Updated: Jul 14
According to spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle, "As soon as you honor the present moment, all unhappiness and struggle dissolve, and life begins to flow with joy and ease." Honoring the present moment is one of the primary components of mindfulness practice. But, for many people, Meister Eckhart's claim probably sounds hard to believe. Unhappiness and struggle dissolve and, life is full of joy and ease just by stopping to smell a flower? You may be feeling a bit skeptical.
So, let's play a little game and see if you change your mind...no pun intended.
Find a clean object that you can hold in your hand. Something with a strong smell, like a food item, works best. You will begin by closing your eyes and counting backward by two's from 80 (80...78...76...etc). When you reach 70, lift the object to your nose and continue counting backward while focusing your awareness on the scent of the object. Notice all the nuances of its smell. Notice whether it is sharp or soft, strong or mild etc. all while continuing to count. Stop when you reach 50.
Ok, close your eyes and begin.
Did you notice anything? Was it more difficult to count when you focused on your sense of smell? If so, that is because the brain is not wired for multitasking, especially if noticing our senses is one of the tasks at hand. Therefore, we struggle to focus on smell while simultaneously thinking about counting, or lunch, or dinner or work or school or any of the things that we tend to think about when our minds are left running in idle
Let's play again. This time, count backward by two's from 60 (60... 58... 56... etc.) When you reach 50, continue counting backward but focus your attention on the sounds in your environment. Notice soft sounds (even the sound of your breath) and louder sounds. Notice sounds that are near and those that are farther away.
Ok, close your eyes and begin again.
Not so easy is it?
The present moment (this moment) is experienced through our sensory perceptions - what we see, taste, smell, touch, and hear. Often though, our brains are so busy thinking about other things that we don't notice these experiences. Have you ever stared at the same page in a book for 10 minutes and suddenly realized you haven't read a single word on the page? Or maybe you've had a conversation with someone and, when they ask you a question, you realize you didn't hear anything they just said. That happens because our brains are thinking about what might happen later or what happened earlier, but not noticing what is going on right now - even when it's right in front of us. We get lost in our thoughts and miss out on our lives.
We don't want to be rude to our friends or waste time reading the same page over and over. And, we definitely don't want to miss out on our lives.
So why does this happen?
In a nutshell, it happens because our brains use a specific set of neural networks and brain structures when we experience our senses. But we use different neural networks and brain structures for ruminating about our stresses. The brain can't run both of these programs simultaneously with much efficiency so, when we spend time ruminating, we tend to miss out on most of what's happening around us. Our brains are incredible and complicated, but, as a good friend of mine likes to say, "our brains can be dumb." Seems he may be right.
Unfortunately, we can't just update the hard drive in the brain to make it work more efficiently, but we can use our minds to work around this little glitch in the system. We can override this glitch by intentionally deciding where we want to put our attention so that our brains don't cause us to miss the good stuff.
So, when we have the opportunity to enjoy a delicious meal, a conversation with a friend, or a great piece of music, we have a decision to make. Since our brains are dumb, we have to consciously decide where we put our attention. Will it be the taste of our delicious meal? Or one of the 70,000 thoughts that run through our heads each day. And the truth is, for many of us, these thoughts about:
what already happened,
what might happen,
what we need to do,
what we should have done,
what someone else did,
what someone else said,
are what create most of our unhappiness and struggle.
So, let's read Eckhart Tolle's words one more time.
"As soon as you honor the present moment, all unhappiness and struggle dissolve, and life begins to flow with joy and ease."
Maybe Meister Eckhart is on to something after all.
You might be wondering...does this mean we should sit around eating delicious meals and chatting with friends all day and never plan for the future or work through issues from our past?
It just means we get to enjoy the delicious meal and the conversation and then do the work of living. That way, we get the best of everything.
The poems and "conversation starter" questions in my book Remind Me to Breathe introduce adults, teens and children to the importance of present moment awareness. For example, the poem "Back to Now" reminds the reader that:
Life is here
right now, not then.
So come on back
to now my friend.
See a sight or
hear a sound,
or feel your feet
upon the ground.
Life is here
right now, not then.
So come on back
to now again.
~Remind Me to Breathe