How Being Present Makes Life Worth Living
Life is a struggle, so what makes it worth living? Perhaps we all should accept our flaws and misfortunes? Or maybe we all need to strive to improve, to better ourselves and our circumstances? I’m guessing that most people have a feeling that we could be doing things better. Or perhaps, other things altogether. This ambiguity on how best to live life triggers thoughts that we’re doing things wrong.
In this post I’ll explore how being aware of the present moment can help to address these feelings. No matter how crazy your day is or how stressful life becomes, the act of being present can become a retreat. It’s a technique which is life changing and is simple.
A Practical Philosophy for Living
Philosophy for a Stoic is not just a set of beliefs or ethical claims. Rather it is a way of life involving constant practice and training (or askesis). Stoic philosophical and spiritual practices include:
- Socratic dialogue and self-dialogue,
- Contemplation of death,
- Training attention to remain in the present moment. This is like some forms of meditation, and
- Daily reflection on everyday problems and possible solutions.
Philosophy for a Stoic is an active process of constant practice and self-reminder. Further, most classical philosophical works suggest certain qualities. These qualities help to lead to a life worth living. Examples of these include:
- Self-control, and
For example, for the Epicureans a straightforward, uncomplicated life without physical or mental suffering was important. Epictetus suggested that self-mastery over unhelpful emotions:
when we are upset or distressed, let us never blame someone else but rather ourselves, that is, our own judgements.
Epictetus used a “life is a festival” metaphor:
… life is a unique experience where we have the ability to flourish if only we live according to nature. I enjoy this idea, really, it embodies a great sentiment, which is the idea that we can live a meaningful existence with justice and happiness if only we exert our reason in to extinguish worldly desires, anxiety, greed and prop up our judgement.
Another great source of inspiration is Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. From Book II, Section 14:
Even if you were destined to live three thousand years, or ten times that long, nevertheless remember that no one loses any life other than the one he lives, or lives any life other than the one he loses. It follows that the longest and the shortest lives are brought to the same state. The present moment is equal for all; so what is passing is equal also; the loss therefore turns out to be the merest fragment of time. No one can lose either the past or the future — how could anyone be deprived of what he does not possess?
So always remember these two things. First, that all things have been of the same kind from everlasting, coming round and round again, and it makes no difference whether one will see the same things for a hundred years or two hundred years, or for an infinity of time. Second, that both the longest-lived and the earliest to die suffer the same loss. It is only the present moment of which either stands to be deprived: and if indeed this is all he has, he cannot lose what he does not have.
What all these ideas have in common is being able to acknowledge that ‘you are not the only one to suffer’. Others have suffered even worse and have overcome such suffering. And one of the best ways of changing your thoughts towards this new paradigm is to be present.
Being in the Present Moment
Being in the present moment isn’t easy. Our thoughts create a lot of the problems which aim to pull us from the here and now. If you are present, then external influences will not be an issue. This is because it is only you and not the external forces, in this moment. Other stressors fade away to leave you with a focused awareness. This awareness is conscious moment-by-moment attention to situational elements of your current experience.
But the natural tendency is to make goals and plans to optimise and improve our lives. To try to deal with these external issues, issues which are not under our control. And we feel bad when these goals aren’t achieved. We then seek comfort and distractions to try to take our mind of the disappointment of not achieving these goals. This leads to procrastination which in turn make us feel worse and even more frustrated.
The answer to this problem is to try to detach yourself from the result, from the goal itself and the outcome. Rather spend your time and efforts working on the process itself. Define your worth by your determination and struggles, not if you achieve an arbitrarily created desired result. By linking your self-worth into your effort and to trying your best, then you’ll enjoy the process regardless of the outcome. Your focus shifts from the future, to the present moment.
An associated benefit is that you’ll have a better awareness of your thoughts, emotions, physical sensations and surroundings. You learn to observe the ebbs and flows of experience. Do not judge the experiences and thoughts, don’t try to ‘figure things out’, draw conclusions, or change anything. The challenge during mindfulness is to simply observe. This only requires you to pause for a moment so doesn’t need to take all day, a few seconds is enough. By appreciating yourself, in the present moment, just as you are, without the need for change then you’ll start to appreciate that life is worth living. The fact that you exist at all is simply amazing.
Meditation is a fantastic way to practice being present, only because it removes much of the complexity of the world. It allows you to just learn to be aware of your mind, and to bring yourself back to the present moment. It’s not complicated: you can meditate anywhere, anytime.
But it does, however, need some practise.
Practise, Practise, Practise
As Marcus Aurelius said earlier in this post:
It is only the present moment of which either stands to be deprived: and if indeed this is all he has, he cannot lose what he does not have.
So it is up to us to take ownership of the present moment. Be responsible for the here and now. The past is gone and the future is yet to unfold. So whether you live to an old age or not is almost irrelevant. Focusing on what we have right today and remaining virtuous with what you have, to keep hold of our compassion, piety and empathy for others is what’s important.
Most people don’t learn to be present because they don’t practice, not because it’s so hard to do. When should you start this practice? Today is the day. Find the motivation to start the change, then keep it going. After all Stoicism takes the view that philosophy is not just a set of beliefs or ethical claims. It is a way of life and is an active process of constant practice and self-reminder.
When you practice something a lot, you become good at it. It becomes a habit, a routine and more a way of being rather than an action on your to-do list. Learn to concentrate completely on doing what you’re involved with right now. Pay attention to every component part of what you’re doing. Consider your body, your feelings, your judgements and thoughts. Once you perceive your thoughts then you’ll observe that they’re restless, and they jump for one thing to another. Accept this as you’re not trying to stop this from happening, you just become aware of them. By being present you have a way of pulling yourself back to your current reality. If you can do this once, then you can repeat this many times, if you need to.
And with practice you can find that a peaceful space opens up in the sometimes chaotic ebbs and flows of your life. It can become exhausting at first, if you’re not used to it. Don’t concern yourself about that, just return and practice again in a little while. It’s not meant to be tiring. Rather you should observe how your worries fade away and you enjoy your present activities much more. Be joyful in whatever you’re doing, grateful that you’re able to do whatever task you’re engaged in. Appreciate every little movement and tangible sensation of the task. You’ll learn that anything can be an astonishing experience, anything can be a wonderful.
So, as you go through your day, take a pause and a breath. Are you living your values? Are you enough? Is life worth living? Answer, with an unconditional yes.
How do you stay present? What techniques and routines do you use? Share your thoughts and please consider leaving a comment.
Photo by Mathew MacQuarrie on Unsplash