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Living in the present moment: what does it mean?

Eduardo took his responsibility towards his family very seriously. He made sure he found a decent, steady job so that he could provide his children with everything that they needed: a good education, hobbies, nice holidays.

When he started getting bored of his job, which after 7 years was involving a lot of routine, he pushed on for the sake of his family. Even when he got into some sort of cold war with his boss, he still continued, although after a while he started looking for another job. He applied for several positions in similar organisations but always ended up second.

Slowly he got more and more desperate. Secretly, he yearned for a simpler life. Away from the frustrating office job with all the politics he loathed and the mission he didn't believe in any longer. He dreamt of working with his hands and moving to a small village in the countryside.

But then he was absolutely sure that this kind of life would not allow him to provide for his family. It simply was too hazardous. And of course his parents, back in rural Spain, would not approve.

So he persevered in his current job, at the same time desperately applying for similar jobs – which he already knew would not fulfil him either. All for the sake of his family.

The interesting thing about this story is that Eduardo did not have kids. At least, not yet. But one day he would, so he had to be prepared, right?

When I asked him to consider the immense sacrifices he was making, and how unhappy he was right now, he replied: "Isn't that what fathers do?" Except he wasn't a father yet (and I'm not so sure if that's what fathers should do either, but that's a different discussion).

Eduardo resolutely chose to live in the future and was willing to sacrifice the present for it.

Maybe you recognize a bit of Eduardo in yourself? What is it that you are sacrificing in the present for the sake of the future?

Perhaps you would argue that it is very reasonable to plan and prepare for the future, even if this means sacrificing some things right now. Wouldn't it be very careless never to think about the future - or the past? And you are right. Of course it would.

Our minds are wandering continuously to the past and the future

Probably the biggest misunderstanding about living in the present is that it is contradictory with preparing for the future – or learning from the past. Living in the present doesn't have to mean living frivolously or carelessly. But you don't have to be held hostage by the future or the past either. Let me explain.

Perhaps you already noticed how your mind naturally wanders off when nothing is really asking for immediate attention? Like when you're sitting in a train, in a boring meeting, or taking a shower. And where does your mind go to on such occasions? Either to the future or the past, doesn't it? To making plans, thinking of your to-do list, worrying about what could go wrong, or reflecting on something that has been said earlier.

This mind wandering is a typical human thing, our mind loves to do it. A  Harvard study discovered that we spend almost half of our awake time thinking about the past or the future.

This is at the same time our biggest strength, and our greatest pitfall. Because of the fact that we can imagine the future, and reflect on the past, we are able to solve very complex problems and prevent catastrophes from happening. It sets humans apart from other animals.

But we also imagine a lot of scenarios that actually never happen. And all this imagining can make you seriously miserable. How often have you had it that you were worrying for hours or even days about something that eventually never happened, or turned out to be just fine?

This mind wandering and imagining happens largely out of your control. It's just what minds do. Try not to think about the past or the future for a day – even for an hour. You will soon notice how difficult that is.

When you meditate, you may find that the planning, worrying or fantasizing slows down a bit, but even in the midst of a meditation thoughts like "Oh, I shouldn't forget to pick up my clothes at the dry cleaner's this afternoon" can (and probably will) pop up. And that's not a problem.

Living in the present – even during meditation - doesn't mean that you should stop thinking about the past or the present. Because that is simply impossible, it happens automatically anyway – and it would also be irresponsible to be honest.

So what does living in the present mean?

The problem is not that you think about the future or past, it's how you think of it – and what happens next.

For Eduardo, there was no space between him and his ideas about the future. In his mind, the future was very real and there was no alternative than to follow what his mind dictated about it. He had become a hostage of the future.

Living in the present means being aware of what is happening right here and now. Including being aware that you are having thoughts about the past or the future. And knowing that they are just thoughts, not reality. It might become reality one day, but it also might not. Or it may have happened in the past, but right now it's no longer here. It may all feel very real, but it is a virtual reality.

This insight can be very liberating. You start taking your own thoughts a bit more lightly. And it creates room for a different perspective. For example, you can also ask yourself: what matters to me right now? And how can I combine that with preparing from the future or learning from the past?

Eduardo slowly learned that he didn't need to suffer right now for the sake of his future family. He saw that he could perhaps find a different type of job that would fulfil him more right now, and that would still allow him to have a decent and steady income. He no longer felt trapped.