“Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it.”
New research on the brain in the past 10 years has shed a light on how much past experience and the desire to avoid pain shapes our brain pathways. Our brains were designed first and foremost to help us survive and pass on our genes, and therefore have automatic negative biases and orientations towards danger. We automatically scan our worlds for past mistakes we dare not repeat and future threats we try desperately to avoid and prepare to deal with. In so doing, we lose touch with present-moment experience and limit our abilities to spontaneously experience positive states such as joy, connection, and love. Teaching ourselves to focus on the present moment can train our brain pathways towards more deliberate and positive experiencing.
John Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction therapy suggests that our brains operate primarily in “Doing” Mode. We actively use our minds to solve problems, make plans, anticipate obstacles, evaluate how far we are from desired goals and choose between alternatives by judging their relative value. While “Doing” mode is extremely useful for helping us advance in our careers, be popular, lose weight, and a myriad of other life tasks, it falls short when it comes to managing emotions. Emotions cannot be reasoned away or “solved” and evaluating how far we are from feeling as happy as we’d like to feel only makes us feel worse. This type of thinking can actually exacerbate “sad” emotions by introducing a second layer in which we criticize or judge ourselves for being sad. “Doing” mode also doesn’t work when there is nothing we can do to change the situation. We may desperately want to be married, rich, loved, or successful, but we cannot force these outcomes to happen right away, even with the best of efforts. “Doing" mode can also lead to disheartening comparisons with people we feel are doing better than us and ruminations of why we are not where they are.
“Being” as an Alternative to “Doing”
“Being” as an Alternative to “Doing”
Now, nobody is suggesting that we give up “Doing” mode altogether. If this were the case, we would never even find our keys to get out the front door. However, there is another way of being that many of us are not even aware of, and that is “Being” Mode. Unlike its counterpart, “Being” mode is not action-oriented, evaluative, or future-focused. It involves slowing down our minds and deliberately grounding ourselves by focusing on what we are experiencing right now. In "Being” mode, it is okay to just be us, whatever we happen to be experiencing; we do not try to change our thoughts or emotions into more positive ones or shut out aspects of our experience. Rather, we begin to develop a different relationship with our own senses, bodily states and emotions by deliberately focusing on what they are trying to tell us and allowing ourselves to be compassionately open to these messages.
“Being” mode involves accepting what is, because it will be there anyway. We begin to release energy, relax, and let go of the struggle to mould our reality into our preconceived ideas of what it should be. We begin to let go of judgments and regrets about the past and fear of the future. Rather than berating ourselves for not achieving the status in life we think we deserve or are entitled to, we allow ourselves to look fully and open-mindedly at where we are. Eventually we realize that this may not be so bad. We learn to extend love, compassion, and kindness to ourselves, and everything around us, rather than compartmentalizing reality into “good” and “bad,” or “winners” and “losers.” We are all infinitely more complex than what we earn or own; we are lovable and interesting, just by being human. This moment is just this moment and not where we are stuck forever. Ironically, by accepting the present, we open up space for internal and external movement and change.
”Being” mode is a core component of mindfulness and spiritual practices. It is something that requires practice and training because we need to overcome our minds’ natural habits and fear-based biases. Experiencing “Being” mode can help us feel more whole and relaxed; we move from reacting automatically to having more choices about how we respond, based on a fuller understanding and acceptance of our own sensory, physical, and emotional experience. It is the opposite of dissociation and avoidance that many people use to cope with negative emotions and situations. We activate the more loving “approach” circuits of our brain and move away from the “avoidance” modes.
Learning to connect with the present moment is a skill taught in different ways in many different kinds of therapy. In psychoanalysis, “free association” involves freely experiencing and expressing whatever comes to mind. In Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, patients are taught to “reserve judgment” before jumping to negative conclusions and base their attitudes on current experience rather than fixed “rules for living.” Behavior therapy also teaches people to face and deal with what they fear, rather than avoiding; in so doing, they habituate physiologically and feel more empowered...” Marsha Linehan’s Dialectical Behavior Therapy approach teaches the skill of “radically accepting” who we are now as a counterpoint to pushing oneself to change. Mindfulness-Based psychotherapies have most explicitly articulated the importance of “Being in the Now” and developed a host of techniques to experience this state, including meditation, mindful walking, and body scans.
Research on Mindfulness suggests that learning the skill of "Being in the Now” can actually change the way our brains process information so that there is more activity in brain centers involved with processing positive emotions, and more interconnections between right and left hemispheres and the cortex and limbic systems. Mindfulness training results in improved relationships, life satisfaction, and pain relief.
Sometimes the most important things in life are simple and this is one of those times. When you have too much to do and fear you will never get where you want to be, try taking some time out to fully experience the present moment!
Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist, and expert on Mindfulness, Positive Psychology, Emotion Regulation, and Relationships. Dr Greenberg provides workshops and speaking engagements for organizations, life, weight loss, or career coaching, and psychotherapy for individuals and couples.
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