In February 2016, news.com.au reported on the story of Jake Bailey who got out of his hospital bed to deliver his Captain’s address at the 2015 Christchurch Boys’ High School Prize Giving ceremony. Jake, in his final year, had been diagnosed with cancer and was on his fourth chemotherapy treatment when he left his hospital bed to give the speech.
Despite his illness, Jake passed the year 12 exams and expressed gratitude for the support he received from near and far. His speech is very moving and, at times, confronting. He makes the point that when you are confronted with death you are forced to reflect on who you are and what you are doing with your life. In his own words, Jake reminds us that we so often overlook the present because we are so focused on tomorrow:
I was dying for the weekends, I was dying for the school holidays. Before I knew it, I was dying.
Jake reminds us to be grateful for what we have and to live the present fully:
Here’s the thing – none of us get out of life alive. So be gallant, be great, be gracious, and be grateful for the opportunities that you have.
The full speech is available on YouTube and the video of his speech has been viewed by more than 1.7 million people at the time of writing this post.
Western society is strong on thinking and we have developed so many words to describe the act of thinking. Here’s just a few:
Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests that we have become so engrossed in thinking all the time that we have lost the art of just being. We have lost touch with the present moment with all its potential for creativity, calm and clarity. He strongly recommends developing the art of mindful breathing and offers a 3 minute meditation exercise based on conscious breathing:
One of the challenges of mindful breathing is to stop the distraction of thinking and to remain focused in a non-judgmental way – clearing our thoughts as they occur without judging ourselves for their occurrence.
Isabel Allende in her book, Maya’s Notebook, describes Maya talking to her host Manuel and, in the process, identifies the difficulty of staying focused on breathing – on being, not thinking:
I found him watching the sunset from the big front window, and I asked him what he was doing.
“I’m breathing too. That is not what I was referring to.”
“Until you interrupted me, Maya, I was breathing, nothing more. You should see how difficult it is to breathe without thinking.” [Maya’s Notebook, p.69]
And therein lies the challenge of mindful breathing – not only do you have to fend off distractions caused by your own thoughts, but also the interruptions unwittingly caused by others who need to share their thoughts or want you to do so. Thinking has become our substitute mode of being – we live in our minds not in the reality of everyday life and the present moment.
Psychologists point out that this disconnection from the present has resulted in much of the mental illness that is prevalent today – we suffer depression because we are living in the past or suffer anxiety because we are living in the future. Mental health and well-being reside in mindfulness and mindful breathing that are accessible to us at any moment.
Maria, in Paulo Coelho’s book, Eleven Minutes, records in her diary:
I spend all day …longing for work to begin, and, when I’m working, longing to get back to the boarding house. In other words, I’m living the future not the present. (p.34, emphasis added)
Recent neuroscience research shows that we spend more than 50% of our time either in the past or in the future – we spend so little time in the present.
The downside of spending so much time “living the future” is that we can develop anxiety because we are constantly concerned about future events that may never happen. We are also missing the opportunity to fully experience the present – to enjoy the beauty, relationships and positive experiences that surround us.
We also miss the opportunity to appreciate what we do have and be grateful for the many things that make our life enjoyable.
Living in the future can be precipitated by envy – we “want to have what they have got” and so we look to the future in the hope that we too will be like them.
One way to check whether you are living the future is to monitor your words:
I wish it was Friday
I can’t wait for the weekend
Summer holidays can’t come soon enough
If we find ourselves constantly expressing desire for the future rather than experiencing and enjoying the present, then we can stop talking this way – we have the power to shape our reality by choosing our words consciously.
The present moment is the only true reality. If we miss it, we miss so much that life has to offer and potentially harm ourselves and our wellbeing.