07 Feb Now that you’re in control, will you press the button quickly? Make up your mind. (MO GAWDAT)
What is the defect in our design that makes it so hard to escape our preoccupation with the
past and the future, even though it increases our suffering? It’s this: time is the ground from which thought itself is grown.
To get a better sense of this, let’s try my favorite exercise. I call it the Full Awareness Test. Sit down, take a deep breath, relax, and close your eyes. Keep them closed for a minute or so. The time doesn’t have to be exact; you’re just clearing your visual palate. Now open your eyes for a few seconds and look around. Don’t do anything more than observe whatever is in your immediate environment. Then close your eyes again.
Now, with your eyes still closed, silently describe to yourself what you saw. This isn’t a memory test; we’re just looking for a description of whatever it is that you’ve observed. Go into detail about as much as you can remember, but be as factual as possible. Be careful not to let your thoughts intrude and interpret what you’ve seen. Stick with statements like this: I look out my apartment window at
night and see water extending to a low horizon of palm trees and two-story buildings interspersed with tall, gleaming skyscrapers. Daylight is still fading from the horizon, where I can make out thin strands of clouds. Higher up, the sky is much darker and pricked with stars.
Are you noticing that it might take you several minutes to describe what you observed in just a few seconds? The act of observation requires only simple awareness, but describing it introduces much lengthier thought processes. Still, because you’re limiting those thoughts to describing what you’ve just seen, they’re always in the present tense. They have no past or future timestamps, and as a result they’re smoother and calmer than they would otherwise be.
You see? Connecting to the present doesn’t require much brainpower at all. If your brain were limited to only describing whatever is going on around you in this moment, it wouldn’t have much to say. The voice in your head might sound something like this: Blue sofa ahead Two light sources. A floor lamp and a candle. Candle flame flickering in the breeze. The smell of freshly baked bread. Not much of a conversation, is it? That’s because there are no pros and cons. There’s no drama until we throw in the past and the future.
I frequently turn to this exercise to get myself anchored in the present moment. It calms me and reminds me of two important features of awareness: we don’t need thoughts to be aware, just presence; and even when we do introduce thoughts, by focusing them on the present moment we become much less stressed. Giving your brain the task of simply describing its surroundings keeps those thoughts quieter, smoother, and easier than the incessant stream of thoughts that takes you beyond the here and now.
Try this exercise again. You don’t need to close your eyes once you get the hang of it. Notice the cup of coffee on your table but resist the temptation to label it good or bad, hot or cold, or to wonder whether it’ll end up leaving a ring on your wood furniture. Just limit your thoughts to what you see in this moment: A white ceramic cup half-filled with black coffee on a bleached pine table.
When you tune in to the present moment you accept it as it is. You don’t compare it or judge it, and you don’t wonder how it could be different in the future or better or worse than it was in the past. You are 100 percent in harmony with the Happiness Equation. Events totally match your expectations when you observe the world as it is. How peaceful!
I’m going to ask you to step back into that capsule for one more trip. This time the researcher proudly informs you that the technology now moves the capsule instantaneously between stations. It takes no time at all to get to the other end. “We’ve also added lots to experience at every station,” she says, “which is why some volunteers have complained that the journey passes by unnoticed while they would’ve preferred to take their time and enjoy it. So we added a new feature, a button that you can press whenever you want to move forward to the next station. If you don’t push the button, the capsule will automatically advance from each station at midnight every day. You can press the button seventy-five times at your own convenience to get to the other side or experience the full seventy-five-day trip. It is your choice.” She then says, “Or was it seventy-five years? I can’t remember. It doesn’t matter, it will pass by in a flash either way.”
“That’s an easy choice,” you say. “Let’s get on with it. See you on the other side.” As she closes the door she says, “Oh, I forgot to mention, I won’t be able to meet you there. When you reach the other end, you die. This ride is all you have.” She pushes the start button, closes the door, and sends you on your way.
Now that you’re in control (sort of), will you press the button quickly and get it done with, or will you spend every day experiencing each station to the fullest? Will you spend the time in each station thinking about Day 75? Will you spend it regretting the days that passed? Or will you spend every day experiencing that day and everything it has to offer?
Make up your mind.
Solve for Happy