Being in the now
Being in the moment is possibly the main key to appreciating life and feeling satisfied, and yet most human beings spend a lot of their lives either thinking about the future or reflecting on the past. Our active minds find it very hard to stay in the present moment and we get distracted by the ‘voice in our heads’ that talks to us from the moment we wake up to the moment we fall asleep. In this article I am going to briefly explore some counselling modalities and current practices which encourage us to bring our attention to the present.
Humanistic counselling has a central belief in the importance of being in the present. One of the hallmarks of Carl Roger’s Person-Centred Therapy is not living in the past or the future. He placed emphasis on the person's current perception and how we live in the here-and-now. "To open one's spirit to what is going on now." (Rogers ‘On Becoming a Person’ 1961). Gestalt therapy works mainly on the here-and-now, building the client’s self awareness about their own sensations, perceptions, emotions, thoughts, behaviour and bodily sensations in the present moment. The goal of Gestalt therapy is to move into owning our experience and developing into a healthy gestalt (whole).
Many counsellors of different modalities use the skill of immediacy to focus on the now by encouraging the client to focus on how they are feeling and to look at what is going on in the relationship between the client and the counsellor. Irvin Yalom illustrates very well his own use of working in the here and how this immediacy brings benefits to counselling relationships (‘The Gift of Therapy’ 2003).
Mindfulness is a practice which has taken on a life of its own recently often combining it with other therapies such as Mindfulness CBT. Mindfulness courses are sprouting everywhere and are recognised by the NHS as a treatment for depression. It is even provided to MPs in the House of Commons and marines in the USA (Radio 4 news February 2014). Mindfulness is inherited from the Buddhist tradition, and is now used in counselling and therapy to alleviate a wide range of mental conditions, including OCD, anxiety and depression. One of its goal is to bring us back to the present moment by making us conscious of our breathing, body sensation and thoughts. In addition, one goal of Mindfulness is to accept whatever you’re experiencing now, to train us to be with negative experiences as well as positive ones, and not always seek to escape the negative thoughts and feelings.
That seems to me one of the difficulties for human beings of staying in the here and now. When we’re experiencing difficult thoughts and feelings, the first reaction is to get away and find some escape. That could be alcohol, eating, playing sport, watching TV and so on. Anything which will anesthetise the pain. Life becomes an endless pursuit to escape what’s happening now.
Eckhart Tolle’s book The Power of Now (1997) tells us of the importance of being in the moment. Tolle says dwelling on our misfortunes in the past or future causes us suffering, pain and depression. It prevents us from appreciating the present moment, from appreciating nature, from appreciating the people around us and being alive. The book describes methods of relaxation and meditation which can bring is back to the present. Tolle suggests avoiding multi-tasking, spending time in nature and letting go of worries about the future. He believes when you become aware that you’re not present, that will bring you back to the now.
When people’s lives are cut short by illness it can have a dramatic effect on their relationship to life. There are cases of people who have terminal cancer that their experience of life intensifies and becomes more enjoyable for a period because their future disappears and their experience of life becomes focused on the present. In 2013 Dr Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson, after being diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer said he had never felt more ‘vividly alive.’ (BBC news website January 25 2013)
Not being in the moment has implications in all areas of people’s lives. For example, people who play sport can lose matches or competitions because their focus strays from the now for a few seconds. As counsellors, in our therapeutic sessions we start thinking about our next intervention or reflecting on something our client said. We might even stop listening to our client for a brief moment while we’re processing our own thoughts. Parents’ relationships with their children deteriorate because they don’t listen to the children and their minds are elsewhere.
It’s easy to understand the importance of being in the now, but putting it into practice is another matter. It takes constant practice to be in the now, noticing when our minds stray and bringing us back to the now. Personally, I have my built my own awareness about when I am not in the moment, and am constantly having to bring myself back to the now. It takes a conscious decision to leave my personal thoughts and really focus one hundred percent on what my client is saying. It seems to me that half the battle of therapy is when our clients can accept where they are now, and accepting the negative thoughts and feelings.
On another level, there may be no tomorrow. Who knows what might happen to us? So the question is are we ready to live now, appreciating the magic of being alive and fully experiencing the world around us?
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