Everyone has heard the phrase “being in the present” but not everyone understands exactly what it means. How can you not be in the present? After all, the present is all that we have. The past has already gone by and the future isn’t here. But even though you might physically be in the present, your mind may be worrying about the past or the future.
Remembering the Past and Worrying About the Future
Let’s say the present moment reminds you in some way of a moment in the past that turned out badly. In that case, you might start worrying that the same thing is going to start happening in the present. In such cases, you’re remembering the past and you’re worrying about the future. So your attention is in these two places and not completely in the present.
Coming Back to the Present
If you come back to the present, you might see several interesting things—the leaves fluttering in the breeze, a girl playing hopscotch outside your window, the hum of people talking in the background, the smell of coffee etc. Many of these things are pleasant in nature, unlike the things you’re choosing to focus on, which are unpleasant in nature.
Rectifying Behavior vs. Worrying
It is interesting how we tend to focus on things that are unpleasant even when we don’t have to. Maybe this starts out as a natural defense mechanism. You want to protect yourself from something bad. So you make it a point to remember that thing and remind yourself about it, thus preventing yourself from making the same mistake again. But sometimes, even when you’ve rectified your behavior and there’s no chance of that thing happening again, you still keep worrying about it.
Let’s say you got into hot water with your boss about being late to work. After that, you made it a point to set your alarm and jump out of bed every morning when it rings. This is a great remedy to the problem which you had. But despite the fact that you know you’re going to be on time, you keep looking at your watch over and over during your commute and worrying about what might happen if you’re late. This is a classic example of remembering the past and worrying about the future even when it’s not necessary.
Gently Shifting Focus Back to the Present
Once you know that you’re not living in the present, you need to remedy this behavior. You need to tell yourself to stop living in the past and worrying about the future. And if necessary, you need to gently shift your attention from past memories to what’s going on around you right now. Don’t nudge yourself with unnecessary force because this will have the opposite effect. It will add to your anxiety. Shifting focus gently is key.