“The power of now can only be realized now. It requires no time and effort. Effort means you’re trying hard to get somewhere and so you are not present, welcoming this moment as it is.” ~Eckhart Tolle
Eight years ago, I was very depressed. I wanted nothing more than to stop feeling this way and dreamed of escaping my body. I had struggled with depression for many years, and I was terrified that I might feel that way forever.
Someone recommended I do a mindfulness-based course. This turned out to be the one of the most helpful parts of my journey. The therapist suggested I needed to learn to sit with my feelings instead of resisting them, but this terrified me. I was afraid of my feelings, and I thought that accepting them meant accepting they would be there forever.
But as I practiced the skills of mindfulness and distress tolerance, I noticed that when I accepted my emotions they often shifted more easily. Or at least I didn’t make them worse by worrying about them. I realized that I had been making the depression and anxiety worse by resisting my feelings.
Connect to the Present Moment
I’m guessing this is a common struggle, and the solution can feel counter-intuitive. Many people fear that if they let themselves feel their emotions they will be taken over by them. However, when I make space for my emotions without acting on them, sometimes there is pain and I might cry, but it is a clean pain rather than a mental anguish, and it doesn’t last as long.
I also find that connecting to the present moment helps me create a little space in my mind when my thoughts start stressing me out.
It’s easy to get caught up thinking about the past, worrying about the future, or wishing the future would hurry up and arrive. When I notice this happening now, I ground myself in the present moment by listening to the sounds around me, noticing my feet touching the ground and my breath flowing in and out, and I feel calmer.
Observe Your Thoughts and Emotions
I’ve learned to observe my thoughts instead of attaching a story to them. Emotions can’t last forever on their own. I heard that the natural lifespan of an emotion is about ninety seconds. But we can keep them alive for longer by thinking about them, being afraid of them, and resisting them. Emotions, like everything else in life, come and go.
Once I had the ability to create distance from my thoughts and not be consumed by my emotions, I was able to take action to make my life better, even when I didn’t feel like it. I did my best to embrace life as it was instead of focusing on how I would like it to be.
This doesn’t mean I didn’t still struggle at times, but embracing the present moment helps me get through these times more constructively. I don’t think my relationship with my partner would have worked if I hadn’t already started learning these skills before we met.
Stop Resisting the Present
Fast forward a few years and I am in Colombia, South America, where my partner is from. I was visiting his family when Covid-19 hit.
Like many people, I no longer had the freedom and independence that I was used to. Instead of living in the city like we had expected, we were staying in his parents’ town, and my partner was working from home. I didn’t have the option to join a Spanish class or get a job like I had planned, and at times I felt lost. After six months of this I was getting desperate, but I couldn’t travel home to Australia even if I wanted to.
During a tearful conversation, my partner suggested that maybe I was resisting the situation too much. There was nothing we could do about it, and I was just making it worse for myself by resisting reality.
The next day my sister suggested I read The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle. It totally changed my perspective. I was reminded that in the present moment in front of me everything was actually okay. It was when I thought about the future that I got into a dark place.
Stop the Mental Time Traveling
Just like when I was depressed, I thought, “I can’t take this anymore! How long is this going to go on?” And just like then, when I accepted the current situation it didn’t seem as bad. I started to enjoy the free time and relish my time there knowing that nothing lasts forever, good or bad.
I read books, did yoga, lay in the hammock, and studied Spanish. These were all the things that I was doing before, but it felt different. I wasn’t resisting being in Colombia anymore, I was just there. I stopped wishing to be back home or worrying how long it would be. And that allowed me to enjoy the beautiful, unique things about that season.
I slowed down and let myself stare up at the trees and listen to the birds. I enjoyed the chance to get to know my in-laws and my fiancé’s culture. Sometimes now, when I stop and listen to the silence, I feel a deep sense of peace and joy.
Take Action When You Can
Now, if there had been something that I could have done to change things, of course I would have done it. I’m not advocating for passive submission or fatalism. Sometimes we need to take action, set boundaries, and be proactive. In fact, when you stop resisting the present it allows you to see things as they truly are. This can empower you to focus on the actions you can take right now rather than focusing on the future.
But when there is nothing we can do, accepting this present moment is often more powerful than worrying about all the moments to come. You’ll know what to do when the time to act arrives.
Surrendering Saves Energy
If you are struggling with a situation that you can’t control, can you come back to your body and what is around you here and now? Can you make space for any emotions that are present and allow them to move through you? Focus on the one breath you are taking right now. What can you feel, see, smell, taste, and hear?
Surrendering to the present is like floating on your back instead of thrashing around in the water trying to get out. Trust that eventually you will drift safely to shore. This not only saves energy, it allows you to enjoy any positives in your current situation, because just like the difficult things the good things won’t last forever either. The present moment is all we have, and in a way it’s all that is real.
It’s a Practice
I’m not naive enough to think that I won’t have any more bad days. That’s part of being human, especially when we’re tired, hormonal, or stressed. I may forget this lesson and need to learn it again in a new context. I suspect it’s something I will be practicing for the rest of my life, and that’s okay. But I hope that next time I will be able to catch myself a little sooner when I am resisting instead of simply being in the present moment—where I inevitably find peace.
Ella is a social worker who is passionate about mental health. She loves writing, hiking and watching movies. You can read more of her work at her blog Mind Balance Café.