It is hard to be still. Really hard. A lot of us struggle with it, including me. Our modern world is always in motion: phones ringing, texts chirping, social media constantly ablaze. Then there is work, childcare, commuting, meal planning, loving and supporting others, and a million other things that make up this little thing called life. You would think that with a world brimming with activity that we would embrace stillness, and be able to easily slow down and quiet our minds.
But the opposite is often true; we can’t slow down. When we try, our minds whirl, seeking something to latch onto rather than be in the present moment. We avoid uncomfortable feelings by numbing or distracting ourselves. Or we get stuck in our own heads.
Where Do Our Thoughts Go?
In his book, The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle argues that humans spend most of their time identifying with the past or the future. We fret about the past and relive painful moments, and we worry about potential suffering in the future. He calls this the “time dimension.” When we spend our energy focusing on the past or the future, we get trapped in the time dimension and lose sight of the “now,” the present moment.
To escape the time dimension, he advises that we withdraw attention from the past and the future, and one way to do this is to start observing our thinking. “Whenever you are able to observe your mind, you are no longer trapped in it,” he writes. Even something as simple as recognizing that you are dwelling on the past or future brings presence into our lives.
“Clock Time” and “Psychological Time”
He goes further and breaks the time dimension up into two categories: “clock time” and “psychological time.” Clock time is when we use our mind for the practical aspects of day-to-day living. Clock time includes making an appointment, learning from a past mistake so as not to repeat it, or making a decision based on past experiences. Psychological time is time spent dwelling on the past or the future. While using clock time is an unavoidable part of our lives, psychological time does not have to be. The less that we use psychological time, the easier it is to focus on the present and be still. I’ve found presence and stillness to be the missing ingredient in self-care.
It is hard to train our minds to focus on the present, but when we do, we reduce our suffering. Tolle writes “unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry–all forms of fear–are caused by too much future, and not enough presence. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, and bitterness . . . are caused by too much past, and not enough presence.”
Try It Out
I found this to be a remarkable way to categorize my own thinking and it allowed me to sidestep some of the discomfort that comes with leaning into the present moment and being still. It is initially easy to focus on my thoughts; the trouble is where they lead me, which is inevitably the past or future. But as soon as I recognize that I am focusing on the past or future and not observing the present, I have brought myself back to the present, even if just for a moment. It allows me to create a moment of stillness–of peace–in this busy world.
If you want to try this out, start observing your thoughts, your body, and your breath. At some point your awareness shifts from “there” to “here” and “then” to “now.” Can you feel it? Tell me about your present in the comments!