It’s tradition that every summer when I visit my family in New York, my cousins and I go to the Poughkeepsie county fair. As kids, this was the highlight of summer. We would start the night binging on deep fried sweets, and race around the fair on a mission to find every ride that made our stomachs queasy. However, this year, we wanted to make new memories. As we walked around, we spotted a purple tent elaborately decorated with moons and stars. In the center of the tent was a painted palm reading ‘Fortune Teller’. The second we saw the tent we all agreed we had to go in. Deep down in my gut I was terrified. I grew up in a household where glasses of water were left on the windowsills to ward off evil spirits. There was no way I going to mess with a psychic. After half an hour of my cousins trying to drag me in the tent and calling me a superstitious freak, I eventually gave in. “It’ll be fun,” they said. The second I walked in I instantly felt a horrible vibe.The psychic was an elderly lady with curly silver hair. As soon as I sat down she grabbed my palm with her clammy hands and began tracing the lines of my palm with a half smile that sent chills down my spine. At the end of the reading she said I’d live a long fulfilling life with the love of my life whom I supposedly had already crossed paths with.I found that hysterical, there was no one I crossed paths with in high school that I actually considered a future with. But what she said next made my stomach churn. She said I would experience a horrible and horrific accident in the near future. Suddenly, I felt as if my whole world was collapsing. But she just squeezed my hand and murmured “Everything will all be well, don’t worry,” as if she wasn’t the cause of all the grim thoughts that were flooding my head. The following weeks and months were torture. Every time my mom came home later than expected, or there was a major accident on the expressway, I’d drive myself insane. What if this was what the psychic was talking about? I soon realized I had two choices: I was either going to live an extremely cautious life filled with worries or I was going to be in control of my life and make my own choices. I wasn’t going to allow myself to waste a minute more of my time worrying about the predictions of a random palm reader because in reality, people can’t control their fate.
We as a society need to focus more on the present to achieve fulfillment or we risk losing control of our lives. Worrying about the future or the past has proven to create stress. In 2013, the American Medical Association stated that stress is the basic cause of more than 60 percent of all human illness and disease. Many ask how do they stop themselves from creating all these unnecessary consequences? In order for us to focus on the present we must understand why we distract ourselves by living in the past and future, then find a solution to our problem and develop habits to solve it.
Society has become too accustomed to saying “What if?”. We are fixated on imagining how life would be if things had been different. I can’t express the amount of times I’ve wondered how my life would be like if only I had taken more risks or opportunities. I always wonder what if I had begged my parents to go to marriage counseling to work things out rather than staying out of it? Would they still be together? Would we be happy and living under the same roof? Unfortunately, we think changing the past will miraculously change what our lives our like today. We try to do so by predicting all the possible outcomes for a situation. I’ve always imagined that if my parents had stayed together we’d probably go on those fun family road trips you always see in the movies, my mom would probably work less too since we’d have two incomes rather than one and maybe she’d still cook family dinners like she used to before it became a hassle rather than a joy. We often create situations to how the way things should have gone based on feelings of regret. In psychology, the concept of counterfactual thinking describes mental stimulations regarding alternative endings to life experiences. Research done by the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health has shown that counterfactual thinking engages the brain's default network (DN). Marcus Raichle, a neurologist from Washington University, states “We now understand it as a special network in the brain that, paradoxically, is more active when we are not involved in a goal-directed task.” Practicing counterfactual thinking wastes time and creates lost opportunities because our intentions are never to make our thoughts a reality but to settle for imagining they are, which hinders any improvement we could potentially make in our lives. Engaging in counterfactual thinking creates a favorable alternative life that will distract us from reality and cause us to lose control of our lives.
Every moment of your life is lived for the future. We spend too much of our time invested in the future, worrying about a time that doesn’t exist. We do this to the extent that we plan out our lives to every precise detail. Did you know that from the beginning of human existence until around 12,000 years ago, the average person lived to be about 30 years old? If you were lucky you’d have about 10 years of adulthood and then after that you lived life to its full extent, because time wasn’t guaranteed. There was no planning for a career or planning for retirement. The logic was why plan for a time that wouldn't arrive? But as humans evolved, the lifespan has gotten longer and a future is now inevitable. We assume certain situations are inevitable due to the fact that we never attempt to work towards altering our future. We fail to create change. We fail to improve our lives because our old habits hinder any progress. We are so accustomed to falling into the same routine of ensuring our future is going to be stable, then focusing on how it is now.
But if our society is built on future assumptions so how can we not focus on the future? One reason is that our lifespans are longer than ever before so we feel the need to plan out our lives more. An excerpt from the book, Peace is Every Step, written by Vietnamese Buddhist and Monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, states “We are very good at preparing to live, but not very good at living. We know how to sacrifice ten years for a diploma, and we are willing to work very hard to get a job, a car, a house, and so on. But we have difficulty remembering that we are alive in the present moment, the only moment there is for us to be alive.”
So what does this say about society? Society is built on gambles and assumptions. Our lives are guided and determined so much by time and limits that we believe we only have a small amount of time to accomplish what feels like so much. We are pressured to live life in a cautionary manner in fear of the possibility of failure. To achieve fulfillment and happiness we need to stray from society’s ideals and focus on our own by living in the present.
By living in the present we live to the fullest but how can we truly achieve this?
We need to understand that the only aspect of time that will ever change is the present. When you learn to live in the present, you live life as it’s happening. A study done by psychologists from Harvard University found that people spend nearly half their time (46% of their day) thinking about something other than what they are actually doing. The study collected data on the daily activities, thoughts and feelings of 2,250 volunteers to discover how often they were focused on what they were doing, and what made them most happy. The psychologists concluded that reminiscing, thinking ahead or daydreaming tends to make people more miserable, even when they are thinking about something pleasant. By practicing mindfulness we can prevent this. Practicing mindfulness means practicing our awareness in all our actions. Whether we’re driving to work or making coffee in the morning, our mind should be focused on whatever we’re doing. We are not thinking about the bills we have yet to pay, or the phone call we need to make when we get to the office. We are simply living in the moment.
We have to practice our awareness in all our actions by creating short-term goals and ambitions. One of the biggest misconceptions for living in the moment is that you will be living wild and reckless but this isn’t the case. We can practice awareness by setting realistic goals that can be accomplished day by day. If changes want to be made they should be done now. Tasks should never be set aside for a better moment because every moment is a good one. The benefits of doing this include eliminating the inevitable stress that comes with procrastination or dragging things out to the last minute.
Not living in the present restricts the potential we have within us and prevents success. Living in the moment means creating realistic ambitions and realizing that your mind is the only thing keeping you from living in the present. In order to achieve this, we must take chances; a lot of them. In the end no matter how the puzzle pieces fall and where you end up, it always ends up just the way it should be. Your mistakes make you who are. You learn and grow with each decision you make. Everything is worth it because every moment is worth living. We should always say how we feel, be ourselves, and enjoy our lives for what it is instead of worrying about what it isn’t.