Why Being Present Is So Difficult (And What You Can Do About It)
Before we try to answer that question, it's necessary to understand the intrinsic nature of the mind.
The basic nature of the mind is to dwell in the past or to worry about the future. Our uneasiness about what’s to come is actually our strategy to prepare for the future – our mind’s ingenious way of ensuring that we’re equipped to survive. Without such readiness, the mind can’t prepare the body to thrive.
So how does this future-oriented mind know exactly what to prepare for the seemingly unknown? The mind relies on one thing to predict what’s to come: the past. Ruminating over the accumulated contents of the mind, including both acquired skills and inherent tendencies passed on by prior generations, we use mental shortcuts, allowing the past to shape the future.
Our mind is constantly toggling between these two opposing tendencies. First, we fear the inevitable end brought by the “who-knows-when” tomorrow. Tomorrow is risky, frightening, and in some way, represents one step closer to the end – from something to nothing. The result of such preoccupation is helplessness, contempt, and fear.
And then, on the other hand, there’s the comfort in the possibility of hereafter, something just as powerful that lies beyond today – hope. Hope that tomorrow will be better. As our mind teeters between the fear about the imminent and the hope for the future, dissonance sets in. Our mind performs this dance between the polarities, constantly trying to find a natural resting place.
The question remains: What is the role of the “present” for our mind?
Being in the present, known as “mindfulness,” is the mental state of being engaged in the now without emotionally reacting to our thoughts. For most of us, though, it is nearly impossible to stay in this state for any real length of time.
Because the present is given to us, our mind perceives it as something not worth dwelling in – it’s not worth thinking about the present because it's simply guaranteed.
However, there’s a certain advantage to this: Stepping away from the now allows our mind the opportunity to be creative, to dream, to innovate. All creative genius is the result of this temporary transmigration of the mind from the present. So, it does serve us a real value to step away from the moment. Consider the lifestyle of Zen monks: Monks tend to dedicate their mental focus in the now, and, while they showcase a remarkable dedication to tradition, they tend not to be adaptive to innovation.
Constantly avoiding the present, the mind poses a question: Why worry about that which is already decided for it? It naturally migrates to the past and becomes prescient toward the future. Often, this tendency gets out of control, and we begin to see dangers that are not actually there, leading to unnecessary anxiety about the events that may not even happen.
How do we solve this dilemma of the ever-frenzied mind? Humans have the exceptional capacity to watch our minds as an outsider. John Adams observed, “A man who knows himself can step outside of himself and watch his own reaction like an outsider.” But, most people achieve such clarity for only fleeting moments, dismissing such experiences as a mere illusions or mental wanderings.
Enlightened scientists, sages, and prophets over ages have emphasized the necessity of mindfulness. This act of watching our mind as an observer is what makes humans unique, the only way to counter the cognitive dissonance that sets in resultant of dwelling in the polarities of the past and future. Step outside of your mind and watch it like a witness. You will see all the mischief by your mind and be able to once and for all, be truly present in the moment.
Rajeev Kurapati, M.D., is a Board Certified Family Physician and author, writing about what it means to be human. By uniting the wisdom of spiritual traditions, the theories of science, and the nature of biology, Rajeev empowers readers to understand the complex workings of our mind and the role this plays in our journey to happiness. He lives in Cincinnati with his wife and son. His latest book, UNBOUND INTELLIGENCE: Discovering the God Within, released in Jan 2014, is available on Amazon.com.