One of my favourite films is Kung Fu Panda. Not only is it fantastic fun, but it is also littered with many great teachings and observations.
I love, for example, the way Master Shifu perceptively transforms Po’s weakness for stuffing himself with food into a very strong motivator for positive change.
The teaching, however, that really acts as a ‘light bulb’ moment for me, (to quote another film!), occurs when Master Oogway instructs Po as follows:
“You are too concerned with what was and what will be. There is a saying: Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift*. That is why it is called present.”
What makes these words of wisdom so potent and instantly memorable are their deep resonance and truth. Generally, we spend very little time in the present and instead often find ourselves thinking about events that have already happened or in anticipating those that might.
After all, thinking about the past or the future is important. The past, for example, gives us, in part, our sense of identity together with the knowledge and experience of years of accumulated wisdom. This in turn can help us to successfully prepare for future activities as we project ourselves forwards in time to anticipate potential problems and consider how best to deal with them.
The problem for all of us, however, is that when we visit past memories or dwell on future expectations, not only can we become stuck there, but we also touch the emotions that we associate with those events. This is fine if the emotional tone of that event is felt to be ‘positive’ for us, but if those emotions are particularly challenging, then as we relive or anticipate those events, so we experience their emotional content just as if the event was happening now. This can significantly lower our mood here in the present. Ruminating thought patterns, for example, in which the mind is pulled, regularly and often unconsciously into reliving past events and their imagined future consequences, can act as a sort of cognitive whirlpool pulling us down into potentially deep states of anxiety and depression.
Mindfulness practice, however, can allow us to spot these thought patterns and once aware of them give us the opportunity of placing our thoughts elsewhere, somewhere that is better for us. Indeed, the national institute for Health Care Excellence guidance for depression includes mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) as a psychological intervention for relapse prevention for people who are significantly at risk of relapse.’**
Thoughts about the past and the future are believed to account for around 80% of our perceived worries and yet both are really nothing more than electro-chemical impulses running around the pathways of the brain. They are imagined and insubstantial but given form and power by us.
The present is the one moment of reality that we have. A place where we actually exist and have the power to change things. We can also choose to view the 20% of so of perceived problems that we encounter here, as opportunities for growth and development.
If, however, you like so many of us find yourself stuck somewhere in the past or living in the future, you might like to try the following short practice to help.
From time to time simply pause and as you do, ask yourself…
When am I now? Past, present or future.
If in the past say silently to yourself, “past, past, past.”
If in the future say, “future, future, future.”
And if in the present, simply smile in acknowledgment.
Whatever you find, take three breaths perhaps making the outbreath a little longer than the inbreath…feeling the flow and sensations that each breath makes…
And then continue with whatever you were doing before, or decide to do something that is best for you… now, fully in the present…at least for now…
Mind wandering is normal, we all do it. Noticing where we are with compassion and kindness allows us to regularly drop into when we are and with gentleness look after ourselves. As we do this, so we become a present for all those around us.
The present is rich with potential. It is our real home, and some would say the greatest gift we have.
*The quote in italics is attributed to the American cartoonist Bil Keane.