Take a deep breath and imagine, for a moment, that time has stopped. The 2 o'clock meeting doesn't exist. Going grocery shopping, to the gym, or even the walk from your car to your door or apartment building doesn't matter to you.
Strange, isn't it?
Our past mistakes and vindications are, for this experiment, worthless, and our futures don't matter because, right now, it won't happen. Now then, make a mental note of how you feel. Unless you're reading this on your phone sitting on a boat in the Arctic, sipping a glass of Scotch, and being both humbled and awed by the Northern Lights, odds are pretty good that you're not feeling the best you could. Not bad, we say, but there is a whole spectrum of well-being between “not bad” and “the best I've ever felt in my entire life.”
Truthfully, a person would have to be completely mentally detached from a lot of things to be the archetypal happy-go-lucky character depicted in so many movies and TV shows. We are, unfortunately, real people with real problems that come with real dread when we ponder the unknowns of the future. We feel crushed by the pressure of success and, sometimes, haunted by the failures of our past.
But that doesn't have to be so.
How Are You – Really?
When people ask how we are, the response is an automatic “good,' “great,” or “fine.” But how are you really feeling right now? Answer truthfully—but don't tell the hostess at the restaurant, “Well, quite frankly, I feel awful and I'm not in the mood to talk to anyone, especially you.” That part might be true but courtesy to strangers is a must.
Take a minute here and truly assess how you're feeling. Dig deep down and poke your brain and be as candid and raw to yourself as possible, because when we're busy, lying to ourselves about how we feel becomes disturbingly easier. Either that or we don't think about it at all.
Being self-aware up to the minute—staying present—takes a lot of practice. Keeping tabs on our emotions as we go throughout the day is both tiring and, in itself, something that could cause us to change our mood. As Inception-like as it sounds, though, it is imperative that, during our search for eternal happiness, we take short breaks to enjoy the small doses of joy we get from everyday things.
That is staying present. Being there, in both mind and body, to witness fleeting moments of beauty, true joy, and wonder. To hell with posting photos and statuses on Facebook or using Instagram and Twitter—they detract from the awesome experience that is living a human life. We are the recorders of our lives and that means we live and die with our own apocryphal histories locked away in our minds.
Staying in the present doesn't mean that we shouldn't look forward to anything, however. What it really comes down to is preparing yourself for your future while simultaneously building on your past.
Don't be the guy who only wants to relive his too-often glorified and even more often exaggerated past. And even if your past was filled with nothing but greatness, we have an entire life to live, nonetheless an entire decade before that, a year before that, a month before that and, finally, a day before that. Focus on how to make your existence more pleasant now and things will compound for the better.
Think of it like this. This year may be a pretty good year when you look back on it as a whole this Dec. 31. But when that day comes up in 2013, wouldn't you rather say that, for every one of those 365 days, you found something to be inspiring? A good year is good. A great 365 consecutive days is better.
Self-Awareness versus Self-Help
Like any long-lasting relationship, the small, seemingly minute details are the things that can drive us crazy or make us happy. Considering that we are with ourselves for the long haul, it's about due time we all take a step back and, objectively, look at the finer details of our lives.
We're all known for some personality trait or another, whether it's a good one or bad one. But, out of everyone who may call you a chronic worrier, hedonist, angel, or independent, the only one who can truly label you and mean it with 100 percent conviction and truth is yourself.
Self-awareness is self-help. Truly knowing yourself and what you need to focus on to better or tone down may be the greatest help your mind can get.
While staying in the present might seem like adopting a devil-may-care attitude, it's somewhat opposite to that. It can come off as a double standard, sure, but “living for today” has been taken with some creative license presently and has once again found incarnation in the truly abhorrent phrase YOLO, or, “You only live once.”
It's true, we do only live once. But that doesn't mean getting messed up every night and doing away with self-restraint. If anything, it should mean we, as the most intelligent beings capable of self-awareness (unless we're counting SKYNET), should do well by one another and that, in turn, does well for ourselves.
Even if you're inundated with work, take a deep breath and truly look at what it is you're doing. You're doing it for a reason. You are part of a vast network of people all around you who may clock in and clock out every day without even a thought of what they're doing in between. But we humans have the amazing ability to snap out of instinct and genuinely understand the reasoning and importance behind our tasks at hand.
And what we do is important. Every little thing.
Our ancestors lived for their today. They hunted, farmed, and fished and fought with the intention that that night, when they finally lay down, they could fall asleep feeling accomplished and deserved their rest.
And there is perhaps no better emotion than the feeling of pride and worth when you truly know you deserve that good night's sleep.
We may still be subject to quasi-insomnia, but when the lights go out, tossing and turning thinking about all the things that went right today as opposed to what could go wrong tomorrow is a better reason to lay awake at night.
Little By Little
The book version of the character Sherlock Holmes is strange not for his cocaine habit or knowledge of ancient martial arts, but for his ability to accept that it was impossible to do something for the time being and detach himself completely from it.
Holmes was portrayed as a man who, in the midst of investigating a strange death, would be able to switch off completely if nothing further could be done at the moment and go play the violin or take a walk without the shadow of the case at hand looming overhead, shrouding and compressing his thoughts.
It may be truly impossible to reach that ability, but what we can do is reach a level of acceptance with ourselves. Impossible feats can be done—the human race has attested to that. But to think of everything deemed impossible can be done is foolish. Be realistic with what's going on around you and, to repeat it once again, be aware that there are limitations to what a person can do.
Indeed, examples of impossible change over time, but it takes small steps to shatter records or do something for the first time in human history.
Little by little, the days add up to years—and that may end up seeming like it takes less time than you would have thought. But one day, a memory of some small success may come to you, flash suddenly like lightning into your brain, and you will smile and you may even become motivated to recreate that feeling.
Nowadays, we're constantly connected to nagging superiors and the problems of tomorrow thanks to technology. With that notion, take solace in knowing a small measure of peace, a moment in which you feel absolute comfort, can be considered a victory in 2012. Happiness in small doses like that truly stack up, so be thankful for anything you could be thankful for. It will leave your mind at ease.
All in all, living in the present can be boiled down to partitioning your life. At this exact moment, this minute and second of this year, you are reading this sentence. Perhaps you're going on a first date later or you're almost done writing the next great piece of American fiction. Whatever it is, take pride in it. Even if you're life seems to be overrun by work, that means you take it seriously enough to give a damn about what you do.
Or it could simply be that you have a roof over your head.
Waking up every morning, you already have a reason to be thankful—you woke up. And while you may not be in your ideal situation, you are in a situation that has given you a full working day to make it better so that, tomorrow, you can wake up with the gratitude of being alive as well as the things you did yesterday. Repeat it the next day and the next until the day you don't wake up.
You don't have to make a list of everything you're thankful or proud of, but take time to remember it so the next time someone asks you how you are, you can grin and say, from the bottom of your heart, “Great.”