The search for happiness is like an Easter egg hunt. We seem to always be looking for it. But the moment we find it, we’re convinced there’s a bigger and better prize tucked away somewhere around the corner. Imagine though, that instead of searching all around for that happiness, we looked down at the table before us to find a basket full of eggs.
Suddenly we’d realise that all our frantic searching was a waste of energy. What we’d been looking for was right in front of us. The basket of eggs is the happiness and joy that we tap into by developing an alert awareness of the present moment. It’s always here and always available. Yet we seem to have a hard time looking down and finding it.
So why do we spend so much time and energy avoiding the present moment? Well, it’s how our brains work. We’re conditioned to be thinking all the time. And that’s a hard thing to stop due to the fact that, for many of us, it’s the only way we’ve ever known.
The good news is that we can train ourselves to come back to the moment. There are simple techniques that allow us to create awareness at any given moment. Below I share 4 questions I often use to help me do just that. The first step to using them is identifying when and where we tend to drift from the present moment. And that takes a little practice.
En route to happiness
The train was meant to leave 20 minutes ago, but we’re still waiting at the platform with no information. People are checking their watches anxiously. Strangers who would usually ignore one another lean over and ask what the problem might be. It’s the middle of the work week and people are getting frustrated.
I have a meeting that starts in 45 minutes and I need at least 15 minutes to cycle there once I arrive at my final stop. What’s the hold up for? I can feel something inside the pit of my belly beginning to tighten. It rises up and makes me flush with anxiety.
Finally, the conductor announces our delay over the tannoy.
‘Sorry for the delay. Nothing is wrong with the train but there are two swans on the track. We’re waiting for them to leave safely and then we’ll continue with our journey.’
Laughter. People don’t seem to mind the delay so much. Safe in the knowledge that there really is nothing I can do to speed up the situation, I sit back and relax. The swans will do as they please. All I can do is appreciate the time I’ve been given.
This was a quick turn of events. One moment I was filled with anxiety and frustration about the way thing were going. And then I was able to let go and accept the situation for what it was. That moment was liberating.
How to hack your way to the present moment
In my experience, there are three basic reasons that we struggle to accept the present moment:
- There is a nagging feeling that now isn’t the moment you want. There is a better one waiting for you at some unspecified moment in the future.
- The feeling that now is not happening as you’d hoped. The present is disappointing.
- The idea that a moment in the past was better in some way. We call this nostalgia. It’s seductive because we’re good at selectively remembering the good bits.
If I think about the story of two swans on the train track, there was a moment that changed my perception. When the conductor explained our delay, my mindset shifted. These kinds of trigger moments can help reorientate us back to the present moment. And they can be engineered to happen more often.
Below are some questions I’ve used to help me centre myself; if you find yourself looking everywhere for Easter eggs but never finding any, trying asking them.
1. What’s your process?
You have less control over the world than you think. It’s great when our plans work out as we’d imagined but we can’t rely on that. Because often it won’t go our way. Unexpected outcomes, good or bad, are always happening.
In practice, I find that being in the moment means focusing on process over outcome. When I get caught up in outcomes, I begin to daydream. I get lost in what might be or what could have been. When I turn my attention to just doing my best, I’m back in the moment. That’s what process is about.
2. What lesson can I learn?
Life can be crappy. It’s not all sunshine and roses. So that can sometimes make the present moment a bitter pill to swallow. Does that mean we shouldn’t take the medicine? Not at all. You see, the more I go through life’s ups and downs the more I begin to realise that everything is teaching me something.
This isn’t me advocating apathy or complacency. Far from it. If your boss is taking you for granted, by all means, go and get another job. Just don’t forget that each twist and turn in our story makes us into who we are. Without this moment you can’t become who you are tomorrow.
3. What’s in your blind spot?
When I sit to meditate I realise just how busy my mind is with ideas. I’m always conceptualising and analysing. There have been a few rare moments when I’ve been able to strip all that back and just be. And what’s left is a calm and content feeling I can only describe as joy. It’s always there right in front of me but it seems to exist in a blind spot that my mind covers up with thought.
Trying to be in the moment means uncovering the joy that I have right here already. When I do that (or at least try to do that) I’m happy with what I’ve got and who I am.
4. What else do you have?
Sometimes it seems like life deals you a crappy hand. You might feel powerless or left wanting. For example, when winter rolls around and I get a cold, I always remind myself that I don’t appreciate good health enough when I have it. Sometimes the cold develops into the flu and I remind myself how I didn’t appreciate that cold when I had it.
The thing is, where ever you are now, whatever you have, that’s it. That’s all you have right now. In blunt terms, all you have is the moment you’re living in and nothing else. The rest of it is just conceptual. Take a deep breath, accept all the aches and pains, and say thank you for the sweet sensation of oxygen filling your lungs. That’s all there is to it.