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Right Here, Right Now

Vive Magazine (Australia), by Felicita Benedikovics, June 01, 2008

We are preoccupied with the past yet rushing constantly towards the future. What is it about the present that has us running scared?

Walking around your local or big chain bookstore, you may notice a significant shift in popularity trends. Sitting proudly next to the long—awaited latest Grisham or Rankin releases are titles that used to be relegated to more discreet sections of the bookstore. But times have changed — no doubt encouraged by a generation of Oprah fans. The latest self-help titles have become as much anticipated – not to mention successful – as the other titles that traditionally make up best-seller lists.

The recent enormous success of Rhonda Byrnes, The Secret is, well, no secret. But quite apart from the money spinning and daytime talk show potential, something else unites these books.

Having read so many while working on women's magazines, l believe I’ve stumbled across a common thread. Just look at some of the titles: The Power of Now, Begin it Now, Today Not Tomorrow Not Yesterday — okay, l made that last one up — but you get the picture. And that’s the beauty of self-help: it offers the possibility of change now. Most of the time this involves an awareness of living in the present. It sounds simple. But what does it mean?

Eckhart Tolle, international bestselling author of The Power of Now, offers this definition: “The present moment, at best, is a means to an end, a stepping stone to the future, because the future promises fulfilment, the future promises salvation in one form or another. The only problem is the future never comes. Life is always now. Whatever happens, whatever you experience, feel, think, do — it’s always now, it’s all there is. The road to enlightenment is generally thought to be found in sustaining the practice of living in the present.”

Why is that so hard for us to do? Dr Susan Murphy, a roshi (teacher) and founder of the Zen Open Circle, a meditation community, says the trouble is that it’s not really in our nature. According to Murphy, it takes practice, as do most Zen teachings. “Just like when you play sports, or do art, you have to continually practice if you are going to be highly skilled, It is something you repeatedly do to get to a higher and higher level. Then you see more and more how you could be. You can see your shortcoming more clearly. It’s a self education and also you have to stay in practice.”

The practice she refers to is awareness. "It’s a decision to shift your awareness towards paying attention in each moment,” says Murphy. "And that has many levels. To be aware of your breathing, because breathing can only happen now. Breathing is always at hand and always in the present tense." There’s also a physicality about breathing that is helpful for your awareness. "Breathing brings you back into your body. It’s that degree of paying attention."

This doesn’t come naturally to us. The breathing does, of course, but our awareness is not automatic. lt requires effort and, as such, it becomes too easy to let the moment pass us by, and we either get left behind or put ourselves on a fast-forward to the future. "l don't think human beings gravitate towards the difficult, they gravitate towards what's easy and comfortable,” says Murphy."Human magnificence depends on overcoming difficult things."

The difficulty with living in the present lies with the constant need for practice. But there is much to be gained from that practice, especially when it comes to dealing with emotions. "You become aware of feelings,” says Murphy."You become aware of how short-lived feelings are. You become aware that they are often rising and pulling away.” This is where breathing exercises and meditation are useful. "Meditation slows down your awareness so you can see these things with a lot of space. So you can see it happening."

Email, the internet, iPods, BlackBerries and general demands to multitask are cited as culprits for robbing us of, or perhaps distracting us from, the present. But people had a problem with the present long before this technological age. Is evolution to blame? Dr Russ Harris, author of The Happiness Trap, suggests that thanks to our prehistoric ancestor’s lifestyle, where the constant anticipation of threat could mean the difference between life and death, our brains to this day are trained to hone in on threats even though their nature has changed. "Now it’s not a bear in the cave, but it might be a grumpy boss or an upset partner,’ says Harris.

This is where our fixation with the past and our propulsion towards the future comes in. "We spend a lot of time in the future imaging negative outcomes and this is a natural part of the human mind. The other thing is, the mind also evolved to replay life threatening experiences. But now it's not how you escaped life threatening experiences, it’s the embarrassing comment you made at a dinner party or a presentation at work going badly.”

Harris’s take on living in the present harnesses the concept of `mindfulness' that tackles the flow of feelings and emotions and how to cope with them. What differentiates “mindfulness” from “living in the present” is attitude. "You may be feeling angry and fearful, but you are open to the feelings you are having and you are aware of other factors in the environment apart from your feelings; whereas somebody might be in the present moment in the grip of fear and the grip of anger and that's not the same as mindfulness. Those people can act blindly or lose touch of other factors in their environment, and lose touch with their own thoughts and feelings as well."

And that’s where the benefit of mindfulness becomes apparent. It can provide a foundation that allows you to go with the flow and constructively process emotions. "Mindfulness is kind of like the eye in the centre of the storm,” explains Harris. "You can be feeling a whole bunch of different emotions, but in the midst of that is a calm center. It's not that you feel relaxed, but you feel grounded and centered. Mindfulness is like an anchor that holds you steady in the storm. It won’t control your emotions but it will hold you steady until the emotions pass.”

