It’s not very hard to discover how much of the time we are running on automatic pilot. One can easily discover this for oneself by taking the time to pay attention to whatever one is doing at the moment. Next time you get dressed, or take a shower, or eat breakfast, or drive to work, try to see how long you can pay sustained attention to what you are doing without getting distracted and having your mind wander. Anything well-learned and well-rehearsed quickly becomes “boring” to the brain which restlessly scans the environment for something new, interesting, important, or more “fun.” If there isn’t anything of that nature in the environment, the brain creates its own interesting fun in the form of daydreams, imagined conversations, and rehearsals for upcoming events.
If we start out trying to pay attention to our sensations in the shower, for example, we start out noting the water temperature and how the water feels as it touches our skin, and we notice the sensations in our muscles as we move about, and how the place where the water strikes our body keeps on shifting. It feels interesting and pleasurable. The thought arises, “How gratifying this is! Why don’t I do this all of the time?” We then notice that the shower stall is less clean than we would like it to be, and make a mental note to ourselves to clean it later in the day. Maybe we get mad at ourselves for not putting enough effort into our housework. Maybe we begin thinking about our shortcomings, and wonder why we never seem to get our act together. Maybe we imagine our spouse noticing that we haven’t cleaned the bathroom sufficiently and feel a sense of shame. Maybe we then counter that sense of shame by evoking a sense of righteous indignation against our spouse for what a “nag” he or she is. We then remember we are supposed to be paying attention to our shower. We leave these thoughts (if they haven’t already triggered a neurochemical cascade that makes them hard to let go of) and pull ourselves back to the pleasant sensations of our body moving through the pulsating warm water. In just a few moments, however, our mind is off and running again, thinking about what we are going to tell our boss at that meeting this afternoon and before long we have “missed” most of our shower, and find ourselves wondering “now did I already shampoo my hair or not?” and wondering whether it is better to risk doing it for a second time, or to risk stepping out of the shower with our hair not shampooed at all.
Don’t get the idea there’s anything wrong with this distraction process. It doesn’t mean you have attention-deficit disorder; you don’t need to run out and get medication. This process is wired very deeply into our nervous systems and conveys a certain degree of advantage to us as organisms. Scanning the environment for new and useful information, or scanning for danger or changing circumstances is adaptive. Judging past performance or planning for and anticipating the future is also useful. The problem is that all this scanning-and-planning keeps us constantly leaving what is right in front of us so that we never really get to be here with the way things are. We forget what is right under our noses. And if that happens to us continually, we lose two of the main ingredients for true happiness: Our ability to see our habitual life and de-automatize it when it becomes dysfunctional, and our ability to be fully with the present just as it is in an attentive and accepting way.
Learning to be with the present is important because one can never be truly unhappy if one is in the present. Regret, fear, mourning, anger all come from comparing the present moment with a past, future, or alternative moment, from the tension between this moment and that moment: “I wish that hadn’t happened,” “I’m afraid this is going to happen,” “This should have happened instead of that.” All negative emotions involve a judging of the present, a rejection of it, and the comparison of this moment with another. If the mind is just in this moment and leaves off with its judging and comparing, there is just being with what is here, and that is almost always tolerable. Then one can ask the most profound question one can ever ask: What is the wisest way to be with this moment as it is? How do I respond to it not as I want it, but as it is?
Another reason why being with the present is so important is that our sense of being most alive and most freshly in-touch with the world can only come from being in the present. As long as our life is something we are only half-paying attention to, how much pleasure can we wrest from it? As long as we are rushing through life on automatic-pilot, how can we ever notice the surprises and delights that come from noticing the rich and detailed texture of our lives? If you are reading the cereal box or listening to the news on the radio while you are eating your breakfast cereal, how will you ever really taste that cereal? How will you ever discover if that is really what you want to be putting into your body? Is that cereal box really that interesting? How many times have you read it before? How important are the factoids you are listening to on the radio news to your own long-term happiness? Is this how you really want to be spending your morning? Maybe that cereal is really delicious and you are missing the best thing that will happen to you that morning. Maybe you will discover that you are filling both your body and your mind with junk, and that you would be better off and happier if you spent your morning in a different way. You’ll never know until you pay attention.
Paying attention to our lives gives us the ability to see what we are doing and to have real choice about what we do. It allows us to change. It also allows us to be more deeply in touch with the texture of our lives, the fine details, in which a good deal of potential pleasure has been missed through the routinization of daily life.
When we ask people to keep diaries of pleasurable events during the course of a week, the most frequent pleasurable events people recount are not momentous events like winning the lottery, or getting a raise, or finding a wonderful new romantic partner. The moments of joy are usually “little” moments, and almost always moments of “contact,” whether contact with another person, contact with nature, or contact with a deeper part of ourselves. People report that the best moment of the week was watching their baby smile, or having their partner say something endearing, or being outside for a moment with nature, or experiencing a moment of still quiet inside themselves. If we let these moments go by, or even worse, if we do not allow time for them in our lives, we miss our lives.
The sense of missing one’s life can sometimes become quite profound. Many people suffer greatly because they feel that they have lost themselves in some way, or their life has taken a wrong turn and they are not quite sure where. They have not been paying attention to themselves, and end up having lived with a partner for 20 years whom they never really loved in the first place. Perhaps they can recall a tiny moment of awareness that they weren’t really in love at the very moment when they were standing at the marriage altar, an awareness which they brushed aside and didn’t pay attention to. Or they find themselves working at a job they hate, never having explored what might have made them happier. Or they wake up one morning and find that they have no close friendships, that there is no genuine intimacy in their lives, that there is a yawning gap between themselves and their now adult children. Or they discover that their spiritual life lacks authenticity and vitality, and they have never really asked themselves the question of what their life is really about. This sense of impoverishment due to missed attention is the bread-and-butter of the psychotherapist’s trade. The only way to regain one’s life is by investing it with fresh attention.