough con­scious­ness to fully keep your­self in the present and only ever dwell on the past or the future when you choose to and with­in lim­its. It is then that you will exper­i­ence the bliss of ukiyo.

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