August 1, 2016
You’re standing in a group making small talk and suddenly all eyes are on you.
It seems they’re expecting an answer . . . and you don’t even know what question was asked.
You feel your face getting hot. “I’m sorry, what was the question?” you sheepishly ask.
You did it again. You pulled a “Walter Mitty” and man was it embarrassing.
It may be helpful to know it’s not just you. Living in the moment is becoming increasingly difficult in our culture of hyper-connectedness—these days, the present has a lot to compete with.
Some of us are stuck in the past—thinking about conversations and situations that are long over. These could be traumas, or important events, but more often there just the normal fodder of our day to day lives of which we can’t seem to let go.
Some of us are stuck is some type of future. Thinking about what will be. We’re at our desks thinking about the weekend. Then, when the weekend comes we’re thinking about what’s happening at work the next week! We’re always looking forward but never catching up.
Some of us are just stuck in our heads. We’re concentrating on our fantasies, our insecurities, anything but the moment. It’s like being on a trip and thinking “I need to come back here sometime” –get out of your head, you are here!
While concentration and a general calmness of mind may be easier for some than others, living in the moment comes naturally to no one. It is a skill that must be developed.
Oddly enough, simply being in the moment can take a great deal of effort—at least at first. But developing a presence of mind is possible for anyone willing to put in the time and practice.
Do you have a highly self-critical stream of inner-dialogue? One that’s constantly interrupting to remind of a long list of should: what you’ve should have said, should have done, should have worn, should have accomplished? Well if so, it’s time to let him know he’s fired. Choose to stop taking his orders and you’ll quickly discover a new sense of freedom to enjoy the present.
Living in the moment isn’t just about you. It’s about every person you meet. When you choose to be present with another person—to engage with the stories they tell, the things they are passionate about, and the experiences they’ve had—you offer them true connection. Instead of telling a friend her painting is beautiful, ask her to explain why she chose the colors she did and listen intently. We offer far more to others in our presence than in a few words of praise.
Whether it’s something that happened in the past, or something you fear could happen in the future, the inability to let go can sap a surprising amount of mental energy. Simply choosing to surrender control over your unknown future, past hurts, and present insecurities, will produce a calmness of mind that will allow you to embrace the meaningful moments you’ve been missing out on.
Sometimes, it’s as simple as phoning a friend. Healthy community is absolutely essential to living in the moment. Without trusted friends with whom you can share your joys and pains, you will likely find yourself ruminating on painful experiences. Because negative emotions continually seek an outlet, they will rob you of the present until you can process through them with a trusted confidant.
Here’s some unflattering news. One of the biggest hindrances to living in the moment is, well, overconfidence—the illusion that there is nothing else you need to learn in any given moment. Sometimes we choose to let our minds wander because we simply are not that interested. But the truth is, every moment is a teacher: every encounter, every person, every minute offers us something of incredible value. Choosing not to be absentminded is choosing not to grow.
Living in the present won’t happen overnight and the single, most counterproductive thing you can do is shame yourself when you mess up. This only leads to a cycle of self-defeating behavior. If you find yourself struggling to embrace the present, against all your best efforts, it may just mean you need a break. Take some time off work. Allow yourself the privilege of doing something you love. Go to your favorite restaurant. See a new movie. Do some yoga. Take a long bubble bath. Give your overloaded mind some rest and it might return the favor.
Have you been missing your life? What steps are you taking to embrace the moment?
Anthony Centore Ph.D. is Founder of Thriveworks (a chain of 30+ counseling practices), Private Practice Consultant for the American Counseling Association, Columnist for Counseling Today, and Author of “How to Thrive in Counseling Private Practice.”Anthony is a Licensed Counselor in Massachusetts, Virginia, Georgia, and Colorado.