I’m driving through London and my tummy hurts. Still. It’s been 5 months of illness now and although I am out of the house and stronger, the pain remains firmly present. I struggle to think about anything else as the traffic comes and goes, the horns, the noise, the London hubble bubble. I’m going to visit a little puppy – a potential companion, best friend, housemate. I’m not as excited as I should be – how can I look after a pup when I struggle to look after myself?
As my thoughts flow rapidly, I realise that the majority of this year has been spent ‘not in the present moment’. Worrying, wondering if I’ll ever feel well again, thinking about past decisions, writing letters to surgeons in my head, imagining a pain-free future – and one that is not. I return in my mind to India – what was so different there?
Well first I had to speak on stage – 5 times! And there’s nothing like public speaking to hundreds to kick-start living in the present moment. Your brain is in gear (in my case as much as possible under the circumstances!), the audience awaits, and every single second counts. And then on to my lovely retreat. There were so many things at the magical Shreyas that were conducive to healing, physically and mentally: the peace, the nature, the doctors, the kindness, the yoga, the meditation, the breathing, the food, the Ayurvedic treatments. Yet looking back, despite being quite unwell at times and in bed for much of it, I was mentally strong. Why?
One of the reasons, I think, is that I was living in the present moment. I turned off my phone. Since it was a holiday nothing was expected of me work wise. I practiced breathing (for an hour at a time and my mind didn’t wander once!). I meditated. I read. I ate and talked. And I ‘accepted’. I didn’t wish it to be otherwise (strangely), I ran with how lucky I was to be in such a special place, regardless of my health. I lived in the moment.
Research by Elyssa Barbash, trauma psychologist, says that ‘depression lives in the past and anxiety lives in the future. Alternatively, calmness and peace of mind live in the present.’ This has certainly been true of my experiences.
However, research from the Journal of Research in Personality has shown that it is not just those more constant states of negative emotion such as anxiety and depression that can be reduced by present moment awareness – it can also help to relieve the stresses of daily life, regardless of your broader mental state. This means, mindfulness and present moment awareness is for everybody. It is a day-to-day tool that can help us stay calm and have greater control of our emotions.
So back to the UK… I can’t deny London is not so conducive to healthy living as my beautiful Indian haven. I started with breathing each morning. This has helped, for sure. I’ve tried to remain in the present moment… but I’ve struggled. The worries have returned, the daily challenges surround me. And there I was walking through the door of a basement flat in London to meet a little dog and my mind was anything but present. I was concentrating on my fears about never feeling better, how this would impact my care of the puppy, whether I would be able to take care of him at all… all things in a hypothetical future that may never happen.
Now it does turn out that I am not the only one whose mind works like this. A University of Harvard study has shown that, on average, we spend 46.9% of our waking hours focusing on something other than what we are doing. Two of my favourite researchers, Matt Killingsworth and Dan Gilbert write ‘a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.’ As humans, we have developed in a way that means our minds are constantly wandering, regardless of what we are doing – our minds are pervaded by the non-present. And yet, we are happiest when we are truly in the present moment.
So back to my visit and my meeting with little Archie… a black Lab, 4 weeks old, with gooey eyes, tiny sharp teeth, and a face that touched my heart so deeply all concerns melted away. An hour later, I had thought of nothing but Archie. The pains, the outside world, the worries, the despair, they’d gone. I was in a present moment bubble with my new little friend.
As I drove home I thought about, despite trying hard, not enough of my time was spent in the present moment. I no longer had hobbies that nurtured this. My time was all too often spent poring over my to do list, making plans, concocting contingencies, waiting to ‘feel better’, sorting the future. Tick, tick, tick.
And whilst, it seems, this is entirely within human nature, it would be so much more beneficial to be asking – what of this very moment?
‘The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly.’
So, Archie is arriving chez moi in 3 weeks time. There will be challenges I know, but he will bring love into my home and he and I will spend time living in the present moment together. So what can you introduce into your life that takes you into the moment? What hobby, activity, joyous pastime demands your attention in a delightful way? Something you loved when you were a child perhaps? If only Archie could play scrabble then I’d be really sorted. Do you think I could train him?!