Two years ago, the height of Covid Lockdown, confined to my room (more or less), I had a eureka experience. When I was fully engaged in the present moment, regardless of what I was doing, I was happy. More or most experiences during lockdown were simple, very ordinary, and yet I wasn’t bored or unhappy. No exotic vacations, exotic restaurants, music or art experiences. Just watching the bird feeder, blowing snow on the other side of my window, playing scrabble most days during dinner preparation with Elizabeth. When I was fully engaged in those simplicities, I felt great.
When my head was feeling regretful about aspects of my past, or anxious or hopeful about my future, my attention was no longer with what I was doing and I was unhappy.
Wow, how simple. Just stay present and engaged with whatever is happening now. Simple but oh so hard to do. I could do this for three seconds, before my mind wandered elsewhere. My monkey brain would go off on a blaming rampage, punctuated with internal expletives, about the awful should-nots that happened yesterday, or hand-wringing worries or hopes about what might or should occur tomorrow.
Since that eureka moment two years ago, I have practiced mindful meditation, to increase my three seconds to at least ten. Not much progress if the goal is to always be clear-headed. However, that is not the goal of mindful meditation. The goal is to notice when you are distracted or caught up in some emotionally laden story in your head about what shouldn’t have happened in the past, or what should happen in the future. What has improved dramatically is my ability to more quickly notice my mind going off into the future or past, pull my attention back to my breathing and body, and stay with the present situation. Allow that present experience of fear, anxiety, anticipation to just be there without judgement. This practice started simply with seeing how long I could stay present, while washing the dishes, or brushing my teeth, or seeing if I could stay with my body and breathing for the first five minutes of a walk. Could I do these things without being lost in my mind chatter?
My goal became, “return to present” and I dropped the unrealistic goal of “stay present”. Our reactive distracted monkey minds are a bag of old habits than can dictate our behaviour if we let them. Becoming aware of this and returning to a still and quiet place in the present is a new habit to be developed to be free to choose a wise response to a triggering event, rather than a knee-jerk emotional reaction.
“We do not decide our futures. We decide our habits and our habits decide our futures.”
Then I struggled with the apparent paradox of being present and planning for my future. Again, another eureka moment of seeing that the process of planning is an activity of bringing the future into the present, so I can impact the future now. I see how my goals and plans guide me on how to live now, moment to moment. I also see the value of memories (me in historical moments in time) as teachers for how I should live here and now. The only thing that is real is the present moment, which can be lived more happily and successfully, if I leverage the learnings from my past, and bring the goals I have for the future into my life right now. The past and future are not to be wallowed in or gotten lost in, but serve to inform how I live in the present.