The stand-up comedian’s striking use of spontaneity and ability to be improvisational have a lot to do with the capacity to function fully in the present moment. Let’s look into how we too might benefit if we were able to apply this principle in our own lives.
Spontaneity means being totally in the present moment – not being in the past, or being in the future, or some other time when you might wish things were or will be or might be different or better than they are now. Spontaneity is embracing current reality, warts and all – and manifesting the hidden opportunities that latently lurk therein.
Being in the present is scary – but it’s also exciting and exhilarating. Being in the present is being fully alive. Comedians need to do this, or they’re in big trouble.
I suggest to you that our ability to cope positively with life, and to deal effectively with life’s awkward habit of differing from how we would like it to be, is greatly affected by the way we relate to the passing to time. Indeed, I believe that many of our problems are generated in the first place by the way we process time. I call it extrapolation, or going out of the present.
The problem with time
It’s very common to have a dysfunctional or negative approach to the passing of time. There are basically two categories of problem which characterize this:
1: The sense that time is passing us by too quickly, that opportunities are being missed, that not enough has been achieved – it’s all out of control, and we’re getting older and that bit closer to death, which by the way might occur out of the blue at any moment
2: The sense that time is passing too slowly, that life is empty, that nothing much is happening, or that things aren’t happening quickly enough
Surprisingly, both of these responses have an identical cause – inability to fully experience and take advantage of the present moment. ‘Time passing by too quickly’ is more oriented towards dwelling in and attachment to the past – looking back from the present and identifying unsatisfactoriness or lack. ‘Time passing too slowly’ is excessively oriented towards the future, and wanting it to be here now. Comedians can’t afford to dwell on what they’ve just said, or what they’re going to say later on.
Living more in the present can really help when dealing with challenges, while being preoccupied with past or future can very much get in the way – indeed, may have in itself generated some of one’s current difficulties. For instance, trying to build a new relationship while dwelling incessantly on what went wrong with past relationships does not give your new project the best possible chance. In the present moment, you can take action to change things that are affecting you from your past, and that will create your future. But if you totally preoccupy yourself with past or future, you disable your present.
Living in the past
Of course, there’s a very valid place for reviewing the past in order to learn lessons and process issues, but most of us spend a disproportionate amount of our time dwelling on the past, which:
- causes suffering in the present
- doesn’t move us forward
- can actually obstruct our progress
When you find yourself incessantly mulling over the past, it’s tempting to wish things hadn’t happened as they had, or that you had done something differently – that you’d married a different person, or become a best-selling novelist, or millionaire or supermodel, rather than a booking clerk. Such regrets represent a symptom of overly dwelling in the past – going back to a time in the past and wishing you had done something differently, often in a repeated and protracted pattern. These conjectures are totally fruitless. It would clearly be more valuable to ponder constructively on matters which you can do something about – or at least learn something valuable from past circumstances.
Robert Holden offers a witty and arresting observation in this regard. “Sometimes,” he says, “in order to be happy in the present moment, you have to be willing to give up all hope for a better past.” Indeed so.
Dwelling on the future
Likewise, there’s a very important place for looking into our future so that we can identify objectives, have some sort of structured plan, and anticipate certain eventualities. But we must always come back to the present in order to put plans into action. Yet how much time do we spend dwelling on the future in a way that is predominantly fearful or worrying, rather than constructive? If you look back over say the last week or month, how much time do you think you may have spent fretting over eventualities which in the event didn’t materialise, or which turned out very differently from what you were presuming? Probably something like 90% of our suffering is over something that isn’t happening right now.
Dwelling on the future in a prolonged, excessive, habitual way causes anxiety in the present, and has an adverse effect on your ability to cope with things as they are arising now. Will I find the right person to marry? Will my partner divorce me one of these days? Now that I’m a successful millionaire novelist supermodel, will I miss being a bookings clerk?
We can sum up the ideal relationship to the three components of time in the following simplified guide-lines:
- review the past
- plan for the future
- live in the present.
Sabotaging the present
As human beings, we’re also prone to squandering the present moment. Do you ever find yourself doing one thing (washing the dishes, practicing Pilates, making love with someone), but thinking ahead to the next or later activity (wondering what to cook for dinner/ next week’s Pilates class/ making love with someone else)? Surely it must be preferable give all your attention to one thing at a time, then move on to the next thing and give all your attention to that – it’s just not being fully present.
Why would we want to go out of the present so much? Apart from the past-oriented and future-oriented patterns mentioned above, there may be present-related issues. What might we be unconsciously seeking to escape from – emotion? responsibility? risk, change, adventure? the unknown? or perhaps our own true potential and powerfulness? Or perhaps it’s the sheer intensity of being fully present and alive?
Strategies for living in the present
It really helps to develop a habit of noticing when you’re experiencing any of these present-sabotaging patterns. Can you think to yourself:
1) I’m doing this now
2) I’m going to be carrying on doing it
3) …so why don’t I just accept that, and enter into it more fully?
So practice enjoying the moment, however fleetingly – but not in a frenzied, hyper-manic way, trying to fit in far too much into a short time. Feeling free of the trappings of the past and future is an exhilarating feeling, and a joy when you can do it. Even a challenging moment can be significantly more bearable when you experience it for what it is, rather than exaggerate the suffering by bringing in time-frames beyond the present. Very often, your suffering is increased because you’re extrapolating beyond the present – unconsciously assuming that whatever is happening now will always happen, or will go on happening, or will get worse – which is not the case, most of the time.
As you practice being more fully present, for more of the time, you will find that it steadily becomes a more pervasive and less conscious habit, you will be expanding your comfort zone and making life that bit more of a creative adventure – just like that young kid you once were.