Why Remain Present When the Present Moment Totally Sucks?
When I first became interested in making meaningful change in my mind, I was struck with a fun little paradox: the main suggestion is to remain in the present moment, yet the present moment seems to suck very hard, most of the time.
No matter. This is the internet age where everybody has something to say. Certainly I could find the answer to this very basic riddle without much effort. There’s definitely some monk out there sitting on a pillow who will give me the answer from behind a calm smile and gentle eyes.
To my dismay, this question seemed harder to answer than expected. There were many suggestions on how to be present at a very basic level (focus on breathing, do body scans, go for a walk, etc), but few seemed interested in explaining why somebody would want to do this in the midst of a true problem. Focusing on my breath might be ok when I’m stuck in traffic, but if I find out I have 4 months to live, it might be a tall order.
Being in the present moment is something of a catchphrase. It’s wheeled out in almost every difficult challenge we might face. Screaming babies, hardship at work, rocky marriages, the despair of depression, facing a critical diagnosis, and everything in between often is given one prescription: remain present.
While this may be the correct advice, conveniently most who say it aloud either:
1) fail to explain how it will help exactly
2) don’t appear to be at that moment staring down the infinity of a crisis
In the end, the solution I found involved more than one area of expertise. Mindfulness, pain research, and neuroscience all have their own unique say in how to solve this problem.
Truthfully, it actually was a monk sitting on a pillow who gave me the first answer from behind a calm smile and gentle eyes. Turns out monks are just really long-winded and their answers are like riddles explained between the lines (or in this case, half-way through an hour long YouTube video).
One glorious day I found Thich Nhat Hanh. Unbeknownst to me at the time, he’s something of a big deal. As in nominated-for-a-Nobel-Peace-Prize-by-Martin-Luther-King big deal. Well known meditation teachers around the world call him teacher. At the time, I just thought it was cool he met Oprah.
He started his talk in the typical way that I’d heard enough times before. The present moment is the only moment where you can find happiness and joy. Again, that works great on a boring Tuesday, but doesn’t fly well at a funeral.
The difference came when we spoke of the second main reason to be in the present moment, which is to solve problems.
You have 3 options
In dealing with anything life throws your way, you can deal with it in any of the following 3 ways:
1) Past thinking
2) Future thinking
3) Present thinking
Past thinking is nothing more than exploring our dusty old shoebox of memories. Sometimes they’re glorious, sometimes they torment us. An example of past thinking might be torturing yourself over a poor decision made in the before times, and lamenting what opportunities you’ve missed out on since then. On a happier note, maybe it’s remembering back to a fun vacation you took with your family. Surely one of those is bad and one of those is good. Right?
The issue is past thinking is that it can only be memories, and our memories are far more abysmal than we realize. For example, perhaps you can bring to mind the logo of Fruit of the Loom as having grapes in it, or a movie starring Sinbad called “Shazaam”. Neither are real, and in fact the [movie doesn’t even exist]. But those are stupid detail things (sorry, Sinbad). Surely you wouldn’t misremember something more important?
The 9/11 attacks are widely considered to be the gold standard of what’s called “flashbulb memories”, defined as memories of a highly surprising or emotionally significant event that are extremely detailed and vivid. Ask most people over 35 and they’ll often tell you about where they were, what they were doing, or how they felt when the attacks happened. Problem is, within 3 years nearly half those memories were wrong. Sending a questionnaire to people a week after 9/11 occurred and then again 3 years later resulted in different answers to 43% of the questions. What people talked about, how the media reported the events, and your mindset at the time all played a role in slightly adjusting your memories.
This becomes something of a problem when we recognize that most people create their entire self-image from their courageous victories, humiliating defeats, and everything in between. There is a high degree of likelihood that while we may have emotional connections (good and bad) to pivotal moments in our lives, those memories are heavily distorted.
You think humans are bad at recounting the past? You should see how shitty we are at predicting the future! I once sat in on a Finance conference (against my will), and the joke that stuck with me from one of the more entertaining speakers was: each year the last half of every finance conference is spent making predictions about the upcoming year, then the first half of the next conference is explaining how we got the predictions so wrong.
We’re dog shit at predicting the future for many reasons, the most common being:
- Biases and expectations: Our predictions are often influenced by our own beliefs, values, and experiences.
- Our dispositions: our general life outlook or present mood can lead to overly optimistic or pessimistic forecasts.
- The complexity of the future: The future is too dynamic a system, with too many factors in play for each tiny event.
- Limited knowledge and information: Our ability to predict the future is limited by the information and knowledge that we have in that moment. If we do not have all of the relevant information or if our understanding of a situation is incomplete, it can be difficult to make accurate predictions. Even those with a high degree of understanding (like my friends at the finance conference) don’t often stand a chance.
