Stress Remedy

Exploring ways to reduce stress and improve health.

The Challenge of Living in the Present

How can we live more in the present?
Most of us would agree that living more in the present moment sounds like a great idea. After all, our experience of spirituality, love, relaxation, and true joy comes from moments of being fully present-moments of mindfulness. Yet if you've tried to achieve this state, you know how maddeningly elusive it can be. How can something so basic be so hard? The good news is that it's not. It just seems that way because of roadblocks that we create. What are some of these roadblocks and what can you do about them?

Roadblock 1: Trying Too Hard
Although our most joyful experiences come out of the times when we are fully present, trying to make a moment have this quality can have the opposite effect. If you think the moment should be more joyous, spiritual, or relaxing, those very qualities will elude you. We can change the future, but the present moment can only be as it is. To be mindful give up your goal of how this moment should be better. All that is required is to non-judgmentally pay attention to your experience.

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Roadblock 2: Believing All Your Thoughts
Our thoughts are incredibly useful. If we couldn't think and analyze, how could we ever live in today's society? However, many thoughts are repetitive judgments about our lives. First thing in the morning, the barrage begins: "I wish I didn't have to wake up yet." "If only the kids would behave." "I can't believe this traffic!" Left unchecked, that stream of thoughts increases stress and frustration. An important skill is learning to "decenter," to realize that you can watch your thoughts and don't have to believe them. When you notice a thought wishing the present moment were different, take a figurative step back and realize it is just a thought; you don't have to believe it.

Roadblock 3: Resisting Thoughts
Just as important as not believing all your thoughts, is not resisting your thoughts. Otherwise marked frustration may ensue. If we resist our thoughts, the object of frustration may change from "not being able to do anything right" to having too many thoughts that you can't do anything right. "If only my situation were different, I would be happy" becomes "If only I did not have so many distracting thoughts, I would be happy." The object is not to get rid of all thoughts. When you notice that you are distracted by unproductive thoughts, just be thankful for noticing. The more thoughts you have, the more opportunities you have to learn to quickly let go and focus back on the present. Then gently let the thought go and focus your full attention on just this breath or just this footstep or just this bite of food. If your mind wanders a hundred times in ten minutes, just gently bring your full attention back a hundred times. A useful aid is to concentrate on taking a "diaphragmatic breath" in which the abdomen expands with the inhalation. Then you can tune into your body and relax any muscle groups that you tend to tense. You can also bring your attention to other present-moment sensations such as touch, taste, sight, or sound. Don't be judgmental toward your thoughts. An option is to mentally note an obsessive thought by just saying, "thought." Do so in a friendly manner. After all, it is probably an old friend that has visited many times.

Roadblock 4: Believing That "Mindfulness Is Too Hard"
The reason people think mindfulness is too hard is that they are using the wrong yardstick. Of course you can't stay focused on one object for ten minutes. However, I bet you can do what I call the "one breath challenge." Try it now: on the count of three, focus on one full in breath and a full out breath. Ready, 1... 2... 3... go.
See? That's all that is necessary. Even a moment of mindfulness helps decrease the stress of not only this moment, but also the moments that follow. So even if you only increase your mindfulness by 1 percent, you have been successful. Everything else is gravy.

Roadblock 5: Trying to Avoid Sadness, Anxiety (and Other Emotions)
Sadness is part of life. What happens when you try to push away the feeling? Bingo! You get sad about being sad. We have primary emotions and secondary emotions. A primary emotion happens as you interact with the world: a relationship ends, for example, and you feel sad. The secondary emotion happens as a reaction to the primary emotion: "I shouldn't feel so sad. It was only a short relationship." This only makes you feel worse. Extended suffering is usually the result of a secondary emotion. If you accept your primary emotions, the secondary ones never come into play. (See post "Nothing to Fear, but Fear Itself?" for a little more info.)

Roadblock 6: Justifying Your Emotions
If you don't accept a certain emotion, you will likely try to justify it. "I have a right to feel sad, because..." And then you list all the bad things in your life. Will this make you feel better? Not likely! What started as justification of the emotion quickly leads to rumination. When you are sad, be sad! Don't resist it and don't justify it. You are allowed to be sad. Emotions really aren't that bad. By not resisting or justifying your emotions, they resume a more normal flow from one to another.

Roadblock 7: Believing That Being Mindful Means Being Unmotivated
People have wondered: "Without hating my present circumstances, how would I have any motivation to get things done?" But you can be mindful and motivated. A dancer or artist is motivated not by dissatisfaction but by the joy of her work. Some of the most important changes in the world were accomplished by wise people motivated by the compassion and passion inherent in living in the present moment.

Final Words
Each time you mindfully let go of thoughts about how life should be, and enjoy life as it is, you change your brain. You strengthen nerve pathways that make the habit of mindfulness easier and easier. In essence, in every moment there is a choice. By remembering to enjoy this breath, this footstep, this breeze, this bite of food, you not only live this moment to the fullest, but also hone your skill in being mindful. The only time you can choose is right now. I'd also encourage you to take classes, do retreats, and investigate books and CDs on this subject. (Click here for some interesting links.)

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Jay Winner, M.D. is the founder of the Stress Reduction Program at Sansum Clinic and the author of Take the Stress Out of Your Life.

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