“Be Here Now” has become a kind of cliché, and you may be tired of hearing it. But it’s become a cliché for good reason. Because it’s possibly the best advice anybody ever gave us. And as we’re beginning to see, being present is fundamental to the practice of acceptance.
We only ever need to accept what’s happening now. But we can’t accept what’s happening now if we’re not here. If we’re not present. If our minds are lost in the past or the future, which is where most of us are most of the time. Think about it: How much time every day are we thoroughly absorbed in what’s taking place in the moment? Without thinking about the past? Without thinking about the future? Without losing ourselves in daydreaming, fantasy, or desire? Without indulging in regret, blame, or guilt? Without being trapped in fear, anxiety, or worry?
How much? An hour a day?
If we’re managing to spend an hour a day being truly present with our actual life experience, we’re doing better than most people. And the rest of the time we’re lost in all of the above, all the aspects of the past or future, all the places where we can hide from the present.
If being present is so important, why do we spend so much time lost in the past and future?
Because we love it. Or at least our egos love it. By wallowing in all the things I’ve done in the past and all the plans, hopes, and fears that I may have for the future, Little Me is kept exactly where it wants to be—at the center of the universe. It doesn’t particularly matter whether my thinking about the “not now” is positive or negative, whether I’m feeling guilty about that horrendous thing I did to you yesterday, or overexcited about my coming vacation; it all serves its purpose. To keep Little Me feeling important. As if everything else in the world is orbiting around me, myself, and mine.
It’s hard for us to stop employing our favorite strategies to avoid being present, not only because they’re so well-practiced but also because they make us feel good. Or, more correctly, they make Little Me feel good—which is a different thing altogether. Our strategies take us in the opposite direction from where we want to go; they take us away from acceptance.
If, for example, I’m sitting at my desk trying to write, but instead of being present, feeling the cool air on my legs and noticing the sound of the people and motorbikes outside, I’m losing myself in a pleasant daydream about my last vacation on the beach—lying on the sand and swimming in the sea—then what am I really doing? Where am I at this moment? At my desk or on the beach?
Losing myself in nostalgia certainly feels nice. The beach seems better than the writing desk. I could even say that it makes me feel happy. And this is the danger. By trawling through my library of past experiences or future fantasies, I can find memories and images that make me feel good. That produce dopamine in my head right now. Fantastic. Free drugs. What’s not to like?
What’s not to like is the fact that my memory of lying on the sand and swimming in the sea is a pale imitation of actually lying on the sand and swimming in the sea. But more importantly, the memory I can conjure up by daydreaming and the pleasant effect that I can create in my inner world is a pale imitation of this. This experience of sitting here writing at my desk. Why? Because the memory isn’t real. It’s not this living experience of being here right now.
It’s likely that when I was lying on the beach and swimming in the sea, it wasn’t even half as amazing as I’m now imagining it to be. Perhaps at that moment I was fantasizing about being somewhere else. Maybe fantasizing about having a purpose in life . Imagining perhaps that I was writing a book. Sitting at my desk in the city.
So that’s the danger—we use our thinking to create a nice experience in our heads because we believe that the imagined is preferable to the real experience. Because we can’t accept what’s actually happening. So we throw away our life by not being present by not “turning up” for our experience. We throw it away moment after moment, hour after hour.
But this isn’t the worst thing. Because I don’t only avoid life by thinking about the nice memories and happy future fantasies. One of my other favorite escape strategies is to trawl through the negativity. To get lost in the dark side. So I might spend a happy hour or two thinking about all the mistakes that I made in the past, how I made all the wrong choices in my career, how I didn’t marry the right person—just so I can avoid the horrific reality of sitting here at my desk with the cool breeze and the sound of happily playing children.
And that’s insane. But we all do it.