For these reasons, we run into a problem when we start to use future thinking to solve problems. “It’ll be better when <event> happens” thinking tends to break down when <event> arrives and it’s not quite what we expect. Meanwhile, “it’ll be worse when” thinking leaves you to exist in a tepid bath of discomfort for years, only to have everything turn out just fine in the end.
We’ve finally arrived at the only option that has the benefit of being real. The one all those latte sipping influencers have been going on about. Behold! The glorious present!
Except it’s not always that glorious is it? We have arrived at our original problem: it’s not always a delightful experience. Sometimes it’s boring, or challenging, or downright painful. It does have one thing that the others don’t though: the ability to enact actual change and solve problems.
As much as saying this makes me feel like I should be wearing a robe, the present moment does have the distinction as being the only moment that offers true happiness. As frustrating as that line is to hear when you’re truly suffering, it’s not wrong. Past and future happy thoughts are usually about a moment you were fully present or they’re a momentary distraction from discomfort (which feels very nice).
It’s also the only time when we can enact change and improve our future rather than run away from it. Just try to find an example of a time you fixed a problem by ignoring it, and you’ll start to see that ignoring problems feels incredible in the short term, but doesn’t technically do anything.
A word of caution
We all run into moments where the present is painful, but for some people the present moment is quite a bit more than that. Survivors of trauma might actively avoid the present moment because it can be too unbearable or frightening, and the risk of re-traumatizing (triggering) is high. Being triggered isn’t just being reminded of a bad time. As far as the body and mind are concerned, it is the bad time happening all over again, so we’d best not screw around. For somebody in such a situation, progress must be made carefully and under the watch of a professional who can foster an environment of safety that is a prerequisite to healing.
If that isn’t you, then it’s time to suit up and talk about pain.
The role of pain
When we talk about the present moment sucking, we are talking about pain. It might be the pain of boredom, heartbreak, loneliness, fury, a pinched nerve, impending job loss, or war.
If you tabled the idea that life is about the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, you likely wouldn’t run into a whole lot of pushback. For most people that sounds like a reasonable way to live and a goal worth moving towards.
Our issue is we often identify the role of pain as a harbinger of suffering, rather than a check engine light alerting us of something being off. A pain-free existence sounds sweet-ass until you hear about the experience of somebody who doesn’t feel it. Only then you begin to realize that pain is a critical part of the machine that keeps us safe in the world. It tells us when we’ve damaged ourselves and need to stop and recalibrate. Without it, we easily run the risk of breaking ourselves further. For those who have become extra skilled at the art of pain avoidance (more commonly the emotional kind), this is a common problem.
This issue arises both in the physical and the emotional. As alluded to when we listed the reasons for pain above, as far as your brain is concerned, pain is pain. The same drugs that block out the pain of a slipped disc can block out the pain of rejection or heartbreak. Taking this into consideration, the blocking of pain–while essential sometimes–can be a massive problem if utilized when unnecessary or used too often.
Pain is also more complicated than we give it credit for. If we hit 10 people on the thumb with a hammer, those 10 people will send 10 very different signals to their brains, and receive 10 very different signals back. How their day has gone, if they’re scared, if they’re confused, or if they’re angry will all play a role in how that pain signal is sent and processed. For many, the single greatest factor in how much something hurts is the lack of clarity around how long the pain might last. So pain exists in your head, which isn’t to say it isn’t real. The entirety of your reality is up there too, so it’s as real as anything.
What can we learn from people who are really good at present moment thinking?
When we talk about people who are highly skilled at present moment thinking, we’re usually talking about master meditators, and when we’re talking about master meditators, we’re often talking about monks. Monks are special in that they often spend inhuman numbers of hours meditating on the present moment, so they give us both an interesting look into what happens when somebody truly buys into this present thinking business, and an idea of what is realistic for those of us who are less than monk-like.
What we can determine is that people who live in the present moment this way can experience life in ways that make little sense to typical people. Their relationship to pain can be quite different, with many studies done on their abilities to withstand great stresses such as extreme cold exposure. Their relationship to emotions like suffering and joy are also fascinatingly skewed from what most of us are used to.
You would be excused for assuming that this hyper-meditation has rewired their brains to not feel pain or suffer in any way. In an interesting turn, the opposite appears to be true. In their book “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body”, authors Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson cite studies that examine the response to discomfort in heavy meditators (monks) vs. non-heavy meditators. Upon being exposed to a device that burns the skin a bit, or exposure to a recording of shrill, panicked screaming, master meditators actually show a stronger response than non meditators. When hooked up to equipment that monitors their vitals, it would appear the heavy-meditating monks “feel” the discomfort more intensely.
