My dog, Hobbes, turned four this month. We celebrated not with cake, but with chicken! As we settled for the evening, and I was watching the full-bellied Hobbes stretch out on the floor, I thought “Ah, a dog’s life! What could be better?”
Indeed, what is better than the life of a well-cared for family pet? Who serves as loyal companion and protector and playmate and cuddle-buddy for his human pack, and in exchange receives food and shelter and love.
As I followed that thought, I considered what the life of a dog might be like from the inside. Their needs are simple: food, sleep, love. A good scratch behind the ears. The occasional bone or rawhide to chew. The occasional scrap of human food, or, on special occasions, something a little more substantial—like chicken!
Whatever they do, dogs do with gusto—the best they can in that moment, and with an intensity and abandon that is so joyful to watch. Hobbes, for his part, is Mr. Intense at play, totally “all in”…
…for about 10 minutes. Then he looks like this:
Even napping is an intensity sport for Hobbes (I think it’s his best—Olympic caliber). He is completely focused (on his eyelids) and totally in the moment.
Food? The same. Probably the second half of the Hobbes biathlon. When it’s dinner time, no amount of convincing will deter him, even when you tell him it’s only 3pm and dinner isn’t until 5…
Relaxing in the evening? Completely a one-track mind about where he wants to sit and how he wants to curl up, even to the point of grumbling, pawing us, and—if we don’t get the message eventually—barking (that single, sharp bark that bites straight through my head, and sometimes makes our doorbell ring in sympathy).
In all of these, Hobbes is focused on the one thing that’s most important to him in that moment.
And I, in thinking about Hobbes and his single-mindedness, I was reminded of a book I have been reading: The Practicing Mind by Thomas M. Sterner. Sterner talks about how the practicing mind is the present mind—a mind focused on the here-and-now, on a specific endeavor in the present moment, and not distracted by or and not caught up in regret of the past, or worry for the future.
And I thought: Yes, that’s a dog’s life exactly—always living in the present, with gusto!
Children are much the same. They are completely focused on what they are doing in the moment (usually play). Part of the reason that we as adults long for the bright, carefree days of our youth—and the reason they felt carefree—is that we lived them without a past or a future—in the present only. We long to have back that simplicity and peacefulness.
Because along the way, as we grew up, we learned to stray from the present moment, where our minds belong. We learned to think about the past, to regret decisions we made but can’t change, to regret experiences we didn’t have, things we didn’t do. We even regret that we didn’t become the person we thought we would become, in the time we thought we might achieve it (like bestselling fiction author by age 27—that was one of mine).
We also learned to stray into the future. To worry about what was going to happen at school, or how a person might react to our new glasses, or haircut, or outfit. We worried about whether or not the girl (or boy) would say yes to our asking them to prom, and agonized over that asking for weeks, so that the present moment of asking was so full of angst it’s no wonder we seemed borderline certifiable as we sweated and stuttered through the two simple sentences “Do you have a date yet for prom? Would you like to go with me?”
And as we grow older, we learn all sorts of new ways to worry. We worry about our jobs and our health and our families. We worry what others think of us. We worry about whether or not our weekend plans will be canceled because of rain. We worry about whether or not our own kids will do all the things necessary to get them ready for their own college years and first jobs and eventual careers.
We learned all these behaviors. Sterner contends that our schools taught us these mindsets, by having us focus on the product (grades) rather than the process (learning something). I agree. I also think we learned these behaviors at the feet of the adults in our lives, who learned from adults in their lives (and so on…) that achieving our goals was the only thing that mattered, that success was critical to having a good life. Sterner says that focusing on the product instantly pulls us out of the present moment, and into either past or future (or both). Focusing on the process, on the other hand, allows us to remain centered in the present moment, and be more successful in whatever pursuit. It also creates a more calm, peaceful, playful mindset.
If you’re like me, you’d like more “present, peaceful mind” and less “regret/worry mind” in your life. Here are a few suggestions on how to practice that. (Note I didn’t say achieve it—we’re not racing for a goal, but looking to change the way we live day-to-day.)
1. Set some time on your calendar for a present-focused activity (see below for some examples). It’s important to schedule this time and keep this commitment with yourself, so you won’t feel guilty about the things you should be doing instead (which pulls you completely out of a present mindset…).
2. Take up a new hobby—something you’ve always wanted to learn. It might be a martial art, or golf, or learning to play a musical instrument. It might be painting or sculpting. Photography. A swing dance class with your significant other. Whatever it is, use the time to practice not only your new hobby, but the present-mindedness that comes with adopting a beginner’s mind.
3. Treat yourself to some play, particularly something that will completely occupy your attention. Video games are good for this, as are sports (playing them, not so much watching). What other fun activities do you engage in that completely occupy your mind when doing them? Focus on those.
4. Use meditation to hone your “present mind muscle”. Even just five or ten minutes a day will make a difference for you. You can follow my simple strategy, or check out Alex Mill’s new book, Meditation and Reinventing Yourself, for a simple meditation approach (and a bunch of other goodness).
5. Learn from the masters. Spend some time with a dog or a child (borrow someone else’s if you have to!). Live in their world for even an hour or two, focusing on how they see the world and what they think about in the moment. See if you can emulate the simple beauty of that mindset.
No matter the activity (even dishes or yard work can benefit from your present-minded laser focus), we can use a task to practice the art of living in the moment. Bring to mind the contagious laughter of children, or the joyful bark of a dog at play. Let those serve as triggers to bring our focus back to the present, and to enjoy the pleasure of each moment.
“Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift of God, which is why we call it the present.”
― Bil Keane, cartoonist and creator of The Family Circus
If you’d like some additional resources and encouragement to help you build practices (like cultivating a present mind) that support the hero you want to see in yourself, be sure to subscribe by entering your email in the box in the sidebar to your right. You’ll get your own copy of the Be Your Own Hero manifesto, regular updates from the blog, and other subscriber-only tools and goodies.