being present

Back in the day, I used to go to loud, crowded, sweaty concerts. It was never really my thing, I mostly hugged the wall and gripped my drink, but a friend in our circle was so into it. One night, jumping around, he turned to me and shouted, “Man, this is my element!”

Obviously, I made fun of him nonstop for saying this, but the kid was right. He seemed very much in his element, thoroughly happy, enjoying the hell out of life. Anytime I think of the phrase “enjoying the process” or “being present,” I think of my sweaty, dorky friend telling me he was “in his element.”

My element looks a little different. Back in college, I loved writing research papers and essays. I loved it so much I actually switched majors so I could write more. Call me a nerd, but I looked forward to clocking out, going home to my laptop, and exploring a new topic all night long.

That excitement faded over the years, especially when I started writing for a living. It became work. I forgot how to enjoy the process because I’m always so worried about things like: 

  • What readers will think of my post
  • Is my editor mad at me
  • What I want to accomplish this year
  • Did I ask a client for too much money
  • Did I ask a client for not enough money

And the list goes on. It’s not just with work, either. In general, it’s hard to balance a restless mind with being present. Focusing too hard on worries, fears, and even goals and aspirations can keep us from enjoying simple things: a laugh with your husband, stupid questions from your kids, a phone call with an old friend.

Yeah, I know. this isn’t anything new.

We all know we need to stop and enjoy the process, live mindfully (whatever buzz phrase you want to give it) but we still have such a hard time with it. It’s such obvious, but it’s so hard to follow. There are times, though, when events outside of your control force you to stop and be present, whether you want to or not.

Recently, I had to say goodbye to my cat, Rudy, and it was as heartbreaking as those things are. She was old and she was in pain, so I had to decide if it was time for her to go or not. If you’ve ever had to make that decision, you know how shitty it is and you know how many questions spin through your head. How long has she been suffering? Should I have done this a long time ago? Am I doing this too soon? Is there still hope? I would ask myself all of these questions, and then I would look at her, and all I could think was, “You’re hurting, and this isn’t fair.”

You find comforting words during times like this and sometimes you don’t understand why they comfort you, they just do. And I found comfort from an online article written by a veterinarian. It was something like: Our pets don’t regret the past or hope for the future, they only know and live in the present. With that in mind, I gave Rudy a bowl of tuna and let her bask in the sun on my lap, then a veterinarian came over and we said goodbye. Rudy lived in the moment, so I wanted her to feel as happy and loved as possible in her last moments.

This is something we all know: living in the present is good. But damn if we don’t need to be reminded of it. And it’s painfully unfortunate that it often takes something tragic for us to heed this reminder. My head is constantly buried in my phone, I fret over social media stats, I think about work nonstop. If only I put that much energy into being in my element.

That’s the thing, though. Being present doesn’t exactly take energy. It’s the opposite: it requires you to stop and slow down, no matter what stressors, obligations, or tasks need to get done. We don’t exactly live in a culture where slowing down is celebrated. It’s a sign of weakness to slow down. You’ll be left behind if you slow down. At least that’s what’s in the back of my head every time I try to stop and be present. I have to consciously remember not to feel guilty for enjoying life, and that’s just silly. The larger problem with this is, we end up in a cognitive tunnel, blind to the obvious stimuli around us because we’re on autopilot. We make poor decisions in that tunnel and get stuck in the same ruts and cycles over and over.

Part of the problem, I think, is that we tend to think linearly. We see the past, present, and future as three very separate concepts that don’t affect each other. So we equate being present with not working toward the future. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that we’re evolved enough to think beyond the here and now. Moving forward is important. However, goals and progress require energy, inspiration, and willpower. For me at least, all of those traits are heightened when I make being present a priority.

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Kristin writes about money, travel, and human behavior at Lifehacker, the New York Times, New York Magazine, and Mentalfloss. She's also written for NBC News, Fox Digital, and Scripps Network Interactive. Her book GET MONEY will be available on 3/27/18 with Hachette Books.