Being present and living in the present moment has become a prominent message that is shared by spiritual and personal development teachers alike. For many of us, the concept of presence may mean living more fully, more mindfully, more joyfully or living with less stress. But the importance and benefits of being present go above and beyond these already significant benefits.
Today, our mental health is suffering greatly worldwide. The World Health Organization has identified depression as the world’s top disability, with over 300 million people suffering from depression worldwide. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America shares that anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, with over 40 million adults being affected. Clearly we have a challenge that is destroying the quality of people’s lives, and in turn how our society operates.
Beyond the various theories that try to pinpoint what is responsible for the high prevalence of these conditions, there are two simple ways of seeing them, and they both stem from a lack of present moment awareness. Depression is a fixation on the past, where people are caught up in living within a vortex of regrets, resentments — all the “could have beens” and “should have beens”. Anxiety is a fixation on the future, where people are caught up in living within a vortex of fear and uncertainty — all the “could be’s” and “should be’s”. Both embody states of victimhood, rather than empowerment. Both are also missing the critical component of being present, which is the only “place” within our grasp that is real, and where we have choice and power over our lives. Sadly, all too many people and medical professionals still incorrectly view depression as a chemical imbalance.
It is also well known that constant rumination is one of the main symptoms of depression. What we need is to gain freedom from the mental chain reactions that rumination endlessly perpetuates.
Matthieu Ricard, Beyond the Self
As we age and accumulate experiences within our lives, alongside we accumulate memories. Memories on their own, regardless if they are pleasant or unpleasant, are not negative or harmful. It is what we do with them that makes all the difference. The act of recalling a memory and simply letting it pass through, or learning something from it that improves us or our life, is a harmless process. However recalling memories in cyclical patterns and ruminating on them regularly transforms simple thoughts into destructive mind patterns. Interacting with our memories in this fashion puts us on a dangerous path into depression and/or anxiety, as we lose sight of and connection with the present moment. Cyclical memories activate pathways in your mind that amplify all that you had or were but don’t or aren’t now, all that you didn’t have or weren’t, all that you might not have or be, do, etc. As you can imagine, this is all prime ground for states of depression and anxiety.
In the freshness of the present moment, the past is gone, the future is not yet born, and if one remains in pure mindfulness and freedom, potentially disturbing thoughts arise and go without leaving a trace.
Matthieu Ricard, Beyond the Self
This is why aside from the importance of living with presence, living in the present, and being present, it is equally as important to know how to cultivate awareness and mindfulness, as these help to train our mind to be present. In a dialogue based on their co-authored book, Beyond the Self, Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard and neuroscientist Wolf Singer explore the effects of meditation and therapy on the brain.
As it goes, neuroscience and psychological therapy have a lot to learn from mindfulness meditation, which trains the brain and mind to function with more focus, awareness, presence and efficiency. The more we train our mind, the more we are in charge of it. This in turn increases our capacity to effectively deal with any of our passing thoughts and emotions, so that we do not get stuck in any of them and create mental disharmony, like depression or anxiety, with them.