According to Nichiren Buddhism, the reason we’re all here is to enjoy ourselves, to be “happy and at ease.” Though this may sound like a license for lasciviousness and hedonism, in reality it’s far from it: enjoying ourselves, as most of us know from experience, is far harder than it sounds. To develop lives in which we can freely enjoy each moment requires far more work—far more self-development—than many would believe. Just what, then, does it actually take?
Freedom from worry
If we’re constantly worrying about the future, how can we possibly enjoy the present? The answer is we can’t. How, then, can we free ourselves from worry? Unfortunately, that answer is a bit more complicated.
First, people whose lives are filled to the brim with anxiety—who seem to feel it for no clear reason or for reasons that most others don’t—may very well be suffering from a full-blown anxiety disorder, one that may require professional treatment, whether therapy, medication, or both. Luckily, however, this group actually constitutes the minority of people: it turns out the majority of us don’t spend the majority of our lives awash in worry. But the majority of us do experience spikes of anxiety when thinking about certain aspects of the future that can easily obstruct our ability to enjoy the present. Part of the problem, according to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow, is that to be fully immersed in the present moment is to be not thinking at all—only experiencing. But Homo sapiens, we now know, evolved to think—and not just about anything, but specifically about the future (being able to think about the future and plan for it provides us an almost unparalleled survival advantage). To learn to enjoy ourselves, then, we don’t want to stop thinking entirely and live only in the moment but rather to think about the future only when it serves us to do so, not when it doesn’t. But how can we learn to do that?
The ability to consciously direct our attention
Our brains are machines in perpetual motion. We don’t ever really stop thinking, even when we’re fully immersed in the present moment. But whether or not we’re experiencing flow depends on whether we’re attending to our thoughts about the present moment or to the experience of that moment. (The “I” that can choose between attending to our thoughts and our experience is separate from both.) That is, we can’t really stop ourselves from having thoughts, but we can stop ourselves from paying attention to those thoughts.
The best way to stop paying attention to thoughts that generate anxiety, however, isn’t by forcibly trying to resist them (studies show this quite reliably and paradoxically magnifies them). Rather, we need to distract ourselves from them. How? With other thoughts that are equally, if not more, attractive. Ideally, whatever activity in which we’re engaging in the present would be distracting enough, but this is clearly often not the case. If we’re repeatedly being distracted by an obsession with a future event or situation that consistently draws out attention away from the present moment, we need to find an alternative thought that distracts us away from that obsession. The alternative thought needs to be both pleasurable and non-anxiety producing. And we can’t just go searching for it when obsessive worry suddenly appears. We need to have it ready. In the same way in the movie Hook that Robin Williams’ grown-up Peter Pan found his best “happy thought”—the one that enabled him to remember how to fly—in a thought about his son, we need to have our own “happy thoughts” at the ready to pull us away from obsessive rumination about the future so that we can enjoy the present.
Freedom from distraction
Though we needn’t experience full-blown flow to be able to enjoy the present moment, enjoying the present moment paradoxically also requires freedom from the “happy thoughts” we use to pull ourselves away from worry about the future. For though we clearly can use the tool of distraction to our advantage to stop ruminating about the future, most of the time we become distracted unconsciously, out of habit. That is, interesting and attractive (or painful) thoughts continually occur to us and draw our attention without our realizing it. But just as we would train ourselves to stop biting our nails by noticing when we do and making ourselves stop, we only need to consciously recognize we’ve been distracted from experiencing the present moment to return our attention to it. Of course, if part of us is consciously on the lookout for moments in which we become distracted, that part of us will also retard our ability to become fully immersed in and thus enjoy the present moment. Perhaps the best way out of this paradox is to spend just some of our time learning to recognize when our attention has been pulled away from the present moment and to practice gently returning it—because the more we practice this, the more likely we’ll be able to do so out of habit without having to consciously monitor ourselves to see if it’s happened.
Enjoying our present moments may seem like something that should happen naturally and require no effort, but in fact it’s often quite difficult. People who meditate know that practice focusing on the present can improve the ability to do it—as well that it’s practice worth doing. Though much joy can be had in contemplating our future, too much rumination about it can compromise our ability to enjoy the life we actually live.
-Alex Lickerman is an internal medicine physician at the University of Chicago who blogs at Happiness in this World. He is the author of The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self.