It seems everyone is talking about being mindful, eating mindfully and generally staying present to combat stress. Living in the present moment will help quiet the mind, calm the body and reduce anxiety, and it’s easy to get started.
In order to help define what it means to stay present, let’s talk about what it means to not be in the present moment first.
Have you ever been at your desk at work, starting at a picture of your family, concerned that you’re missing something at home? Or, have you ever been home with the family thinking about how you really need to find time to exercise? Or, have you ever been exercising and thinking about that big presentation you have to do for work?
This is what it means to NOT be in the present moment. You are physically somewhere, but your mind is bouncing around between thoughts of the past or the future. When we think about the past, we tend to spend time mulling over what happened – what could have been, what you wished had happened, what could you have done differently. When we fantasize about the future, we are anticipating what’s to come – what will be, what could be, the dreaded what if, what might happen. These thoughts can become problematic if our mind is constantly in the past or the future.
Our society doesn’t help us stay present either – we are constantly being asked to do more with less and be everything to everyone. The amount of tasks, responsibilities and roles we manage on a daily basis is quite astonishing. Technology also makes it very easy to constantly check email, voicemail and social media accounts. It’s almost impossible to be present with so many inputs coming at us and so many things on our minds.
But what we need to remember is the past can’t be changed and the future hasn’t actually happened yet. And the more time we spend thinking about the past or worrying about the future, the more we are missing in the present. These past and future “time periods” don’t even exist!
So what does it mean to be present?
It’s when your awareness is completely centered on the here and now. You are not worrying about the future or thinking about the past. When you live in the present, you are living where life is happening.
What’s interesting is that the brain can’t separate real threats from imagined threats. So if you are playing with your kids but you are spending time in your thoughts concerned about the past or worrying about the future, the brain will perceive danger and trigger the sympathetic nervous system. The fight/flight response kicks in and your body gets revved up for danger, even though you are sitting on your couch in a safe space.
Occasionally having this happen is not a big deal, but if this is happening over a long period of time, it’s like having a low-grade anxiety running in the background. The muscles are constantly tense, blood pressure runs high, and the heart races a bit faster than it should. The body is constantly revved up to get ready for flight, even though you are in a safe situation. This results in chronic pain, headaches, and the inability to focus.
How can we really start to live in the present moment?
It starts with the breath. When you notice your mind is not focused on the here and now, you want to take a deep inhale and a deep exhale through the nose. Try that three times and see if you are now aware of your surroundings. Notice the breath going in through the nose, filling up the body, and then feel the air exhale out the nostrils.
The next thing you can do is to focus on what you are doing right in the moment. For example, if you are sweeping the floor, keep your awareness on the action. Notice your feet on the floor, notice the broom in your hand, notice the color of the broom, notice the dust you are picking up. Another great example is when you are washing the dishes. Notice the warmth of the water and the smell of the dish soap. Notice the sound of the water going down the drain or really feel the sponge in your hand. And when your mind starts to wander, and you notice it wandering, gently guide your awareness back to the action you are doing.
A great way to get started with staying present is to pick a daily task that resonates with you and try to keep your awareness on that task while you are doing it. Maybe it’s brushing your teeth, or taking a shower, or making your morning coffee. Whatever it is, see if you can really tune in with all your senses to that task to keep your awareness as present as possible. Overtime Over time this practice might extend to other areas in your life, but starting with one daily task is an excellent way to start living in the moment.