The answer is that we can’t. We can only live in today, in the present moment. No matter how hard we spend our time thinking of yesterday or tomorrow, we inevitably come back to where we are right now.
For example, you may be reading this article absorbed in its words, then something in your external environment may distract you. It may be your child playing in the next room, or the sound of a lorry driving past on the road, or even the slight patter of rain as it begins to fall.
It doesn’t matter what the event is, because it all has the same effect – to bring you back to where you currently are right now.
Yet despite the fact that we can only ‘exist’ in today, many of us worry about the past and the future. We worry about what happened in our yesterdays, and we worry about what may happen in our tomorrows. We can worry so much that ‘today’ may not seem to matter much at all.
We Focus On The Past And The Future
Here’s a wonderful saying from Babatunde Olatunji:
“Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. And today? Today is a gift. That is why we call it the ‘present’.”
This saying is so beautiful and so true, and yet we often disregard the meaning of these words and focus on ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’. We prefer to focus on what has taken place in our lives and what is yet to come.
For example, we may feel anger over a bad encounter with a work colleague that happened last week, or we may look forward to a comedy festival that’s taking place two months from now. We can feel a whole host of emotions over a whole range of things that have either already happened, or are yet to happen, but why?
But why do we do this? Why do we shun the gifts that each ‘today’ gives us?
Our Desire For Perfection
I believe it’s because we long to feel ‘perfect’. We wish to experience a sense of happiness and bliss within ourselves, and will do whatever we can to experience these feelings. We’re constantly searching for this, even if we don’t consciously realise it. This works with both memories from the past, and anticipations of the future.
For example, if we really enjoyed something in the past, then we will repeatedly ‘relive’ it in an attempt to recapture the feel-good sensations that we felt back then. That memory serves as a ‘drug’ to make us happy whenever we need it.
On the other hand, if we remember a negative memory, then we’ll stew over that memory and what went wrong, because it was ‘less than perfect’. Even though we can no longer change anything about it, we still replay the memory in our heads in order to find where we went wrong, and vow to correct it in the future.
With the future, if we think of something good to come such as a vacation, then we’ll focus on that and the happiness that the event is sure to bring. We may even ‘count down’ the days before it arrives, and constantly tell ourselves that it’s going to be wonderful.
If we aren’t looking forward to something in the future, then we’ll imagine how bad it’ll be. So we heighten our sense of gloom, and focus on what is going to be bad about it. We may even find ways to avoid it altogether.
This is why we spend so much of our time in the past and the future – because we look for perfection there.
Detach Yourself From The Past And The Future
In order to find that bliss and perfection that we seek, we must know that we can only find it in one place – today.
The past no longer matters because it’s done, it’s dead, and it can’t be changed no matter how much we wish it. The future doesn’t matter because it hasn’t happened yet, and never will. There will always be a tomorrow, no matter how fast we try to live our days. So it’s important that we detach ourselves from the past and the future and ‘anchor’ ourselves in today, in the present moment.
This isn’t to say that we should completely disregard the past and the future. The past has a lot of information which we can still use, and the future must be prepared for, if not for us then for our future generations. But it’s one thing to have an awareness of the past and the future, and another thing to be ‘attached’ to them.
When we worry about the past or the future, we are attached to that worry. We have identified ourselves with it. Our sense of time becomes distorted as we take on more than one day at once – we have to deal with ‘today’ and the days that we worry about.
Our minds aren’t designed to effectively deal with more than one day at once, so we stress. We fret and strain ourselves through our self-inflicted torture.
To have an awareness of the past and the future simply means to acknowledge their existence, nothing more.
How To Truly Live In Today
How can we detach ourselves from the past and the future? How can we truly live in today? Here are 3 pieces of advice which have worked for me, and I believe can work for you too:
- Notice your surroundings
No matter where we find ourselves, we are always surrounded by our immediate environment. If we’re out in the town, then the shops and other people will surround us. If we’re in our kitchen, then our kitchen appliances and the sunlight coming in through our window will surround us. Whatever it is, notice these surroundings.
Take note of what surrounds you right now. For me as I’m typing this, I notice the curtains in my room, my laptop, my hands that are typing, my bed, the garden outside, my phone, and many other things. I notice them without judgement, accepting each item as it is.
I want you to do the same – notice everything around you in turn, and don’t think of something else. Don’t think of the mess that needs clearing up or a task that needs to be done. Just spend time noticing your surroundings.
- Listen to those you meet
When we’re with other people and they’re talking, how often do we listen?
Unfortunately, we don’t seem to listen that much at all. We may be nodding, but our minds may be thinking of financial worries, or we may be waiting for the other person to finish their sentence so that we can jump straight in with what we have to say. None of this is true ‘listening’.
In order to truly listen to someone, we must be in the present. We must really hear what they have to say, and not be distracted by our worries. Hang on every word, and give them the freedom to say what they wish, without judgement. By truly listening, you remain in the present with each passing word.
- Focus on what has to be done today
Each day, we have a number of things that we need to do, or that we’d like to do, or simply that we could do.
So it’s amazing that we have a tendency to squeeze more than one day’s work in on the same day. We insist on trying to do everything we possibly can within a day, even though there is no need to. I believe we do this because of that need for ‘perfection’, that need to control what happens to us. Unfortunately, we will never have that control.
Focus on one day’s work at a time, rather than a number of days at once. Find all that needs to be done on that day, and nothing else. If something can be put off, then do so and replace it with something else that is more urgent. Once you know what work is the most urgent, then do it. Focus on that, and nothing else.
Tomorrow’s work is for tomorrow – to try to overload yourself with work is to harm yourself. Focus on today’s work alone.
The Gift Of Now
Today is a gift – it is the only time we really have. To ignore the miracle of today and focus on the past or the future is to deny yourself the chance to find that perfection which we all seek.
Give yourself the gift of ‘true living’ by being in the present moment. All we have is today – the rest doesn’t truly exist.