Most of us, most of the time, find happiness elusive. This is because we don’t really know what happiness is beyond a vague notion of “feeling good.”
Yet an ancient lesson taught by many of the world’s religions is, in truth, the key to happiness. It is simply this: Live in the present.
The Gospels tell us to “take no thought for the morrow, for the morrow shall take thought for the thing of itself.” The Zen tradition asks us to consider, “If not now, when?” Sufism teaches that the Sufi, a Muslim ascetic or mystic, “is the son of the present.” And Rumi, the great Sufi poet, advises that “past and future veil God from our sight; burn up both of them with fire.”
What is Happiness?
Contemporary spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle draws on these traditions and more in his book The Power of Now (2004) to explain why we should live in the moment, how to do it, and why doing so inevitably leads to happiness.
As Tolle explains, each of us consists of body, mind (or ego) and spirit. The mind rules most of the time, and the mind is trapped in time, living almost exclusively in the past through memory and in the future through anticipation. Past and future are illusions; they exist only in the mind.
In reality, all we ever have is the present moment. If we can learn to live in this moment, we can escape the confines of the mind, which is constantly generating negative thoughts, feelings and reactions to things remembered or anticipated. Paradoxically, the only way to experience lasting happiness is moment by moment.
For Tolle, our real purpose in life is to achieve this kind of happiness. He distinguishes between our outer purpose and our inner purpose. Our outer purpose Is to achieve goals and arrive at destinations we have set for ourselves in time and space (getting a degree from a particular school, buying a dream home, being able to retire at a certain age). Achieving our outer purpose usually does make us happy, but only temporarily. This is because all things in the physical world are subject to the law of impermanence; they change and eventually disappear.
Our inner purpose is not about what we achieve but how – that is, the quality of our consciousness in each moment of the doing. If we live consciously (awake to the moment, aware of what we are doing and working in tandem with our deepest held values and beliefs), we will find lasting happiness.
Toward Living in the Moment
Fortunately, spiritual teachers past and present have given us lots of examples and simple exercises to help us learn how to live in the moment.
Tolle offers two exercises that can be done anywhere in a very short period of time:
- Whatever you are doing, stop and notice what your mind is doing. Observe its habitual tendency to dwell in the past (including the previous few moments) and the future (including the next few moments). Do not analyze or judge your thoughts. Just notice them. This noticing is itself a spiritual practice, for “the moment you realize you are not present, you are present” and no longer trapped in the ruminations of the mind.”
- Take any routine activity that is normally only a means to an end and give it your full attention so that it becomes an end in itself. Focus on the action or the experience, rather than the outcome. For example, when you wash your hands, pay attention to all the senses involved — the sound and feel of the water, the smell of the soap, how your hands feel before, during and after you wash them. You can measure your success with this exercise by the degree of peace you feel inside while doing it.
For another kind of exercise, Gretchen Rubin, a researcher and writer who several years ago embarked on a “happiness project” to improve her own life, recommends keeping a “happiness journal” (The Happiness Project, 2009). While she doesn’t specifically focus on living in the moment, she does focus on living a day at a time and writing down one positive thing at the end of each day.
What you write might be large or small — something that motivated or inspired you, affirmed or acknowledged you, made you feel secure, confident, useful, valued, calm or peaceful. It might be something you did that made good use of your time or talents, that required you to act according to your values, or that made some part of your day feel meaningful to you. For example: “My sister and I talked for an hour on the phone. It was good to catch up, and it made me feel more connected to all of my family.”
Keeping a journal of small experiences like this makes us more aware of the things that bring value to our lives, and it encourages us to keep track of them each day. Without this effort of living more consciously, the days, months and years quickly blur and disappear without ever having been noticed and appreciated.
Rubin’s project is inspired by a great deal of reading in religion and psychology. One source she consulted is the “Decalogue” – a list of rules for right behavior – created by Pope John XXIII, who was pope from 1958-1963 (Gretchen Rubin, “10 Tips for Living a Better Life, One Day at a Time – from Pope John XXIII,” Psychology Today, 2010). Here are the ten strategies, paraphrased, that the pope thought would improve the quality of his life:
(1) Only for today, I will seek to live the day positively, without wanting to solve all my problems at once.
(2) Only for today, I will take the greatest care of my appearance, dressing modestly, not raising my voice, being courteous, not criticizing, and not trying to improve or discipline anyone but myself.
(3) Only for today, I will be happy in knowing I was created to be happy.
(4) Only for today, I will adapt to circumstances and not require the circumstances to change for me.
(5) Only for today, I will devote 10 minutes to some good reading, which is necessary to the life of the soul.
(6) Only for today, I will do one good deed and not tell anyone about it.
(7) Only for today, I will do at least one thing I do not like doing, and if my feelings are hurt, I will make sure no one notices.
(8) Only for today, I will make a plan for myself as a guard against two evils: hastiness and indecision.
(9) Only for today, I will live in the belief that the good Providence of God cares for me as no one who exists in this world.
(10) Only for today, I will have no fears. In particular, I will not be afraid to enjoy what is beautiful and to believe in goodness.
Those of us who aren’t religious leaders will probably find the pope’s list daunting. But we can approach it one item at a time, cycling through the list over a 10-day period and then going back to the first item and beginning again. In the process, we would also develop a valuable quality that is much needed in today’s anxious, impatient world – steadfastness.
From the Day to the Moment
…. In The Book of Life, an evolving on-line compendium of what is known to date about the most important things in life, the authors create a general resource for developing self-knowledge, fulfillment and happiness. An entry called “Taking it One Day at a Time” (http://www.theschooloflife.com/thebookoflife/taking-it-one-day-at-a-time) helps put the pope’s strategies into the larger context of a human lifespan, noting that most of what we hope for and dream of (our outer purpose), as well as what we fear and dread, is a very long time coming, if it ever comes at all.
Our long-range form of thinking, both backward and forward, blinds us to our present advantages. If not for spiritual reasons, then for our overall mental health and well-being, it is best to “limit our horizons to tonight.”
The authors conclude that “taking it day by day means. . . recognizing that we have no serious capacity to exercise our will on a span of years and should not therefore distain a chance to secure one or two minor wins in the hours ahead of us.” A “win” is something that might seem small in the grand scheme of things but is actually significant in the course of a day: a deadline met, a well-prepared meal, a restorative nap, a walk with the dog, conversation with friends, or a few pages read in a good book.
If we can limit our horizons to the day, we will surely find at least one thing to appreciate. From there, we can work toward limiting our horizons to the moment, where we will find lasting happiness.
Written by: Ruth Ray Karpen
Ruth Ray Karpen is a retired English professor who now works as a freelance researcher and writer. She has published many books and articles on aging and old age, life story writing, and retirement. She also volunteers her time at a local hospice and animal shelter. In our series on Heart and Soul, she explores how later life, including the end of life, offers unique opportunities for emotional and spiritual growth.
On behalf of Smart Strategies for Successful Living, our sincerest appreciation goes to Ruth Ray Karpen for her contribution to the heart and soul of living and aging.