It probably doesn’t occur to most people that their lives have only ever happened one moment at time. Being in more than one place at once is obviously impossible, yet most of us have difficulty fully allowing ourselves to be only in the one place where we really are: here.
We often talk about having a dozen things to do at once, when in fact we seldom do more than one thing at once, or need to. Your to-do list only gets done one moment at a time, whether your moment-to-moment experience is a frantic and complex one, or a calm and simple one.
We would do very well to simply look at the present moment, ask ourselves what it requires, then calmly do that. It’s hard to imagine an instance in life where this wouldn’t be the best thing to do. Yet life usually seems so much more complicated than that.
Any moment you experience can be broken down into three simple qualities:
1) Your immediate physical surroundings right now
2) The physical feelings in your body right now
3) What you’re thinking about right now
Your whole life is just a gradual turnover of these three aspects of experience. It seems more complicated than that because the third part (your thoughts) can create the appearance all kinds of content that isn’t actually happening. You can lose track of what’s real quite easily when you don’t notice that you’re only thinking.
You can be walking down a quiet street, with a cool breeze and a nice sunset as your backdrop, and be completely consumed by thoughts about something that happened earlier. On the way home from work, a driver in a pickup truck honked at you and gave you the finger, and you don’t think you did anything wrong.
Without deciding to, you imagine a confrontation with this person. You start to get mad about society’s entitlement issues around big vehicles and fossil fuels, and you think about how your car doesn’t use that much gas compared to a truck, but one day you want to quit the long commute altogether. But you know that to do that you’d have to move closer to work, which probably means moving into a high-rise, which you think you could get used to if it meant no more traffic jams, but your spouse would never go for it, and they probably don’t allow dogs…
This happens all the time. We get completely overcome by our thoughts, and the content of the thoughts seems nearer and more relevant than what’s actually happening — the quiet street is almost gone from your experience, even though it’s right there. Usually we solve nothing with this kind of haphazard rumination.
It is easy to forget that those thoughts are simply another feature of the present moment, and that they’re happening right here on this quiet street, between your ears. But you probably experienced those thoughts without even noticing that they’re only thoughts. It seems like the moment really does contain this other driver, your spouse, your dog, your commute, and maybe a copy of the local Renter’s Guide.
None of those things are here. All that’s here is a quiet street scene, your body, and some thoughts. When we lose sight of the fact that we’re only thinking, the content of those thoughts seems to be a real feature of the moment.
Whenever we can recognize the apparent “craziness” of our lives for what it really is — unconscious thinking happening right here, right now — we have a chance to notice how simple life actually is in any given moment. It’s such a relief to wake up from a whirlwhind of heated thoughts to realize that you’re just here, in yet another simple, concrete scene in your life, noticing that you’ve just been thinking about something.
Getting used to waking up
Getting lost in thought is something that will probably happen every day for the rest of your life. You can learn to do it less often, but it will remain something to manage.
Thought has a tendency to snowball, and when it does you will forget you’re thinking, and the fantasies, dialogues and disaster scenarios contained in the thoughts become your experience of the world. You wouldn’t be so easily overwhelmed by life if you could, on a frequent basis, recognize that it is only made of those three lightweight components: your body, your surroundings and your thoughts.
This is a powerful gain in perspective, this understanding that everything happens here and only here, including your thoughts.
Any time it occurs to you, and particularly when you catch yourself getting caught up in thinking, you can re-establish this perspective by taking stock of what’s really happening. You simply notice that you’re in a single moment — as you always are, any time you check — and take note of what’s actually here, in terms of these three real-life components.
Do it like this:
1) Take a look at what’s here physically — the physical scene you’re in. You don’t need to verbalize it: “picnic table, sign, parking lot…” Just get a sense of what here is like in terms of its real, concrete features — the space, the colors and textures, the mood and motif of the place. Just look, don’t analyze.
2) Notice that there are currently feelings in your body. Just notice the general feeling in your body. Is it warm, clear, stiff? A bit buzzy or tingly? Again, just look at the texture of the sensations themselves and don’t worry about naming them.
3) Notice that you’ve been thinking while in this physical space. But simply note the kinds of thoughts you’ve been having — I’ve been having nervous thoughts about my career. I’ve been having jealous thoughts about my partner. I’ve been having excited thoughts about this weekend. This “generalizing” is important, otherwise you’re prone to slip right back into thinking, and you’ll quickly forget that you’re here.
That’s it. That’s your entire experience on this earth, at any given time. Put your attention back into some physical part of the moment, so you don’t start ruminating again right away. And then carry on.
This technique may seem a bit cumbersome when you read it, but in practice it’s extremely simple. You’re just noticing what’s physically present, and recognizing that anything else is just a present-moment thought. You’re returning to the hard facts of the moment, instead of staying lost in needless editorializing. Soon you’ll be able to do it in a matter of seconds. I do this many times a day.
This little practice is really a nonverbal way of answering the question: “Okay, so what’s really here?” The answer is always going to be a physical space, your body, and (probably) some thoughts.
[I cover this “taking stock” practice, and a number of others, in You Are Here: A Modern Person’s Guide to Living in the Present.]