Living in the Now

Forget the past. Forget the future. Paying attention to this moment can bring much-needed peace in these unsettling times.

November 25, 2001|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

Most of the time, we live in the past or the future.

While we're washing the dishes, we're worrying about big things (anthrax) or small things (a rude store clerk). What we aren't doing is noticing the way the water glances off a glass, the clink of silverware, the lemony smell of the soap or the smoothness of a plate.

And why should we? It's mundane, boring stuff.

Most of us never get to that mystical state where we're fully awake to the present and can see the magic of everyday experience for any length of time. But being in the present totally for even a moment or two also works. Since Sept. 11, when anxiety levels have been high and the future seems even more uncertain than usual, practicing what some call "mindfulness" -- the art of paying attention -- seems particularly important.

People have found that living in the now can reduce stress, bring your pulse rate down, lead to inner peace and a more enjoyable life, and even help you remember where you left your car keys. (Try to be fully present in the moment next time you walk in the house and put your keys somewhere.)

Dr. Fouad Abbas, a busy Baltimore surgeon who tries to live mindfully, tells of a man who has Band-Aids on every finger because he's bitten all his nails "down to the bone" since the terrorist attacks started.

"Despite all his worry," Abbas says, "Sept. 11 already happened. The milk is spilt. Thinking about the future brings anxiety and stress, a bunch of fantasies we can't control."

Abbas, director of gynecological oncology at Sinai Hospital, doesn't wear a watch and covers the clock in his car. "I don't want time to stare me in the face," he says. He doesn't make to-do lists.

Living in the moment isn't the same as living for the moment. After the horror of Sept. 11, the media ran stories about post-disaster sex, shopping sprees, drinking bouts and food binges -- the rationale for it all being that life is short.

But living mindfully isn't living as though we have no future. We talk about killing time as though reality consists of something else besides the present moment. It doesn't make sense to go along on automatic pilot, which is what happens when you're playing with your child and thinking about what you heard on the evening news. No matter how dreadful the news is, if your mind is wandering and you're not enjoying the here and now, you're not taking advantage of what joy is available to you.

Easy to say. Hard to do. It's not easy to live in the present moment, although living in the past usually makes us feel depressed and regretful, while living in the future makes us anxious. Even if we start off thinking about something pleasant in the past, we usually move on to something not so pleasant.

The Buddhists call the mind the "monkey mind," because it leaps from subject to subject. When we get swept away by what we're thinking and feeling, it's stressful. Simply to stop and notice what's going on in our environment for a few moments reduces some of that stress.

"We should just be aware of how much time we spend perseverating about the past and future," says Andre Papantonio, who is on the staff of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute in Towson. This doesn't mean that reflecting on the past is wrong or thinking about the future ridiculous, he adds. There's nothing wrong with planning. As the saying goes, the mind makes a good servant but a poor master.

Papantonio recommends that, when you find yourself worrying about what might happen, you should come back to the present with a simple technique. The body is always in the present; only the mind flits to the past and future. Simply be aware of what your five senses are telling you, or take note of your breathing without trying to change it.

"When you're taking a walk, instead of thinking, feel the sun on your shoulder or smell the burning leaves," he says. "Don't try to control your mind, just gently bring it back from where it usually is."

The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was referring to something like this when he wrote: "Let be; call off / thoughts awhile / Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room."

Living in the present takes practice, like reminding yourself to stand up straight. Some people meditate formally. Some people, like Abbas, try to make everything they do a meditation by living mindfully, giving whatever they're doing their full attention.

The stop signs of life

Some of us need a little more help.

Chris Kreeger, a management consultant who's also co-director of the Shambhala Meditation Center in Baltimore, says he has to booby-trap his everyday world to remind himself to be in the present moment.

Once he was pulled over by a policeman when he made a rolling stop through a stop sign. "I wasn't driving fast," Kreeger says, "but my mind was speedy."

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