Say a random stranger walks up to you in a restaurant and tells you that the food you just received is poisoned, then walks out the door.
How do you feel?
It depends on whether you believe he’s telling the truth or not.
If you think he is telling the truth, you’ll likely feel intense emotions. Panic? Anger? Fear? And you’ll be repulsed by the food.
But if you don’t believe the words? Your emotions won’t be moved either way. At most, you might be amused or annoyed, but that’s it. You’ll return your attention to your food and enjoy the meal.
The difference in how you respond emotionally is in what you believe.
We know not to believe everything we feel (our emotions are not who we are; they are only how we are feeling).
But we don’t have to believe everything we think either.
We talk to ourselves internally all the time. Our minds chatter along almost all our waking hours.
But are all these words really true?
Um, no. I realize I make up stories in my head to fill in gaps of uncertainty.
If I don’t get a prompt response to an email, I wonder if I said something offensive. If I feel a strange pain in my side, my mind wanders to appendicitis perhaps? If a driver cuts me off in traffic, I assume he’s a self-centered snob.
But in more rational moments, I count the unanswered email as non-significant. The pain in my side will either go away or I can call a doctor later. And I realize the driver’s motor skills tell me nothing about his long-term character traits.
As someone who’s prayed about and tried to fight off irrational thoughts via worrying much of my life, this year I’ve finally made some progress in this way: if I’m imagining a future where God’s grace doesn’t outweigh my problems, I need to get out of that future and come back to reality here and now.
My thoughts are horrible predictors of the future.
Thomas Keating says it like this,
“The first word that Jesus speaks as he enters upon his ministry is ‘repent,’ which means, ‘change the direction in which you are looking for happiness.’ … Happiness can be found only in the experience of union with God.”
Yes, God has been present in our past and he will be present in our future (he goes behind and before us, inside us and out, below and above).
But God is most present in our presence . . . NOW.
The last verse in Ezekiel (a rather depressing prophetic book overall, but with a fantastic ending) is this:
“The new name of the city will be “The Lord Is Here!” (CEV)
The Lord is in this, right here, right now.
I don’t have to understand the whole situation; accepting this one piece in the present is enough. Doing whatever this thing is in front of me. Paying attention to this moment right now.
And all those thoughts rumbling around in my head? They will come and go. But as for me, I don’t have to believe everything I think.
“In general, we rarely get to directly experience whatever is happening in a given moment because our experience is constantly being created by our thoughts of what was ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in the past, what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ right now, or what may be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in the future.”
– Noah Elkrief
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It’s what I’ve been working on and praying about this year through my One Word 2015 Now. I’ve meditated more, I’ve practiced staying more in the moment, and I’ve read interesting books, including notably The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle and The Time Paradox by Zimbardo and Boyd.
A third influential book has been A Guide to the Present Moment by Noah Elkrief, not only for the words he shares, but for the way he’s made me question the words I tell myself.
At the risk of being misunderstood because I’m pulling them out of context, here are some quotes from A Guide to the Present Moment that have been helpful to me, and perhaps will be helpful to you.
I don’t believe everything in the book (because I also don’t believe everything I read), but because Elkrief’s questions made me actually think differently (and hopefully think better), I recommend this book to you, too.
It’s not the circumstances in your life that create all of your unwanted emotions—it’s actually your thoughts about your circumstances that cause you to suffer.
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We have no choice but to give our attention to whatever is most important to us. So if we are giving attention to a thought, it is because we unconsciously believe that thought is more important than whatever is going on in front of us.
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We tend to have this idea that anxiety is created by not knowing the future. However, uncertainty about the future doesn’t create anxiety. Anxiety is created by the belief that a “bad” outcome is possible.
Would you experience any anxiety if your friend told you, “I will give you $100 tomorrow for your birthday, but I am not going to tell if it will be $20 bills, $10 bills, or $1 bills”? There is uncertainty, but each outcome is equally “good,” so the uncertainty is irrelevant and won’t lead to anxiety.
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We don’t need to be able to handle all of our future “bad” moments. We only have to be able to manage this moment right now. This is always much easier.
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“Worrying is the responsible thing to do.” Worrying is actually not responsible. When we worry, we take our attention off our responsibilities in this moment. This makes us less able to perform whatever task is needed in this moment because we are busy giving some of our energy and attention to thoughts of an imaginary future.
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But if our problem is about a future event, then it hasn’t yet happened, and therefore doesn’t yet exist as anything other than a thought. If we don’t want to spend our life solving problems that don’t exist, all we need to ask ourselves is, “Does this problem exist right now anywhere outside my own mind?”
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Does your mind tend to wander more to the past, the future, or do you stay mainly in the present? Please share in the comments.
- Links, books, and other things I love – December 2015
- Dear Risk, I know we’re not close friends