… is what I hope you won’t ever have to ask after this post.
Let me start with a story: When I did the dishes earlier today, I shifted into being present without even noticing it at first. I felt the cool water running down my hands, watched it fill up the cup I was washing and reflect all kinds of fleeting shapes and colors. I marveled at this mysterious material. I noticed a thought that arose out of nowhere: “I am so lucky to live in a universe where liquids exist.” It became the obvious starting point for my post today, the second part of the tribute to the present moment (read part one here).
Hello my dear happiness nerds, welcome back!
No, I wasn’t on drugs. In fact, I have never taken psychedelics in my life (even though they might have great potential when taken responsibly). This was just the most ordinary moment revealing its intrinsic beauty and mystery to me because I was present. Which brings me to where I have left off last time:
The present moment can do wonders for your happiness, because of…
All the places you are
As long as you manage to be in the present moment as described in part one there are many marvelous places that you might encounter. For example:
- You may connect with the miracle of life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a scientist at heart, but from an experiential point of view, life is an inexplicable mystery. Just how can all this be? Effortlessly (thank goodness!) I inhale the invisible gasses around me and my lungs (which I can’t even begin to comprehend) put some of those gasses into my blood, which circulates into the farthest corners of my body; in veins, which get so tiny that I couldn’t even see them with my bare eyes. And this happens all the time. Effortlessly (thank goodness!). I may learn the physics, chemistry, and biology behind them, but they won’t take away any of the awe and wonder—quite the opposite, actually. And like the example of breathing, anything else can evoke these exhilarating feelings if just attended to in the present moment. One could save a lot of time, money, and CO2 if one refrained from flying to the end of the world just to experience something “new” or “exciting” and instead stayed at home tripping out on water or breathing or chairs. No drugs needed either 😄
- The same point, but a different angle: How often do you hear people envy children, because they have such a fresh look on life. A puddle to a child is more exciting than an action movie to an adult. That fresh look is not lost. It’s just overlooked while one is lost in thought. With a little bit of practice, we can pick up a child’s lens of wonderment anytime while keeping the freedom and maturity we have gained since childhood.
- In the present moment we’re safe, we’re ok, and we can be thankful for that. There might be a scary presentation tomorrow but it isn’t now. And if it is now, it is just a room full of people with one of them talking. As modern humans we usually don’t have to worry about our life and safety like other animals have to do in the wild. If, by being present, we additionally avoid the imaginary woes of our own making, such as regret (regarding the past) or anxiety (regarding the future), one can feel safe. And safety is one of the most basic needs all humans have. The importance of safety is hard to overstate: It is where we recharge our batteries, where we are free to explore or be creative, where we intimately connect with others, and where we can truly be ourselves, all defenses put aside. The present moment is safe, because we live modern lives and we notice that there is nothing that can really harm us right now. And if, for a change, there is (e.g., because we are crossing the street), we are simply aware of any dangers and avoid them calmly.
The break it gives you
A real break. In the present moment, you don’t have to do anything or get anywhere, you don’t have to solve anything or remember anything important. You may just be. Just relax, just live, simply be. Intrinsically blissful if you can get there—in this sense, you kind of have to do something after all: Become and remain present. On a side note (because I got some comments/questions regarding this after the last post): Mindfulness meditation helps with these skills, but is different from merely being present. This and the last post are about the latter.
You may say that you can also take a break during watching TV or doing something else. Sure, there is some truth to that. But: Your mind stays relatively highly engaged during those things. For example, if you’re invested in what you’re watching you might hope or fear with the characters; or you might puzzle over how the protagonists are going to get out of this mess; or you might compare yourself to the celebrities on the screen; and so on and so forth. So, no real break here. If you’re not invested, chances are high that you’ll ruminate on the past or worry about the future, plan, multitask, and so on. Again, no real break.
Being present, on the other hand, is like taking a break from the gym. You don’t keep flexing your mental muscles every minute of the day until you finally drop unconscious during sleep. You relax them and allow them minimal input for a while. Even if it’s just for a brief moment.
You get to know yourself (and more)
When you’re on autopilot or lost in thought there’s a whole world passing by you unnoticed. A world that can teach you a lot about yourself. And about itself, too. Here a few short examples to illustrate:
- You’re tired and it’s 4pm. Again? And again? Maybe this is a good time during the day for you to go for a run, take a nap, or open the windows. It’s likely not the best time for you to schedule important meetings, make important decisions, or discuss something difficult with your partner.
- Every time you mention Apple products to your friend you get a 30-minute rant why they are clearly the best products and not at all overpriced? Maybe stick to other topics in the future.
- You always offer other people help? Maybe you’re not the selfish prick your inner critic tells you to be.
- A lot of female actors react irritated by interview questions about their diets or skin care routines? Maybe it’s time to stop reducing women to their looks. (not just maybe)
- The happiest people you know are also the most generous? Maybe the two traits are linked.
More generally speaking, if you’re present, you’re more likely to notice how you feel and what made you feel that way (and as I argued elsewhere, feelings are the currency of life); you may notice the memories that a certain object may trigger and thereby be more connected with your own biography; you may notice patterns in yourself, in your environment, and in the interactions between the two; and so on. Be present and become a philosopher, scientist, and psychotherapist all at once. No Master’s degree needed.
You live longer (kind of)
I actually don’t know if being present makes you die at a higher age (it probably does, though)—but this is also not the sense in which I mean it. I mean it in two other ways:
- In one way, my experience is that I feel more alive when I’m present. I don’t rush through things, trying to get to the next only in order to then get to the next; I actually want to be where I am; I get out of my head and into what’s in front of me; I don’t take stuff (like water) for granted, but I marvel in it; I’m there. If you only count such moments as true living, you do live longer even if you die young.
- In another way, I noticed that time stretches while I’m present. This was the most extreme during my Vipassana meditation retreat, where we aimed at being present 12 hours a day (and more), but I also observed this in my everyday life. When I’m on autopilot, time flies. It’s like I didn’t even quite live that time properly. Time flying by can be pleasant, but also regrettable. When present, I experience seconds as minutes and minutes as hours. Plenty of time, no regrets. Subjectively, it literally makes my life longer. So, even if you do count all moments as true living you live longer—even if you die young.
And an added bonus is: If you feel like you’ve actually lived, you don’t fear death (so much). What good is another squandered year if you cannot truly live this one moment now?
And there we have it: My attempt at answering the question “What’s so special about the present moment and how’s it supposed to help lead a happier life anyway?” And even for this lengthy two-part answer I had to omit loads of aspects and details. But as I said in the first part: There’s only so much of the answer one can convey with words. The present moment and its benefits have to be felt to be truly understood. Therefore, please give it a try. Pay attention to what’s happening right now, within and around you. It’s pretty cool. Like water.
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