I know a lot of people who live in the future. A few in the past. And even fewer in the present.
We spend much time thinking about what was and what could have been. And we spend much time projecting into the future and wondering about what may happen.
Life unfolds in the present. But so often, we let the present slip away, allowing time to rush past unobserved and unseized, and squandering the precious seconds of our lives as we worry about the future and ruminate about what’s past. “We’re living in a world that contributes in a major way to mental fragmentation, disintegration, distraction, decoherence,” says Buddhist scholar B. Alan Wallace. We’re always doing something, and we allow little time to practice stillness and calm.
When we’re at work, we fantasize about being on vacation; on vacation, we worry about the work piling up on our desks. We dwell on intrusive memories of the past or fret about what may or may not happen in the future. We don’t appreciate the living present because our “monkey minds,” as Buddhists call them, vault from thought to thought like monkeys swinging from tree to tree.
There’s a one-in-two chance your mind is on something else as you read this sentence. A study by Harvard psychologists in 2010 asked people to track their thoughts, feelings and activities at random intervals, and discovered that they spend 46.9% of their time doing one thing while thinking about another. They also found this daydreaming makes them more unhappy than if they were paying attention to the present moment, even when it’s unpleasant.
This probably sounds counterintuitive, but distracting ourselves from difficult experiences seems to exacerbate, rather than reduce, the stress they cause. When the mind wanders, it’s usually drawn into negative ruminations or projection, making us feel worse than if we simply focused on our actual experience.
why is it that we spend so much time in preparation for living, and such little time just being, flowing and getting ourselves caught up in adventures?
Most lifestyle “gurus” have sold us on the idea of living for the moment — that right now is all that exists — and that we should only do that which makes us feel good.
Although this advice is alluring and justifying, it often fails to produce desirable results in the real world. Actually, in many cases, it ruins people’s lives.
We are very good at preparing to live, but not very good at living. We know how to sacrifice ten years for a diploma, and we are willing to work very hard to get a job, a car, a house, and so on. But we have difficulty remembering that we are alive in the present moment, the only moment there is for us to be alive.
Thich Nhat Hanh