Larm Dreaming/unsplash.com
Source: Larm Dreaming/unsplash.com

Mindfulness refers to paying attention to your present moment experience. The beauty of this practice is that it grounds you in the present moment, and this provides welcome relief from ruminating about the past and worrying about the future. (I’m not referring to constructive reflection or planning, but to those obsessive and troublesome thoughts that just won’t go away.)

You can bring your attention out of your stressful stories and into your present moment experience whether or not you’re meditating. I’ll describe the way I practice this outside of meditation, and then give a concrete example from a recent trip I took to the doctor.

Three steps for bringing your attention to the present moment

When I become aware that I’m lost in stressful thoughts, I start by silently—and gently—saying “not now.” Those simple words can break the spell that these unconstructive thoughts have over me.

Second, I immediately focus my attention on three in- and out-breaths. Paying attention in this way to the physical sensation of the breath grounds me in my body, which is always in the present moment. As I exhale on that third breath, a sense of calm comes over me, sometimes strong, sometimes slight—I’ll take either one!

Third, I consciously notice what’s going on around me right now—perhaps silently describing my sensory experience: “seeing the dog on the bed; hearing another dog barking in the distance; feeling tightness in my shoulders.”

Having changed the focus of my attention, I’m no longer stuck in stressful thinking patterns. This is why I think of this practice as taking refuge in the present moment. Even if it’s not a pleasant moment—I might be feeling particularly sick or in pain—when I go through these three steps, at least I’m present for what’s happening instead of being lost in stressful stories that only make me feel worse, stories such as: “I want my old life back” or What if this pain never goes away?” That type of ruminating about the past and worrying about the future intensifies my mental suffering.

Taking refuge in the present moment on a freeway trip to the doctor

A few months ago, I had to do something unusual for me: drive myself from Davis to Sacramento and back again. I had a doctor’s appointment in Sacramento, and my husband (who usually drives me) was out of town.

The appointment was with my surgical oncologist to discuss the results of a breast MRI I’d had a few days before. This was my first MRI since the surgery I’d had a year before to remove a cancerous lump in my breast.

There I was, driving 65 mph on a freeway packed with cars, but my mind was elsewhere, worrying about the test results. I was busy mocking up one worse-case scenario after another. I like to call this “being off in la la land,” meaning I’m not paying attention to what’s going on right around me.

Then I remembered a quote from the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh:

If we practice mindfulness, we always have a place to go when we’re afraid.

This inspired me to gently say to myself about these thoughts: “Not now.” Then I took three conscious breaths, paying careful attention to the physical sensation of the breath as it came in and went out of my body. This replaced the worry with a sense of calm. Then I said to myself: “Stay in the moment by truly experiencing what it’s like to be driving a car on a freeway.”

And what experience it was. I felt as if I were on the autopia ride at Disneyland. It was quite a feat to be moving so fast while also being sure to stay exactly between the painted lines. I was impressed with my skills! And I was amazed at how dozens of cars right around me were going just as fast but not crashing into each other. It occurred to me that this was an exquisite example of social order at work.

And that MRI result? Everything was normal.

I’ve been doing this exercise many times throughout each day. When I realize I’m lost in stressful thoughts, I say, “not now” as I bring my attention to the present moment by taking three conscious breaths. Then I notice what’s going on around me right here, right now.

I think of these little moments of awareness as moments of liberation because, in my experience, being present for my experience brings with it a feeling of contentment that’s often tinged with awe, as I pause and take in the wonder and mystery of being alive at this moment—even with its challenges and difficulties.

Recently, one of our town’s most treasured citizens passed away after a good long life. The obituary in our local paper noted that Martha loved to say: “The past is history. The future is a mystery. The present is a gift.”

I hope you’ll take refuge in this gift.

© 2016 Toni Bernhard. Thank you for reading my work. I’m the author of three books:

How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide (2015)

How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow (2013)

How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers (2010) 

All of my books are available in audio format from Amazon, audible.com, and iTunes.

Visit www.tonibernhard.com for more information.

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Here are a few other pieces I’ve written on the benefits of mindfulness outside of meditation:

6 Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness Outside of Meditation

How to Mindfully Turn an Unpleasant Experience Around

Change Your Painful Habits with a Mindful Review of Your Day

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