There are two ways in which we can be trapped in the past. First is when we are so enamoured of our past achievements or so traumatised by our tragedies that we stay frozen in that time, rather than attending to the present.
The other is when we start living in a fantasy world created by us. This world is all about what could have been if things had happened differently. Like how easy life would have been if we had the perfect job, or how nice things might have been if we had approached the girl/ guy we fancied back in college. This kind of living ' in the past ' also robs us of our skills, mental availability, efficiency and peace of mind in the present.
Then there are others among us whose minds can be constantly flitting from the present to the future. We think faraway, have grand goals and get so absorbed in visualising the outcome of our choice that we don ' t even stop to think what the road to that goal might look like! That in order to achieve our target, there are smaller steps to be taken in the here and now. If we are too focused on something that might happen in the future, we miss all the opportunities that are there in the present moment.
The other flip side of this is that we keep obsessively worrying about the future. So many of us use up so much of our time and energy imagining the worst possible things that could happen to us or our loved ones. Not only that, we put in a lot of effort inventing ways to avoid or solve those situations too.
The result? We are least productive in taking action in the present situation.
MAXING THE MOMENT
Can ' carpe diem ' — or the idea ' seize the day ' — be a remedy for our troubles? That seems to be the philosophy that popular culture is obsessed with of late, and the self- help industry is making the most of it too, but let 's try and understand what it means.
The Oxford English Dictionaries describes carpe diem as "to urge someone to make the most of the present time and give little thought to the future". The popular Latin aphorism is also often equated with the arguably misinterpreted and debatable Charvaka couplet in Sanskrit: " Enjoy every moment of life as long as you live. Even if you need to borrow money, always ensure that you are well- fed. " But " just enjoying the moment " while ignoring everything else and " being present in the moment " are two very different things.
Conceptually and in practice, they are diametrically opposite.
The modern- day idea of carpe diem is a stance where we are constantly looking for pleasure; we want excitement and ecstasy all the time. When we try hard to make every single moment pleasurable, it disconnects us from the totality of that moment. So we tend to pick the ' truths ' that are comfortable for us and ignore those that are not. Which actually amounts to turning a blind eye to reality.
The Roman poet Horace first used the phrase ' carpe diem ' to urge people to take action in the present moment in order to build a better future.
Even Charvaka, for whatever little could be retrieved and decoded, taught people to take action based on objectivity, rather than lofty metaphysical ideas about afterlife and karma.
In their teachings, both advocated an action- oriented, awareness- based living, so that one could be more available in the moment.
IN THE NOW
Then, what is living in the moment? Well, it is an approach of inclusion, where you take in both the good and the bad — whatever it is that the moment offers. In the real sense, living in the moment is an invitation to be completely aware, awake, and available in the current moment.
When we are present, we are aware of our surroundings, the people around us, and we are aware of ourselves. We are also aware of the situation we are in and what we are feeling at that moment — pleasant, unpleasant or nothing in particular. We try to remain as non- judgemental as possible and assess all of it with a sense of calm.
Here, we look at everything with a certain degree of objectivity. We look at ourselves and others as a whole, and take a measure of our limitations as well as our potential, objectively. We try to see our weaknesses and vulnerabilities, with kindness, and work on them without being self- critical or ashamed.
Such a perspective also lets us look at our strengths and use them appropriately, without feeling proud or arrogant. We also remain connected to others and ourselves. This stance needs us to be acutely mindful of ' what is ' and it helps us to face life situations even if they are uncomfortable. So, we make rational decisions, instead of rushing into something, swept by a tide of emotions. And we can look at the present moment as part of a continuum, not as an isolated dot in time. Here, we are centred and collected in the present, while remaining connected to our past and aware of the possibilities that lie in the future.
It allows us to learn from our past mistakes and experiences, and assimilate the learnings in the present. So we can prepare to put our best foot forward.
Dr Sangbarta Chattopadhyay and Dr Namita Bhuta
are medical practitioners and practising psychotherapists. They are trained Family and Structural Constellation leaders