Being Present: Are You Unhappy About Something Happening Now?

According to Seneca, probably not

Two African American children playing
Image by Chris Thornton from Pixabay

“No one confines his unhappiness to the present,” Seneca the Younger, in Letters from a Stoic

Is it possible for anyone to live in the present? I say it is -for a fraction of the time.

Here are some examples of activities that keep me in the present, sometimes: doing crossword or jigsaw puzzles, writing, reading a great novel, watching a good movie, running, catching waves, teaching my class.

Extreme reactions like thrill, despair, a fit of laughter, terror and excruciating pain never fail to keep me present either.

Being fully in the present essentially means that you’ve lost all sense of time. Here are a couple of scenarios from my own life: I intended to put a few pieces of the puzzle in before going back to work. Suddenly I looked up and two hours had gone by. My son’s girlfriend called and told me he’d been badly hurt and was on his way to the hospital. Instantly, the past and future dissolved and there was only now. 

Adrenaline, I’d say, is one potent hormone that jolts us back into the present.

I believe most of us operate this way. It is either specific pleasant activities or extreme reactions that erase time. Unhappiness doesn’t fall into either of these.

When we’re unhappy, we’re not “in the moment.” Unhappiness nags us with thoughts about the past and future. It’s made up of regrets, what-ifs, and perseverative thinking about negative past events or possible future ones.

There’s a group of humans, though, who are great at keeping their unhappiness, sadness, joy and sorrow strictly to the present: young children. As an early childhood special education teacher, I work with children ages 3 to 5, and their ability to live in the present is one of the joys and wonders of working with them.

As we grow from babies to toddlers to teens all the way to adulthood, we unlearn how to confine our unhappiness to the present. It has to do with brain development, I’m sure, so it’s largely -and sadly- inevitable. But we can train ourselves to live in the present more of the time. Some say mindfulness meditation is great training, but I can’t speak from personal experience.

Aspiring Stoic that I am, though, I’m learning how to detect when I’m feeling worried, anxious or unhappy and to examine whether I’m perseverating on a useless “what if” that’s completely beyond my control. This helps.

I also try to engage, every day, in the activities that warp time for me, even though they may not be “urgent” ever. I have the good fortune of being reminded of what living in the moment looks like through my job too.

Most of us us will never come close to controlling our mind’s wanderings into the past and future. But we can make choices to get it to spend a bit more time in the here and now.

Day 16 of 30-day writing challenge on a single topic: Quotes from Seneca the Younger’s Letters from a Stoic.

Why this topic? Because I can’t get over how timely and brilliant Seneca’s words are -2,000 years after he wrote them.

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