Natural born chillers

Relishing the moment.
Relishing the moment. 

IF The path to happiness is all about living in the now, perhaps we could learn a thing or two from our own mini zen masters, says Paul Chai.

We are told by a gaggle of New Age gurus that "living in the now" is the answer to many of our problems - that being "present" equals being happy.

Even scientists have got in on the act, with psychologists at Harvard University charting the happiness of 2250 volunteers and finding out they were happiest when focusing on the present (oh, and having sex, but that probably didn't require that much research).

"Our study finds that mind-wandering is associated with and may cause unhappiness," says one of the study's authors, Matt Killingsworth. "The more often people mind-wander, the less happy they tend to be."

I live with two people who are experts at living in the now, who exist almost exclusively in the present moment.

They are my sons, who are two and four - so why do I find them so bloody annoying?

Primarily, it is because this skill is great in theory.

In practice, however, no one is going to get to the shops and buy bread and milk by spending hours building a spaceship out of Duplo.

And no matter how many times you walk from one side of the house to the other on tippy-toes, then fall about laughing, it's not going to replenish the nappy supply.

But you can't tell that to a small child.

Well, you could, but they wouldn't hear you because they would be too busy ostentatiously displaying their connection with the present moment.

It may well be the only skill they have, apart from being able to get food inside their underwear while eating.

So, our job as parents seems to be to expunge this righteous "nowness" like a stain; to make them understand the regret of past indiscretions and the pressure of future deadlines; to instill in them a sense of haste and forward motion; to teach them to wave farewell to "the now" as they race off to "the somewhere else".

We basically beat this "living in the now" skill out of them until they turn into frustrated adults, who then spend a fortune on self-help books trying to find it again, which seems kind of absurd.

There is no denying the downsides to living without thought to the past or future.

Having had clearly outlined to them what we have to do to get out of the house - put on shoes, get jackets, swap said jackets for ones not covered in yoghurt - the kids can usually be found intently opening and closing the rice cooker.

But there are upsides, too.

Having just been yelled at by an exasperated father for misbehaving - say, showing undue interest in a rice cooker - they can come up and give you a hug as if nothing had ever happened.

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"That volcanic eruption you just had, Dad? That was soooo last minute."

So what is a time-poor parent to do?

Cath Hutchison, principal psychologist at Mindhealth counselling, says we must be aware that the present moment is incredibly important to a child.

They fully engage with everything they are doing - and that is something we can learn from our offspring.

But that doesn't mean we can pack it all in and take up residence in the sandpit beside our toddlers ... although I have had days.

"We can't be like children," Hutchison says.

"It is right on some level that our parents 'beat that out of us'. If we did everything at our whim, we would never be able to achieve the things we have to achieve, to have careers and to earn money, and there's a level of regulation that children need to learn. But I think that what happened is we overlearnt regulation to the sacrifice of being present."

So what can our kids teach us about being in the present?

Were my boys to pick up a crayon and write a self-help tome, there would definitely be a chapter on sticks.

Never have I seen an object create such fascination, experimentation and awe.

I determined one morning to follow my two kids, at their pace, to see where it took me. The answer: about 300 metres in two hours.

At the end of our street is a tree that is particularly productive in the stick department and there we sat.

We hit them against trees, we built "bug houses", we simply held them aloft.

My two-year-old particularly liked holding them above his head, resembling one of the apemen at the beginning of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Perhaps that is the time when we were the happiest, back in the distant past, just hanging out discussing the terrible state of the stick harvest that year.

I know that during our stick games, I really did manage to lose track of time, to be fully involved in just mucking about - a feeling I haven't had in years.

To that end, I think Cath Hutchison is right, though we may need to maintain a balance.

I don't think I truly realised how little time I spent being present until I had kids, how often I was mentally somewhere else.

And learning to be more present is a gift - sticks and all.

- Sunday Life