The more interesting difference comes in the moments after. Master meditators stabilize almost instantly, while non-meditators can remain in an agitated state long after the event has passed. This type of free-flow can also be seen in their emotional responses, where many who have spent time with monks in various settings speak of them openly weeping at sad stories, only to collapse into fits of laughter moments later at something funny.
Truly, the act of meditating on the present moment for as long as they have has implanted them firmly in it. They’re flexible within the moment and appear to have a heightened feel of whatever comes their way–good or bad. As a result, it would appear both are processed and neither tend to linger.
Where this sucks for you and me
This mirrors our original issue with the present moment: it can be painful in ways we would very much like to avoid. We want to be the laughing monk, not so much the crying one that feels burning and concern more than we already do. But can we be the laughing monk without also being the crying one? It would appear not, as the ability to be one relies on being the other.
It is common to hear many people say that meditation will take the planet by storm. While that sounds nice and I hope it’s true, my hesitancy crops up when I think about stuff like this. At a certain point, the purpose is to feel more than we typically allow. Yes you feel the joy and relaxation should your present moment have that in abundance, but if the present moment is rich with pain, you’re supposed to sit with that in a way that many would find unpleasant. That’s a hard sell.
What we see in the monks raises an interesting answer to the question of how to remain present when the present sucks. Being present is offered up as a tip to help yourself get through a tough spot, but the unfunny punchline is being glossed over: the best way around hard times is generally through them. This is not advice how to get around a terrible feeling, it’s advice on how to live with it.
You’re making a terrible argument
I know but stick with me. Even though past and future thinking seem like blissful ignorance and present thinking is maybe somehow worse than we initially thought, there is one glaring advantage: overall happiness. Conveniently, the cold godless world of neuroscience has much to say about this one.
The Default Mode Network is a network of brain regions that are active when the brain is not focused on a specific task. When you’re daydreaming or mind-wandering, your Default Mode Network is lit up like a Christmas tree.
Is there anything wrong with daydreaming or mind-wandering?
It’s time to pull out psychology’s favourite chestnut: it depends. Largely what matters is why you’re daydreaming or mind-wandering. Do you have something exciting or interesting on the horizon? In that case, go nuts. Are you trying to escape a discomfort in the present moment? In that case, yes, daydreaming becomes something of an issue.
What we must face head-on is a lot more people seem to be using it for the latter. People who show over-active Default Mode Networks in a brain scan (meaning they’re often lost in thought) self-report higher degrees of anxiety and depression. This appears to suggest that while it’s tempting to fire up that default mode network and escape to the past or future, it’s causing long-term damage at the expense of temporary relief.
Cells that wire together, fire together
One of the more common sayings in neuroscience is “cells that wire together, fire together”. This observation (now known as Hebb’s rule) was first tabled in 1949 by Canadian psychologist Donald O. Hebb. At a basic level, it just means as certain pathways fire in the brain, those pathways will trigger easier and easier with use. Imagine it like a musician trying to focus on a difficult piece of music one day, only to find it flowing much more easily the next. Those pathways now fire with less effort, almost automatically.
Hebb’s rule can come into play for all sorts of things, including thought patterns. Somebody who’s prone to dropping back into past thinking or leaping ahead into future thinking will make that transition more seamless each time they partake in a daydreaming session to alleviate their worry. By activating the Default Mode Network and avoiding the present moment, you’re only exciting a network known to contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression.
Thankfully, Hebb’s rule is a two way street. Just as we can train ourselves to take the immediate relief/long term destruction path, we can also train ourselves to see the benefits of present thinking.
The common suggestion to live in the present moment sounds wonderful as a suggestion, and there’s loads of research to back it up as good advice, but that doesn’t make it an easy path to take. Learning to adopt the present moment as a place to willingly exist in is something that takes patience and persistence, because life is full of peaks and valleys.
As neuroscientist Andrew Huberman says: “knowledge of knowledge can allow oneself to intervene”. By understanding how our parts work, we can make more informed decisions about what we choose to avoid, and what we choose to confront. We can make this practice easier on ourselves by understanding some key points:
- The problems you face today can only be properly processed in the present moment.
- The present moment may be the only place joy is accessible, but that doesn’t mean it’s wholly good or wholly bad… it’s more a mirror of what is.
- Understand that pain is a signal to be paid attention to, not ignored.
- To be very good at present thinking means you might actually feel more, not less. While this might be understandably unattractive, people who do this are typically seen as more fluid in their emotions and report less depression and anxiety over the long term.
- Practicing past, future, or present thinking only strengthens the brains tendency to go there in times of strain.