How to Live in the Present

In Essays, Philosophy, Productivity

If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.

Lao Tzu

Living in the present is often associated with irresponsibility, recklessness, and downright stupidity. That’s what people who don’t have any plans do.

Surely, surely, we should always be thinking about the future, learning from the past? And anyway, what exactly is the present? One moment it’s here, the other it’s gone. We can never actually place our finger on “now”.

That said, there is something incredibly relaxing about simply enjoying the moment. I find that it’s like a rare luxury, being able to be purely in the moment, without thinking about what has happened or what will happen.

The pace of the modern lifestyle has accelerated to a point where we’re moving so fast that the concept of now has all but completely disappeared. We have to-do apps to keep us on track, constant notifications reminding us to do everything, and constant pressure to perform.

Let’s first take a look at the past.

The Past

There is absolutely no point wasting your life thinking too much about the past. This has larger consequences that we might first imagine. Don’t like you’re current situation? Well guess what, your present is a direct result of your past, and so worrying about your present is essentially like hoping that you could change the past.

The only way to get more value out of the past than you have in your current situation, is to reflect on it and then learn from it, and not in a manic-depressive way of “how was I so stupid”, but in an objective manner, like a student studying a history text book.

The worst possible state to get in, is where you are constantly looking back and thinking “what if” and lamenting that you’re life didn’t turn out quite as you had planned.

Seeing as you’re not going to change the past, the only logical and intelligent thing to do is to learn from it. In fact, I like to think that the only failure in life is failing to learn from failure. You have to accept that it’s fine not to be perfect, and that you will inevitably make mistakes, and that’s also fine. The thing to beware of is repeatedly making the same mistakes over and over again.

I think it was Einstein who described madness as “doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.”.

The Future

The future is a really interesting concept, because it’s not actually something that exists, it’s just a concept. After all, you might not wake up tomorrow morning, and so you will have no future. Additionally, the entire universe may end tomorrow, and so nobody will have a future.

Putting aside the fact that your future will one day end, it’s likely that you’ll have, at the very least, a few years ahead of you, and so it makes sense to create some type of plan for those years.

That’s common sense, and nobody should tell you otherwise. After all:

Fail to plan, plan to fail.

However, we need to be careful of two things:

The first, is that we don’t get so caught up in our future plans that we don’t live our life in the present properly. It’s easy to take the concept of delayed gratification too far, and either end up delaying things forever, or delaying things that are simply not worth it. A trivial example of this might be not taking a short weekend trip with your family because you want to save up for an expensive television.

Of course, this is a nuanced topic, and there are things that are worth planning and making sacrifices for.

The second, is that we start to worry about the future, and it then upsets our tranquility here in the present. This is really silly, because we’ll worry about it now, and then we will worry about it again when it actually happens. So a negative event in our lives has double the impact.

All this said, it is stupid to go through life without putting any time aside to think about the future. This is the kind of behaviour that leads to chronic drug addiction, and reckless living.

In fact, many of the things that are most worth it in life, will require sacrifice. Want to be a good musician? Well, you are going to need to dedicate thousands of hours of concentrated practice.

Want to create a scientific breakthrough? You’ll find that you will probably still be in university when you’re 30.

Strategies to Be Here, Now.

Let’s get specific and focus on several strategies that we can use to help us keep rooted in the present, as that is where life is lived.

Acceptance

Being able to accept the fact that the past is set and immutable, and that the future is uncertain, will take you a long way towards being able to have a tranquil existence, and being able to fully live in the present.

A large part of being able to accept things is to understand what is in your control, and what is not in your control. I discussed this is detail in my aptly-named essay “On Control”.

Cut Your Responsibilities

I’m advocating leaving your family or quitting your job, although those may be the correct course of actions for some people.

This is more about liberating yourself from the mundane everyday responsibilities that clog your life. This can include looking after all the things you own that you don’t need. It’s difficult to be specific, as everyone has different sets of responsibilities, some which cannot be cut, but almost everyone will have some responsibilities which are not truly necessary. It might be a half-friendship, it might be a flagging business, it could be a membership at a society.

By cutting these responsibilities away, we can focus more on the now, and less on what we have to do in order to fulfil our various roles.

One Thing At a Time

Being able to concentrate on doing just one thing is great for your productivity, but also for your sanity. Multi-tasking leads to higher levels of stress, lower quality of work, and for me, this feeling that everything is closing in on me.

I much prefer to block out time to do one thing, and while I am doing it I am not worrying about what I have to do later today or tomorrow. This extremely beneficial not only for the task at hand, but also for your piece of mind, because while you are doing a particular task, you aren’t worrying about something else, and so simply working can have a calming effect.

I’ll leave this point with a Zen Proverb:

When walking, walk. When eating, eat.

Schedule Nothing

No, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t schedule anything, rather, that you should actively schedule nothing into your life. By nothing, I mean alone time where you are not working, socialising, researching, cooking, or doing anything else. Just be, and think.

It’s a great habit to get into, and it’s surprising how few of us actually manage to set aside time to do nothing each day.

Catch Yourseelf

You should actively try and catch yourself worrying about the future, and then concentrate on where you are right now. You’ll often find that things are not so bad. Case in point, I was just worrying about some business-related issues that I have no control over, and then I caught myself, and took a look around where I was. I was sitting in a restaurant/café, I had no physical pain, I was enjoying good food, there was air conditioning, and I was surrounded by friends, now that’s not too bad.

Actually Listen

We spend so much of our time in conversation simply waiting for our turn to speak. It’s worth pausing this habit, and actually listening to what people have to say. There is nothing that will quite ground you to reality as listening to what people have to say, and actually taking the time to see things from their point of view, and then chiming in only when asked.

It takes a lot of self control, especially for people with fast brains who process sentences before they are even finished.

Have Values, Live by Them.

Often I see the concept of having values as something that will always be applied to the future, not to now. I see this in myself, and I see this in other people.

Values should not be just something that will come into play at some point in the future, they should be enforced right here, right now.

Upholding a strong set of values takes a level of determination, especially if they don’t assimilate with the values of the people around you, but in doing this, you’ll suddenly feel the present as a very real, tangible thing.

Conclusion

The benefits to living in the now are clear: less stress, and more enjoyment out of life, because remember, everyday of your life will be lived in the present moment. I hope you’ve found at least some of the advice present above useful, and I am sure that there are plenty more creative ways to start living in the now.