Back to the Present: How to Live in the Moment
How to get mindful now.
Posted December 17, 2008
In my cover story in the November-December issue of Psychology Today, I laid out six paradoxes of living in the moment. Since then, I've tried to live in the moment as much as possible myself. Whenever I feel upset or worried, I try to bring myself into the present. And whenever it occurs to me, I take a few mindful breaths, look around my surroundings, and become aware of the moment. I still have a long way to go, but I'm living less in my head and more in the moment now than ever before—and I can feel the difference. Here are some practical tips to help you get mindful now.
• Meditate. Meditating is nothing more than focusing on the present moment. The easiest way to meditate is to simply focus on your breath—not because your breath has some magical quality, but because it's always there with you. The challenge is to keep your attention on your breathing. Inevitably, your mind will wander and thoughts will arise—and that's fine. When it happens, just let go of the thought and bring your attention back to the present by focusing once again on your breath.
• Use a reminder of the string-around-your-finger variety. Wear your watch upside-down, put a quarter in your shoe, or put a smudge on one of the lenses of your glasses. When you notice it, let that serve as a reminder for you to notice your surroundings, become aware of your senses and your bodily sensations, and bring your focus into the present. If you get to the point where you're going entire days without noticing it, switch up the reminder.
• Practice slowing down time by attending to the subtleties of experience in the here and now. Take a minute and go get a handful of raisins. Now eat one—but don't just pop it in your mouth. Instead, imagine you've never seen a raisin before. Look it over carefully. Consider its shape, weight, color, and texture. Rub the raisin gently across your lips, noticing how it feels. Now put the raisin in your mouth, and roll it around slowly with your tongue. Notice how it feels in your mouth. Take a small bite, noting the flavor. Next, chew the raisin slowly, focusing on its taste and texture. Then swallow, and follow its path down your throat as far as you can. You can have a few more—but remember to focus on what each one looks, tastes, and feels like on your lips, in your mouth, and down your throat.
• Make it new. When you're performing music, giving a presentation, or even just recounting a favorite story, try to make it new in subtle ways, delivering it in a way you've never done before. Rather than performing it by rote, take a risk and try something different—use different words, add a pause, try to express a particular emotion to the audience. Not only will you enjoy it more yourself, but studies find that audiences prefer such performances too. Somehow mindfulness seems to leave an imprint on everything we do.
• Mind the gap. Whenever you find yourself waiting—for the checkout line to move, for the traffic light to change, for the Web page to load—get present. Instead of being impatient and wishing things would go faster, be grateful for the gift of a respite—for the 30 seconds or a minute or two minutes during which you have no obligations. Take the opportunity to mindfully breathe in, breathe out, and savor the moment.
• Focus on the soles of your feet. Here's a good trick to return to mindfulness if you feel angry or aggressive. Shift all your attention to the soles of your feet. Move your toes slowly, feel the weave of your socks and the curve of your arch. Breathe naturally and focus on the soles of your feet until you feel calm. Practice this exercise until you can use it wherever you are and whenever you find yourself feeling verbally or physically aggressive.
• Focus on your senses. When you observe your surroundings without judging them good or bad, you naturally nudge your awareness into the present moment. Close your eyes and focus on your sense of scent and mentally list all the smells you're aware of—the restaurant downstairs, the wet pavement outside, the perfume of a nearby co-worker. Next, list all the different sounds you can hear—the ventilation system, cars in the distance, the hum of your computer, typing, footsteps. Then open your eyes and list all the things you see—the rustling of the trees, the faces in the crowd, the wrinkles on your palm. Finally, list all the things you can sense that you appreciate—the way a beam of sunlight hits the brick building across the street, the welcome sight of a friend's smile, the smell of cookies baking. Remember, you're not looking for things to appreciate—you're appreciating the things you sense. With luck, this exercise will put you in a state of relaxed attention that reduces anxiety and makes you feel more fully alive.