A 60-year-old man who has never owned a car wins a new car in a fundraising lottery. All of his friends tell him how lucky he is because now he can visit his kids and go to the market whenever he wants.
His response is: "Lucky? Maybe yes, maybe no."
A few weeks later, he has an accident in the new car and ends up in the hospital. His friends tell him that it is a tragedy, that he should never have driven and how unlucky it was that he won the new car.
His response is: "Unlucky? Maybe yes, maybe no."
While he is in the hospital, there is an electrical fire in his house. If he had been there, he surely would have died. His friends tell him how lucky he is to have been in the hospital and that he will recover from the accident but that he would have been dead if he had been at home.
His response is: "Lucky? Maybe yes, maybe no."
(via Lee Lipsenthal, based on an old Chinese tale)
As you can see from this tale, we really don't know for sure what the long-term outcome of any choice or situation will be. At the time it might seem like we have it all figured out, but the future has many unexpected twists and turns. For this reason it's critical to focus on what is, rather than what might be. Wondering what will be, worrying about what could happen, gets you nowhere but frazzled in the present.
I struggle with this constantly. My assumptions and daydreams about what the future might hold often cause unnecessary stress. As much as I strive to be present -- I've made it part of my full-time job! -- it's a constant battle to remember that what is real carries so much more value than what exists in my mind. For a long while, I knew I wanted to be more present and I read everything I could on the subject but I still struggled with it. I would grow frustrated, making my already tired mind more exhausted.
Though I still struggle with being present (I really would love to know how people like Eckhart Tolle do it...!), I've come up with a method for managing thoughts about the future that really helps me to redirect my thoughts to the present moment. When my mind starts to wander, I do what I can to bring it back to the present by using what I like to think of as the TAP method.
The TAP method involves taking thoughts about the future and giving them a closer look. While it sounds very fancy, it's basically a series of three questions that I ask myself when I find my thoughts dragging me away from the present. Asking myself these questions almost always helps to bring me back into moment.
The TAP Method
The next time you find your mind wandering from the present -- dwelling on what could be -- use these questions to rein in those wayward thoughts and bring your focus back to the now.
1. Is it TRUE right now?
Take the thought you're having and figure out if it's true right in this moment. Let's say you are worried about an upcoming presentation at work or school. In your mind you are standing up in front of the crowd, sweating, forgetting all the points you wanted to make. In your mind you are arriving unprepared, you are mocked by your colleagues or classmates. Now, those are very real concerns, but are they true right in this moment? No. Just like with this example, most of the things we imagine are not true in the present moment. Could they come true? Possibly. But thinking about them and giving them the same attention we would a true thought is pointless. It is a waste of our time and energy to focus attention on what may or may not happen. Also, take another look at the tale above. Even if the worst case scenario did come true, do we know why it came true? Perhaps there is something worse than the worst thing we can imagine. Use this question to focus on what's real and true, not what might/possibly/maybe/could happen.
2. Is it ADDING anything?
If the first question didn't help and you have still been able to convince yourself that your thoughts about the future are true (remember: as much as they seem like very real possibilities, nothing is truer than the present moment), this question is the next step for bringing that brain of yours back to the now. Examine those thoughts you're having about the future and ask yourself if they're adding anything to your perception of the world. Let's use the same example we used with question #1: you're stressing about an upcoming presentation and all you can do is imagine how you will stumble over your words and embarrass yourself. Are these thoughts adding anything your present moment? Are they making you more prepared for your presentation? More confident that you will do well? Are they helping you to go over the information you will need to present? Nope! In fact, these thoughts are most likely taking something away from you -- value time and energy that you could be using to prepare and practice. If the thoughts of the future aren't adding value, let them go.
3. Is it POSITIVE?
You might be able to convince yourself that the future thoughts are true and adding value ("They're preparing me for potential outcomes!" you might argue), but you can't argue with this third question: are these thoughts positive? Imagining what could occur in the future might seem to have it's value, but more often then not the imagined scenarios are harmful to living a positive and present life. Yes, we must all look to the future at times, but dwelling on or obsessing about the future, assuming we know what will come to be, is almost never positive. Look closely at your thoughts -- even those about the past and present -- and ask yourself if they are positive. Going back to our example, you can see that imagining the worst outcome is not positive. But what about imagining the best outcome? That certainly must be positive. While I won't argue that imagining yourself giving an amazing speech is much better than daydreaming of a failed performance, either way you are choosing to focus on something that is imaginary. The most positive choice of all is to focus on what's happening right now, what's real and true.
Though it's not foolproof (my mind has a funny way of worrying about the future no matter how hard I struggle to focus on the now), the TAP method has definitely helped me redirect my thoughts from what-could-be to what-is. Importantly, it gives me a process that encourages me to focus on what I'm thinking instead of just letting my thoughts run wild. Learning to question my thoughts, rather than accept them as facts, has made a huge impact on living a positive and present life -- as has recalling the story above every time I think I know what life has in store for me. The future is a tempting place to visit, but it's no match for living in the moment.