The ability to live in the present moment provides countless benefits, from mental, to physical, to emotional.
One of the best ways to appreciate the value of living in the present is by understanding what we habitually do instead: engage in absentmindedness.
The consequences of absentmindedness may appear harmless, but upon closer examination we find our lack of being present comes at a very high price.
Most of our waking hours are spent in an inattentive, distracted, zoned out state, lost in thought, ruminating about the past or fantasising about the future.
‘How could I have said something so stupid?’ ‘I can’t believe she did that.’ ‘I can’t wait until the work day is over.’ ‘What if he doesn’t accept my proposal?’
On and on we go.
This pattern of thinking, or absentmindedness, is such a deeply ingrained, subconscious habit for most of us that we usually don’t even notice when we are lost in thought. We can eat, drink, and sit through meetings, all the while pretending to listen and be engaged, but actually fixated on our own distracted thoughts.
In our minds we are usually everywhere else but here, in the present. When we are not present, we are not aware, and we are not mindful. It’s that simple. We cannot be self-aware and aware of others while being absentminded.
Awareness and absentmindedness are mutually exclusive. We must choose one or the other.
Absentmindedness is manifested in a variety of ways:
- daydreaming: gentle zoning out on nothing in particular or just pleasant fantasy
- results fixation: the belief that the grass is greener on the other side (‘Are we there yet?’ ‘I’ll be so much happier at some future point when…’)
- planning: ‘Tomorrow I need to do this, and this, and this…’ Note there’s a difference between mindful planning and planning distractedly while doing something else, such as while driving or trying to meditate
- rehashing: running past conversations and events over and over in your mind
- internal conversations: talking to yourself. As a mindfulness coach, I have found that most of my clients are shocked at how much they engage in this habit once it has been brought to their attention. See if you experience the same realisation.
- not listening: finishing other people’s sentences, or preparing your answer in your mind while they are still speaking
- being judgemental: silently criticising or labelling yourself or others in your mind
There are many more forms of absentmindedness, but these examples gives a sense of our most common mind traps. The Buddha called these mind traps ‘mental proliferation’.
Our minds have a habitual tendency to take the simplest thought, jump on it, and run off in all directions with it.
Absentmindedness not only pulls us out of reality, but it also undermines our health and wellbeing.
Ongoing negative thinking (‘I should have said …’ ‘Why did I forget that?’ ‘I hope my investments are going to be okay’) is particularly damaging.
As one study concluded, ‘… a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.’[i]
On the flipside, living in the present provides awareness and opportunities that are deeply fulfilling and meaningful, opportunities we miss when we are lost in thoughts of the past or the future.
Mindfulness relieves the burden of absentmindedness by gently and consistently pulling us back into the present. When we are truly in the present, we are able to respond to life with clarity and wisdom. Our life improves both internally (our felt sense of life) and externally (we make wiser decisions).
Mindfulness is the key that allows us to shut the door of absentmindedness, and live whole-heartedly in the present.
Michael Bunting is the bestselling author of The Mindful Leader and A Practical Guide to Meditation, and co-author of Extraordinary Leadership in Australia and New Zealand. He runs leadership consultancy WorkSmart Australia, a certified B-Corp. For more information, visit mindfulleader.net
[i] Killingsworth, M.A., and Gilbert, D.T. (2010, Nov 12). ‘A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind’, Science 330(6006), 932. doi 10.1126/science.1192439.