One of my favorite books is The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. Years before reading that book, I had often heard about “being present” or “being in the now,” but I just dismissed it as woo-woo new agey advice that didn’t have much practical use to a productive person. I thought living in the now meant to irresponsibly disregard the future and not worry about tomorrow, as in don’t worry about retirement, your career, paying off debt, etc. I think I got this mistaken idea of what being present or living in the moment meant because I actually had encountered some people who read the book and misinterpreted it and used it as a justification for living irresponsibly day to day without making any mature long-term plans or accepting more responsibility for their future.
When I read Tolle’s other book A New Earth, I found it to be a major game-changer in my life. That made me decide to finally give Power of Now a chance, almost 10 years after I first heard of it. All that time I had prejudged it and dismissed it without actually reading it. The night I cracked it open, I wound up so engrossed that I stayed up until the crack of dawn and finished it in one sitting. The ideas were incredibly exciting and inspiring to me. It turned out not to be what I assumed at all. It was incredibly proactive and carried a philosophy that encouraged taking control and having a strong internal locus of control.
The book doesn’t tell you to disregard the past and refuse to learn from old mistakes, or to disregard the future and refuse to plan for it, although some people have unfortunately taken those messages away from it and used the book to justify laziness or irresponsibility. You actually should ponder the past and the future, but in productive, less obsessive ways than the average person. For example, you can take a mental trip to the past and think about something bad that happened to you, but you don’t stay there. You take whatever lesson you need to learn from that memory and return right back to the present, and ask yourself what you can do right now, at this exact moment with that memory. Is there a lesson you learned from it that you can apply to your current worldview? Say for example you are remembering a heart attack you had that traumatized you. Ask yourself, “what can I do about it now? What lessons can I take from that to incorporate into my current lifestyle? What present actions can I take to correct that past memory?” You can make your next meal a healthy one. You can make a shopping list of healthy foods to eat. You can buy a nutrition book from Amazon.com. You can make an appointment to see your doctor next week to get blood work done to see how much you’ve improved and how much farther you still need to go. If what you’re thinking about from your past is something that you can’t reverse or change or learn from, then you have to resolve to let it go and make peace with it.
Similarly, you may worry about the future. For example, take a retirement that you are way behind on saving for. Power of Now doesn’t instruct you to “be present” in the form of just continuing to stick your head in the ground like a flamingo and ignoring your future security. You should totally think about that retirement down the line. The key is not to dwell on that future circumstance. All you’ll do is build up your fears, feelings of lack of control, and feelings of helplessness. Once you look to the future and realize you want a certain amount of money to retire on and then look to the past and realize you haven’t taken as much action as you should have toward that goal, the key is to come back to the present and figure out what actions you can take now to correct those past mistakes. You can maybe take a part-time job on the side to make extra money to sock away. Maybe you can order a bunch of retirement books and read them cover to cover to become more savvy about retirement so that you can figure out how to make up for lost time. Maybe you can have lunch with ten of your most responsible friends and ask them for advice based on how they approach their own retirement plans. Perhaps you can hire an expert adviser.
There are two very important things you must do when being present. First, you have to break everything down into specific actions, not vague goals (for example instead of saying “I’ll get a new job” you break it down more specifically to “I will apply to two dozen jobs a day, reach out to everyone I know to let them know I’m job hunting, go to one networking event a week, and find an interviewing coach and a recruiter to work with.” Second, the actions focused on must be immediate ones. It’s not enough to just say “the solution is to work out, and I’ll do it whenever the timing is right.” All you’ve done is put your focus on the future again. If you have a valid reason why you can’t work out right now, then focus instead on something else you can do now to be proactive. For example, start eating healthy and researching fitness so that you can put together a daily exercise regimen to follow.
Whether dealing with the past or the future, the key is to always end up back in the present, thinking and acting in the now. I call this tendency of mentally transporting one’s self back to one’s past or forward to one’s future time traveling, and it’s terribly unproductive.
Time travel can either be backward time travel (the past) or forward time travel (the future). It can also be positive (happy images) or negative (miserable) images. This allows us four combinations (the term “time travel” as well as the names of the following combinations don’t actually appear in the book; they’re my personal interpretations of the concepts):
- Negative backward time travel. This is when you keep reliving negative memories in the form of regrets of unfulfilled dreams or scars of remembered traumas.
- Positive backward time travel. This is nostalgia, when you keep remembering happier better times and wishing you could relive them, and comparing your current circumstances to them unfavorably.
- Negative forward time travel. This is when you have fear and dread about the future, and see it as an uncertain, foreboding place. You let your imagination run wild with all the ways the future is going to be worse.
- Positive forward time travel. This is when you have mentally live in some ideal, happier future and deny yourself any enjoyment today as a result. Everything good will be enjoyed in some mythical tomorrow. You’ll finally take a vacation in the future, when the kids are grown. You’ll finally enjoy like when you retire. You’ll spend time with your family once the house is paid off. You don’t enjoy your life now because you think there will always be a better tomorrow for that.
The problem is, experiences always occur as a “now.” Even the future, when it finally arrives, will arrive as a “now.” It’s only “now” that we can control. It’s only “now” that we have any sort of power. The past robs us of our power because it’s unchangeable. The future robs us of our power because we can’t act on it. It hasn’t arrived yet. When people talk about changing their future what they really are talking about is changing something in their present in hopes that it will pay off in the future.
In the case of negative backward time travel, find a way to make peace with those bad memories. For example talk to one of the parties involved, vent, get closure. If not, read self-help books and get a therapist. If those don’t work and can’t help, you may have to just accept that you can’t get closure in those ways and focus on finding fun hobbies to distract you instead, and make peace with that lack of closure and forgive yourself anyway.
In the case of positive backward time travel, find a way to recreate good memories now. Maybe have guy’s night out or girl’s night out with your old friends once a month, or plan a vacation with them annually. Maybe find activities that allow you to make new friends and new social memories. Or if your nostalgia is something you can no longer recreate, then look for the ways that your current life is better than your past life and appreciate those on a daily basis.
In the case of negative forward time travel, figure out the very worst that can happen to you if your fears were to come true. Then figure out what you can do now to make sure that you can bounce back from that. If the worst that can realistically happen to you is that you get laid off and are out of work for a year, you can figure out what a year’s worth of expenses are and start saving that up by getting a side job and cutting expenses. Now you have a cushion. Or you can put extra energy into finding new work now or opening up your own business.
In the case of positive forward time travel, don’t stay so focused on an ideal better tomorrow that you let your whole life pass you by without enjoying it. There is rarely ever a “perfect” time to open that business, have that child, take a vacation, retire, etc. That’s not to say be reckless and just spend carelessly or quit your job without any feasible plan. But don’t hold out for a “perfect” time that may never come, using that as an excuse not to live life.
The lesson is that time traveling robs you of your power and sense of control. Being present helps you regain them. Your end destination should always be now.
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. I can’t speak highly enough of this book. It’s one of those books that you either get, and it changes your life, or you totally don’t, and you’re unimpressed. I’ve rarely seen a middle ground reaction from people I know. Hopefully you read it and fall into the former camp.