It’s important to accept what is in and out of our control. "When you practice mindfulness, you let go of trying to control how you feel. Try to control how you act, because you have a lot of control over your actions but relatively little control over your feelings. That’s why we can act calmly and patiently even when we're angry or frustrated or why we can act confidently even when we're feeling terrified."

We are also sent mixed messages when it comes to emotions. “We are bombarded with a lot of pop psychology now that tells us that we should be feeling happy all the time," says Harris. “lf you are feeling sad or angry [it’s implied that] there's something wrong with you." But one big benefit of our technological age is the accessibility it gives us to information and other ways of thinking: in this case, Eastern philosophies. "Mindfulness came out of Eastern philosophy and we learnt it by following Eastern practices: meditation, Zen, yoga, or through religions like Buddhism, Hinduism or practicing martial arts.”

These practices take time and commitment. Harris says there is a new trend in western psychology to look at mindfulness and see how can we learn these techniques or principles quickly and easily.”

But beyond psychology, how does living in the present work in practical terms? Landmark Education addresses this issue in the courses and forums they run geared towards professionals. According to Landmark, much of the way we live our lives is based on the meaning we attach to the things that happen to us. The theme of breaking a habit and working to create a new or more constructive behavior recurs. "It’s very human that when something happens, we interpret it in some way," says Cathy Elliott, a programme director at Landmark Education. "The moment we make it mean something in relation to something else, we collapse what actually happened.”

What follows is a natural tendency to gather evidence to support the truth, or form an interpretation of an event. This can result in ignoring things that don’t match that thought pattern. According to Elliott, this means we often don't see life the way it is, but as a personal version filtered through how we see the decisions we’ve made. A good example of this is how past partners (or even parents) often haunt current relationships. "We think we are relating to the person in front of us, but most of the time we are reacting to a situation from the past that happened with someone we are not over.”

Being aware of this situation goes a long way to help ensure we don't relive the past in the future, if you follow. But the moment can sometimes be truly overwhelming. It can heighten emotions or take them away, leaving you with a disconnected ambivalence. How do you keep focused on the present when it really matters?

Take a lesson from professional sport, and prepare. Simone McKinnis, a netball coach at the Australian Institute of Sport, grooms hundreds of young women for sporting careers. Part of the mental preparation McKinnis employs is to have each of the girls focus on something specific in the game. "lt might be their passing, it might be a particular movement or skill," she says. "They have targets to keep them focused and keep them in the moment of the game."

lt makes the game far deeper than a number on a board. They then also apply this strategy to their work as a team and, after the game, discuss what did and didn't go well. Planning doesn't go against the spirit of living in the present. lt is a useful tool to allow you to live each day as it happens. Dr Lois Frankel, a corporate coach and author of a number of books about women succeeding in the corporate setting, agrees. "Living in the present doesn't mean you never think ahead — it means you are conscious of your behaviors. Living consciously is a productive way to ensure long—term success, not just immediate wins, and requires you to live your values. Planning provides you with a blueprint for what to focus on and what’s on the periphery. Lt doesn't mean we never take a detour but that returning to the plan will ensure goal achievement.” •

SIDEBAR

FIVE STEPS TO MINDFULNESS
You don't have to commit yourself to yoga and meditation to achieve mindfulness. Dr Russ Harris's mindfulness techniques can be performed easily in the space of a few minutes without the need for a yogi or a lotus flower,

1. The five, five, five technique
lf you find yourself feeling flustered or all caught up in your thoughts and feelings, just stop and notice five things you can see, five things you can hear and five things you can feel or touch. It makes you feel more aware of your surroundings.

2. Add this phrase
Pick any obsessing thought that upsets or bothers you and replay it in your head with this phrase in front of it: “I'm having the thought that…” Then do it once again with the phrase “I’m noticing I'm having the thought that…” This technique puts some distance between you and your thoughts.

3. Thanking your mind
We sometimes treat our mind like it is an annoying teenager wanting to get a reaction from us. Whatever it says, no matter how nasty or hurtful or provocative, try to look back with a sense of humor and say, “Thanks, mind.” There’s no need to argue. Replace those uncomfortable thoughts with positive thoughts.

4. Breathe in, breathe out
Your breathing tells you that you are alive. In mindfulness you become very interested in your breathing for its own sake. Breathe in and out to observe the process for three minutes. lt’s not the same as a relaxation technique, although you often feel relaxed as a result. You aren't trying to control how you feel, you’re interested in observing your breath.

5. Put your foot in it.
Push your feet hard into the floor, sit up tall with your back straight. Just take a deep breath in and out. Then relax your feet. The result? Your feet will feel lighter and you will feel better connected to the earth.