“Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.” ~Oogway
This is one of my favorite quotes and it comes straight out of Kung Fu Panda. I tried to research where it really originated but there was no clear consensus, so Master Oogway gets the credit.
Nothing can be further from the truth of this quote. When you think about the cause of stress in your life, very rarely is the present moment the culprit. When you’re in the present moment, you’re in the present moment. There is no anticipation, because you’re already there. There is no regret, no doubt, no uncertainty. You are where you are, how you are, as you are. There is nothing to change, to tweak, to alter, to adjust. There is no work. There is only peace.
When you’re not in the present moment, you’re either hanging onto the past or planning for the future. This creates immense amounts of suffering that often masquerades as joy, comfort, or at the very least, familiarity.
You are the cause of stress
I noticed this in myself the other day. I was thinking about all the places I’ve been before and how things were in each of those places. Sometimes I wish I was back in Boulder because I understood Boulder and Boulder understood me. I had a routine in Boulder. I had places to go and people to see. It’s not quite like that anymore, not because I don’t want it to be, but because Tucson is different.
In the moment where I start living in the past, whether I’m regretting something, reminiscing, missing, or dwelling, stress arises almost instantly. Instead of feeling just sad, angry, etc., there is a very good chance your mind will try and fight for the “old way of being.” This creates friction, and takes you constantly away from what is right in front of you, causing stress.
Fast forward to the future and the same thing happens, but with an added dose of dreaded uncertainty. Instead of accepting where you are currently, the future takes you into planning mode, constantly trying to better your life, your self, your situation. I found myself doing this a few days ago as well looking into graduate programs and trying to formulate the next step. Being in the present moment made me feel uncertain, uneasy, bored, scared, because the present moment is all those things. The ego is never satisfies and so it urges you to explore more ways to expand and grow and get away from what it is you’ve got in front of you today. The ego likes to have many friends, rather than a few deep, close, quality relationships.
What the present moment doesn’t have that the past and future do
There is no control in the present moment and this is the very thing it teaches us: How to let go.
The present moment is a gift for many reasons.
- It gives us the space to let go
- It releases us from having to do any work
- It gives us the space to relax and ease into things
- It releases the stresses of the past and the future
- It teaches us how to handle all the emotions that lead us straight into past analysis and future planning.
Notice how I did not qualify or label the emotions that do come up for us in the present moment. I did not say that uncertainty is bad or undesirable because on the surface uncertainty is just what it is. It is our own judgement call to label it a good thing or a bad thing. It is our own lesson in letting go to learn how to live with it as it is without assigning it good or bad status. Once we label, we venture into known territory and easily slip into the familiarity of stress.
When we are unable to sit with that uncertainty of the present moment, we fall into the familiar, stress-inducing past analysis and future planning modes. We invite the stress into our life over and over again because over time that has become what is normal and familiar to us. Relaxation and uncertainty and loss of control becomes the enemy. Stress becomes that one constant in our life we love to hate. Without it, it’s almost as if our life would be meaningless, and so we cling tighter.
Practice stillness to relieve stress
Now if you’re a control freak, I totally understand how the whole concept of “letting go” is far easier comprehended than acted upon. It takes significant practice to sit in the present moment and enjoy it and it’s not something that may come easily or quickly.
The best ways to enjoy the present moment and the lessons it can teach us is to start a stillness practice. Find a silent place and a comfortable position where you can relax your muscles and close your eyes. Find stillness and silence inside. Release tension from the muscles by breathing deeply. Stay still for 10 breaths or more and become aware of what comes up. Emotions, images, thoughts. If you start to move to the past, come back to the present feeling exactly how it is to be in the gift of this moment. If you start to extrapolate into the future, come back to the present using the breath. Continue this stillness practice for as long as feels comfortable for you, working your way up to 15 minutes per day, which can be completed all at once or in smaller chunks. The 10-breath exercise is a great introduction to this stillness practice.
Once you learn how to stay in the present moment, you’ll have inadvertently increased your ability to focus, strengthened your brain and meta-awareness, and automatically reduced massive amounts of stress from your life without any pills, dramatic outbursts or loss of relationships, prized possessions, etc.
Being and staying well is as simple as being and staying still. It’s also one of the hardest things for many of us to do. Start with one breath and see where the present moment takes you.
Talk about the gift that keeps on giving, huh?
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