It has become fashionable to drop the phrase carpe diem, especially on social media. It means enjoying the present moment. To seize each day and live it to the fullest. Neither brooding over the past, nor anticipating the future. To be alive here and now. This is it. And nothing else is.
Mystics have for centuries recommended carpe diem, pronounced kaa(r)-pey-dee-um (British), to live in the present and flow with the tide as a means to achieve a sense of calm and balance, and by extension, an element of happiness in life. The master of mindfulness, the late Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Nhat Hanh, put it wisely, “Life is available only in the present. That is why we should walk in such a way that every step can bring us to the here and the now.”
The Roman poet Horace's carpe diem and the Buddhist monk's mindfulness are two sides of the same mental coin. In both cases we’re told to enjoy life while we can and make the most of our present time on earth. The Latin aphorism can be practiced every wakeful moment, from the time we rise in the morning till we retire for the night. Time enough to slowly inch our way to a more meaningful existence.
Thích Nhat Hanh offers us his own authentic experience of mindfulness, and it has to do with something as commonplace as having a cup of tea. “When I am mindful, I enjoy my tea more,” he said, savouring every sip of his tea till the cup was empty. “I am fully present in the here and now, not carried away by my sorrow, my fear, my projects, the past and the future. I am here available to life.”
If the renowned monk could apply the principle of carpe diem to a cup of tea and gain inner strength from that mundane act, imagine its potential benefits in other spheres of life. Studies have shown that mindfulness, including mindfulness meditation, can improve our wellbeing, providing relief from a host of mental and physical health problems. It can help rein in our deepest emotions like worry, anger, fear and anxiety. The big takeaway from mindfulness is that it has no side effects, only positive outcomes.
Carpe diem is easier said than done, or so people tell me, as I tell myself. It’s probably one of the most difficult things we will have tried. But like other seemingly insurmountable challenges, it can be done with patience, practice and perseverance, and a little faith in ourselves. We’re often told to watch our step. Why not our minds too?
According to the spiritual teachers, a good place to start living in the moment is during meditation. If that’s not your thing, then you can sit still in a comfortable chair, close your eyes and turn your attention to your breathing, feel your belly expand as you inhale and contract as you exhale. Breathe as you would normally. If you like slow-count up to five with each inhale, hold and exhale. At first, you will be mindful of your breathing for no more than a few seconds and then your mind will take off, like an airplane gathering speed on the runway and soaring into the skies. When this happens, try and pull your mind back to your breathing and focus on your inhales and exhales.
Till, one day, every breath you take will guide every moment of your life. For, to breathe, like the gentle waves lapping the silent shore, is to be aware of your present. It’s the first and most important aid to mindfulness, to the exclusion of everything else within and without.
Carpe diem or mindfulness is not some complex scientific theory beyond our understanding. It has been with us from the moment we developed intellect and the capacity to distinguish between what is good and what is not. We can all aspire to reach the summit of wakeful awareness and reap its cumulative benefit in mind, body and spirit – so long as we stay rooted in our present.