Happiness asks only that we tend to this moment
How far ahead in time has your thinking taken you?
Are you pondering what to do next, or wishing what you are doing right now was over? Are you carefully mapping out your afternoon, right down to the last detail? Are you considering your evening, and how best to make the most of the weekend?
Or are you thinking about when to start preparing your year’s taxes? Or fixating on details of what might happen five, or ten years from now?
How much of your attention to this moment has been lost because of the mental drifting?
We human beings love to time travel, reliving moments of the past, or slipping well into the future. These can be both positive or negative experiences, which we think will alter our life experience for the better.
We are mistaken.
Whatever the experience, one thing is absolutely certain: when we engage in that practice, we lose touch in some degree with what is happening right now.
That’s important because life itself is happening in only one place and time: Here and Now. When we drift off of that, we become disengaged with life as it is unfolding right now, and as such, we are losing much of the richness this moment – life itself – brings.
Further, it is making us unhappy.
Our brains have formed that way in part as a survival mechanism.
We survived as slow, delicious snacks to larger predators because of our powerful brains that can draw from past experience, extrapolate the information, and make adjustments to future plans for the greatest degree of success and survival.
It’s a fascinating skill unique to human beings.
It’s also why Häagen-Dazs didn’t require a team of executive chefs to sample broccoli ice cream to understand it didn’t belong on store shelves.
Our brains can imagine how that would taste without having put it in our mouths.
Mental drifting is a valuable asset and is part of our natural functioning. The problem is, most of us engage in it way too much for our own good, often re-traumatizing ourselves about events in the past, or terrorizing ourselves about things we believe may come true.
A study by Matt Killingsworth from Harvard indicates we are, on average, daydreaming 47 per cent of the time. We are absent 65 per cent of the time while showering or brushing our teeth, off task half the time while working, and missing in action mentally 40 per cent of the time while working out.
In all but one activity, we are daydreaming at least 30 per cent of that time.
The exception is during sex, when we are elsewhere 10 per cent of the time, Killingsworth found.
It’s important to realize when we are drifting, because we’re miserable when we are not present.
Interestingly, Killingsworth found it didn’t matter whether we were wandering into happy thoughts negative or neutral ones. They were all making us unhappy.
He described it in a TED talk as playing a slot machine where we have the chance of losing $50, $20 or one dollar.
How do we disengage from this activity?
The first and most important part of cutting down on the wandering mind is to recognize when we have wandered. There is nothing we can do about a problem we don’t know exists.
Simply note to yourself that your mind has wandered. The moment you do that, you’re already back from where you were.
Now, how to stay present for a bit?
I recommend to new students that they set their attention three mindful breaths. Feel the breath where it presents itself most prominently. This short exercise brings them firmly back into this moment.
Students often speak of a great sense of relief when going through this exercise. They report a greater sense of clarity, ease and focus.
This technique should be practiced as often as we can think of doing it.
I recommend to students and corporate clients that they pick some triggers from their surroundings to remind them to use the 3-breath reset.
One is the sound of a ringing phone. Use the first ring to begin the breath sequence, the second as the mid-breath reminder, and pick up the phone on the third ring. My experience has been people on the other end of the phone sense the calm, and the conversation usually goes a lot better because of it.
Similar cues include car horns or traffic in the distance, a plane passing overhead, a doorbell, an email or text tone, etc. The more of these we make as cues for our awareness, the more we will recognize.
Don’t expect you will always live in the moment. There is a great use to proper planning and reflection, both which require periodic absence from attending to this moment.
We just have to begin to realize that we don’t need to reside permanently in the past or future.
We’ve evolved into a state of mind wandering, a skill which is useful, but no longer required for our survival. As noted, our over-reliance on it is making us unhappy.
The fix is uncomplicated.
Simply note that you have drifted, then set your full attention on the present experience. That will have an immediate, beneficial effect.
While simple, it takes a daily practice.
Feel free to start small, maybe by setting into place a five-or-10 minute meditation as part of your morning routine.
This has the effect of introducing us to the moment and strengthening our ability to get present and stay there.
Next, seize all opportunities during your day to get back into that moment, however briefly.
That will stretch into longer and longer periods of being present, on task, without judgment or attachment.
Try it for a few weeks and see how your days change as a result.
I’m near certain you will be pleasantly surprised by the results.