Several years ago, my good friend Alex went to a Buddhist monastery in Thailand to practice mindfulness and meditation for one year. She spent most of her time there in silence, either performing chores around the monastery or simply sitting and being in the moment. Her time in the monastery was meant to help her learn how to keep her mind focused on a deliberate awareness of the present moment. During meals, for example, she was taught to think three times about everything she did: “lift the fork, lift the fork, lift the fork,” “take a bite, take a bite, take a bite.” You get the idea.
Alex learned a lot during her time in the monastery. She learned how to let things go, how to slow down, and most importantly how to stay connected to the present moment in a way that few people can. But the experience was not all positive. After weeks turned into months of sitting, silence, and austere conditions, she felt her sanity slipping away and had to leave before her year was completed.
I was suitably impressed by Alex when she told me this story. The importance of a single-minded focus on the present moment is espoused by new age self-help gurus like Eckhart Tolle (The Power of Now), mindfulness experts like Jon Kabat Zinn (Wherever You Go, There You Are), and has even been the subject of this very column (Breathing Lessons, Winter 2007). But personally, the idea of staying connected to the present moment for weeks or for months at a time, while impressive, seems somewhat out of reach for my restless mind. Is “being present” really all that it’s cracked up to be?
According to Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness and the founder of Positive Psychology, “the present moment is overrated.” His research on human happiness suggests that happiness does not happen in the “now” but is a function of our past and future. Those who show the highest satisfaction with life have a sense of gratitude and appreciation for their past, a sense of meaning about their personal accomplishments, and a sense of hope and optimism when anticipating the future.
Even “flow,” defined as a form of complete engagement in what one is doing (as coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the book of the same name) is not a state that exists solely in the present moment. This kind of full engagement happens when we feel ourselves doing something now that will develop our future selves. Hedonistic pleasure can be found in the moment, but flow happens when we work toward something meaningful and feel challenged to learn and grow.
The benefits of mindfulness practices may have less to do with “the power of now” and more to do with training our minds to focus on anything, whether it’s the present moment, or what we had for breakfast that morning, or contemplating our own belly buttons. Meditation and other mindfulness practices teach us how to focus our attention voluntarily toward what we want or value, rather than having it pulled toward what we fear or regret. This helps us to focus on the good moments from our past rather than ruminating on the bad ones. It allows us to avoid worrying about the future, and instead develop goal strategies around the things we are hoping for. The discipline around such a practice helps us to avoid unhealthy impulses and to lead a more purposeful life.
Maybe mindfulness needs to be redefined. Perhaps it is not only an awareness of this present moment, but rather an awareness of how this moment relates to our past and future. After all, the past is but a collection of former present moments, and the future will be determined by how we choose to spend this moment. So what would a mindfulness practice look like if it wasn’t focused on the present? Consider sitting quietly and meditating on these ideas:
- What do you most appreciate about your past?
- What are you grateful for now, and what are the circumstances from your past that brought you these things?
- What are you looking forward to in the future? What are you hoping for? What are you doing now that will make your hopes a reality?
As for my friend Alex, she recovered quite nicely from her monastic experience and continues to be one of the most grounded people I know. There are many benefits to practicing being more mindful, more aware, and even more present. But don’t forget where you came from, and don’t forget where you are going. Don’t forget the power of before and after.