Live in the moment

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Why does my brain keep darting to the past and future? Why is it so hard to focus on the present?

Every once in a while, I fall in love with a song. The pattern is always the same.

First comes the introduction. A chorus or a chord I hear on the radio catches my attention and quickens my heart. I like it!

Then comes the chase. If I don't know the title of the song, I'll hunt it down and buy the CD.

Then the courtship begins. I'll listen to the song on a non-stop loop that drives those around me crazy. I learn its lyrics and sing along.

It's exhilarating to be consumed by a song. I feel alive when it plays. I'm living in the moment.

I love that feeling because much of my life, I'm afraid, isn't lived in the present. It's stuck in the past or projected into the future.

Over the years, I've written many columns which have concluded that what really matters is what is happening right now, not what happened yesterday or what will happen tomorrow.

Seize the moment. Appreciate the present. Grasp your reality now and savour it. Don't waste life, I said.

Yet I don't practise it as much as I should. It sounds easy, but why is it so hard to do?

Why is my brain constantly racing backwards and forwards? Why can't it stay still for me to focus on the here and now, and to enjoy it for what it is?

Why do I have what Buddhists term a monkey mind, one that is easily unsettled and restless, whimsical and uncontrolled?

The first time I realised this about myself was at a health spa in Thailand more than 15 years ago.

I was lying under a pavilion with a dozen other stressed-out holidaymakers in search of calm. We were on yoga mats. A breeze was blowing, birds in the trees around us were chirping.

The yoga teacher asked us to close our eyes and relax.

But I just couldn't do it. My brain was darting about, to what I had for breakfast, what was for lunch, how many calories I had burnt during the morning swimming aerobics session and so on.

She must have read my mind - our minds - for she observed that much of our lives was spent either thinking back to the past or forward to the future. Very rarely are we in the present, she said.

It was a revelation to me.

To get us to live in the now, she told us to concentrate on the sounds around us, from those furthest away filtering down to the sounds nearest to us.

It did help to quieten the chatter in my head.

Over the years, I have tried many ways to force my mind to be still and attentive to the present.

I go for yoga classes where I concentrate on my breathing and movements. I sometimes succeed in attaining a state of being calm yet alert, and moored to the present.

I've tried meditation classes where the teacher tells us to focus on the third eye between the eyebrows, stay aware and simply acknowledge and accept, in a non-judgmental way, each thought that comes into my mind, then to just let it go.

But it's tough for me to stay in the moment because, as H likes to tell me, I have a strong narrative, and a dark, pessimistic one at that.

Recently, a recurring ailment left me in pain. When I had more or less recovered, I wasn't grateful, relieved or happy, which I should have been.

Rather, my mind kept returning to the unhappy episode and questioning why I had to be susceptible to the ailment and how bad the discomfort was. Or, I projected myself into the future and fretted about the ailment returning and me suffering again.

The result? I was unhappy not only during the time I wasn't well, but also when I was.

While Googling this topic, I came across an interview with Kyran Pittman, who wrote a book called Planting Dandelions: Field Notes From A Semi-Domesticated Life, about everyday family life in suburban America.

Asked by the interviewer, Gretchen Rubin, about happiness, Pittman said: "I think the vast majority of unhappiness is based on stuff that isn't actually happening.

"Certainly, life brings real and inevitable sorrow. But when I ask myself, am I okay today, I find I usually am.

"It's tomorrow I'm unhappy about. Or something that happened yesterday. I don't know why it's so hard for us to stay in the present moment, when it's often such a good place to be."

As I write this, I feel no pain in any part of my body. Other than being a little anxious about whether this column is coherent and the fact that I've busted its deadline, there's nothing for me to be particularly troubled about in my life.

Yet, if you ask me how I'm really feeling, I'd say I feel unsettled.

I'm unsettled because my mind is racing to how I have to go on a trip tomorrow but haven't packed yet and how there are dozens of things I haven't done, how I'd miss my dogs when I'm gone, and was it my imagination or did my chihuahua look listless this morning when I left for work, and what if he falls ill when I'm away, at which point my brain starts going back to a few months ago when the dog was really ill and how worrying it was for everyone, etc etc.

Wouldn't I be a happier person if I could focus on life as it is playing out now and be thankful for the blessings I presently have?

Why do I allow my random, runaway thoughts to control me?

Why do I sink into "what-ifs" when it's the "what is" that matters?

To be sure, there will be days when bad things happen and I will have to deal with them. But surely the fretting can wait until the bad stuff hits me in the face?

I still don't have the answers to how I can live more fully in the moment and be grateful for what it is.

But by acknowledging I have a problem, I suppose I'm heading in the right direction.

sumiko@sph.com.sg

Follow Sumiko Tan on Twitter @STsumikotan