There is a saying among therapists that depression is about the past, and anxiety is about the future. Think about that statement for a moment. When I first heard it in a seminar I was taking about Mindfulness Therapy I thought it was rather profound, and I still do.
Many of us spend a great deal of our time either reliving the past or trying to anticipate the future. Reliving the past often tends to create thoughts about how we could have done things differently, or better. Maybe we shouldn’t have done this or that, or if only we had done something else things would be better. While it is sometimes useful to review the past for the purpose of learning and improvement, undue dwelling on the “if I had only’s” or “should have’s” often leads to feelings of remorse, regret or dissatisfaction – and these are the roots of depression.
Similarly, trying to predict the future often causes stress. Examining the “what if’s?” takes a great deal of energy, and usually yields little return as we human beings are notoriously bad when it comes to predicting the future. This is not to say that we should not consider the possible consequences of our actions. We just should not become paralyzed in the analysis. When we get stuck in such analysis we move closer to the edge of anxiety.
So, how then can we possibly grow and achieve our goals, if not by remaining aware of our past, and conscious of the possibilities the futures hold. While the answer is not intuitive to most, there is a middle ground. That middle ground is focusing on the present.
What is living in the present?
Living in the present is not about wearing blinders. It’s about focusing on what is important right now, and accepting reality for what it is right now. Doing so allows us to focus and connect intensely to our current situation, without the distractions of the past and future.
You may be thinking that this is counter to strategic thinking and planning. This is not the case. In fact, by concentrating on the present and eliminating the distractions offered by preoccupation with past and predicted events, you are more capable of strategic thinking. We can become more focused and creative, and more able to recognize the least path of resistance to achieving our goals.
How can you possibly recognize the past, plan the future, and still intensely focus on the present? The answer lies in radical acceptance.
What is radical acceptance?
Radical acceptance goes far beyond acknowledgment. When something bad happens to us, we can usually acknowledge that it happened, and may even understand “why” it happened, or “what” it means. However, such acknowledgement does not necessarily yield greater understanding of the event, nor does it usually take away the intense feelings that usually accompany a tragic event, such as pain, guilt, anger, depression, etc.
When we radically accept an event, even a tragic event such as the death of a loved one or other trauma, we go far beyond acknowledgement and understanding. We stop attempting to make sense of the event, and yield to it. We accept the event without judgment or comparison to what we wish things were like. We drop our delusions of how we would like the world to be, and accept the world as it is.
In order to achieve radical acceptance we must often let go of attachments that cloud our judgment. These attachments can be emotional, mental, or physical. They can be ideas or paradigms, people or things, or even feelings. In doing so we can learn to accept the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. This is radical acceptance. This is living in the present moment.
How does living in the present help us be more successful?
The most obvious outcome of living in the present is increased awareness of self and of our world. This increased awareness is accomplished through radical acceptance of our reality through the removal of judgments, preconceptions and paradigms.
In radically accepting our reality, we begin to observe, describe and participate in our reality more effectively. We no longer attempt to bend reality to our will, but learn to accept reality and adapt to it in order to achieve our goals. In this way we struggle less and achieve more.
The process of achievement through acceptance can be likened to following a map. If you are traveling from one place to another using a map, and the map shows a large mountain in your path, you can’t simply ignore it or make it go away for your convenience. You must acknowledge that a mountain is in your way and prepare for its crossing; otherwise you will likely be delayed in reaching your objective… if you ever reach it at all.
Likewise, if your preconceptions and judgments of what reality should be cloud your perceptions about what reality is, you will suffer the same fate as you would ignoring that mountain on the map. You must accept reality for what it is if you want to achieve your goals as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Three ways to learn to live in the present
1. Train your mind. Take time out each day to meditate. The act of meditation trains your mind to release judgment and achieve calm. Both are keys to acceptance.
2. Recognize that the map is not the territory. Each of us has our own map of reality. These maps are created from our value, beliefs and past experiences, but do not necessarily accurately reflect the reality around us. Learn to question your map, and consider other possibilities. Doing say may result in a more accurate map.
3. Recognize the causal nature of things. Everything has a cause. This is a fundamental law of nature. Our actions, and those of others, have consequences. In many cases these consequences are within our ability to control. Learning to work within the confines of these consequences, rather than challenge and attempt to change them, is a fundamental part of living in the present.