If we are not fully ourselves, truly in the present moment, we miss everything.
– Thich Nhat Hanh
Many people have a problem with letting go of the past, no matter if it is painful or pleasant. Not me, however. I’ve always been able to let go of the past almost immediately. My problem has been letting go of the future.
Ever since my first job, I’ve been a planner. I’ve been able to see and develop pathways to future goals, and in most cases that has served me well. Over time, especially as my professional responsibilities increased, the level and detail of the planning increased. When I was faced with the chaotic family medical situation for a few years, my level of planning reached obsessive levels. I would literally have future plans laid out in excruciating detail, with contingency plans A, B, C and D for each potential obstacle. I spent hours every day thinking about plans, tweaking strategies and tactics, both personally and professionally. I spent hours identifying potential corrective actions to situations that, if even the worst occurred, might take a few minutes to fix—if they were even worth fixing.
I blame this obsession with planning on my first boss, who told me to “sweat the details.” That simple statement apparently triggered some OCD-inducing neurochemical pathway in my brain. But before you tell me that I need to check myself in to a rehab facility, let me tell you that I’ve changed.
The change began a few years ago (surprisingly, without professional intervention) by the Lean guy in me realizing it was ridiculous to spend more time planning contingencies than it would take to simply deal with problems that might not occur. This was a waste, and it was a struggle to overcome. I had to be okay with problems arising. I soon learned that, as the cliché states, problems are opportunities to learn.
The change in my mindset was fortified by the realization that I was missing what was happening in the present by focusing so much on the future. Time had flown by and I hadn’t even noticed. I had experienced many great things, but I didn’t remember them. I remember one day when I was standing in the middle of our production floor, trying to channel Taiichi Ohno and simply observe the process. After nearly an hour, I realized I had spent the previous fifty-five minutes thinking about solutions to a problem I had noticed in the first five minutes on the floor. I completely missed the fact that the production team had also seen the problem and had already resolved it. What a space case! I needed to work on focus, on being present.
The emphasis on being mindful of the present moment is perhaps Zen’s most distinctive characteristic. In our western relationship with time, we compulsively pick over the past in order to learn lessons from it, and then project into a hypothetical future how those lessons can be applied. The present moment has been compressed to a tiny sliver on the clock face between a vast past and an infinite future. Zen, more than anything else, is about reclaiming and expanding the present moment.
There are many exercises that can help us become more present. By turning off the radio in the car, deliberately trying to experience each of the five senses while walking, or spending time alone in silence, you can slowly learn to be more aware of the present. Feel the warmth of the sun, the chill of the wind, the sound of the crickets, and the conversations of people around you. Practice during routine activities such as brushing your teeth, and especially when you are having to wait.
Being mindful is being truly aware of your surroundings and what you are doing. Why are you doing what you’re doing? What is the purpose? Who is the customer? What is the expected result? Does it create value? Is there a better way of doing it?
It’s important to be aware that mindfulness can be uncomfortable, especially in the beginning. You will notice and confront difficult feelings and thoughts, but recognizing and coming to terms with them is critical for self-awareness.
Focus on purposely and deliberately being in the present. Listen to what your spouse or team members are saying, without thinking about last night’s football game or tomorrow’s presentation. Watch the sunset without wondering what’s for dinner. When you have a couple of spare minutes between meetings or when you first come into the office, don’t check your phone or strike up a conversation. Just sit and observe the present.