John P Forsyth Ph.D.

Peace of Mind

Finding Refuge in the NOW

Life is calling all of us to show up right where we are

Posted Oct 07, 2010

The human mind has a difficult time staying right in the here and now. It's often one step ahead of us, anticipating what may happen, concocting possible futures, fortune telling.  Or, it's two steps behind dwelling on a past that once was. Heck, you don't have to take my word for it, just look to your own experience.

Where were you when you took a shower today? (assuming that you did, of course). Physically, you were in the shower, but where was your mind? If you're like me, your mind was likely off into a possible future filled with things that must be done, or could be done, or might just happen. And, at times, it drifts into a past that once was, recycling missed opportunities, old wounds, or pleasurable moments that seemed to slip away like ether.

There's nothing inherently wrong with this, mind you. The rub though is that we can start living more in our heads than in contact with our experience, as it is, and right where we are. That's a problem as far as your life is concerned. Here's why.

You create your life by what you do, right where you are, not by what you think about what might happen or what once was. You can act on your life right now, in any moment that you find yourself. There is just no way to think yourself into a rich, whole, dignified life. You can't feel your way into it either. You have to do something. And here, your mind can be your greatest friend or your worst enemy.

Learning to take refuge in the present moment can be a powerful way to retrain our minds so that we can be present, show up, and do what matters right where we are and right where we can act to make a difference in our lives.

Young children, by the way, are masters at this. If you watch them, you'll see that they are utterly in the now, in touch with what is happening as its happening. We've all been there at some point, and yet it's easy to lose sight of that experience as we get older. As we become more language sophisticated, we dwell less in the here and now and more in our heads, and like a time machine our minds can propel us forward or backward. And sadly, too much of this can leave us feeling disconnected from the present, and quite often suffering.

Below are a few simple exercises you can do to nurture your capacity to be present wherever you find yourself. They are also outlined in our new book, Your Life on Purpose. These are skills that may also help you do more of what matters, or potentially not miss things that matter to you. Try them on for size and see how they work for you.

Use Your Five Senses to Be in the Moment
Move from your mind and its preoccupation with worries about the future or ruminations about the past to your present experience. Notice what each of your senses is telling you right now, wherever you are.

Spend ten to twenty seconds noticing what you see: shapes, colors, patterns, and so on. Then observe the sounds you hear: voices, street noise, wind, the hum of the refrigerator-whatever you hear. Now shift to your nose and try to identify any specific smells. Next is taste: Are there lingering impressions from a meal, or any subtle tastes in your mouth? Finally, attend to your sense of touch. Feel where the world presses against you: your feet against the floor, your body against a chair. Feel any sense of texture, pressure, or temperature. Also notice sensations inside your body.

You can do this simple practice almost anytime and anywhere. It shouldn't take more than two minutes, yet in that brief time it can deliver you from thoughts of danger and judgment to the safety and richness of the present moment.

Mindful Breathing
Your breath is another good place to go when your mind is full of warnings and judgments. Your breath is always with you-always available. And when you focus on your breath, it will bring you back to the present moment time and time again.

Mindful breathing is nothing more than bringing your awareness back to your breath, as often as necessary, with intention and purpose. Here's how to do it in three simple steps:

  1. Notice every part of your breath: the feeling as the air is drawn in through your nostrils, the coolness in the back of your throat, the sense of your ribs expanding, then the release in your diaphragm as you exhale. Don't try to breathe in any specific way; just watch all of this as your breath becomes the center of focus.
  2. As you inhale, silently say "in" to yourself, and as you exhale, silently say "out." Or if you like, you can count each breath up to ten, and then start over.
  3. Throughout, your mind will naturally wander out of the present moment. After all, that's what minds do. When that happens (and it will happen), don't get frustrated or berate yourself; look at it as an opportunity to practice coming back to the present. When thoughts intrude, just notice them, let them go, and gently bring your attention back to your breath.

As you practice mindful breathing, be aware that even the most proficient meditators-even those cloistered far away from the buzz of worldly distractions-experience distracting thoughts. When they notice the mind jumping around, they don't worry about it. What they do, and what we're asking you to do, is to notice that and then simply steer attention back to some part of the breath.

This is a skill, and like any skill it takes some practice. It's best to start small. Find a quite place and do mindful breathing for two to three minutes at first. Then work your way up to longer periods in your quiet place, or just about anywhere you find yourself.
Studies have shown that two twenty-minute sessions of mindful breathing daily are a sufficient "dose" to relax your nervous system and significantly improve mood. See if you can work your way up to that over time.

Thought Releasing
Some of our thoughts are sticky. It's like they're coated with superglue; once they enter the mind, we can't seem to let them go. Other thoughts seem to hang together like strings of sausages, each thought linked to the next, and the next, on and on, forming a long chain of negative associations.

A good way to counter sticky thoughts or sausage like thoughts is with thought releasing. To be clear, this isn't another clever way of suppressing or stopping thoughts. Both tactics are essentially impossible anyway, at least in the long term. In thought releasing, what you do is acknowledge the presence of a troubling thought and then let it go without getting more involved with it.

In a way, you do exactly the same thing when you go walking. To walk, you have to let go of one step before you can stride into the next, and so on. Thought releasing is like that. You let go of each thought so your awareness can keep moving and flowing.

There are many ways to go about releasing thoughts. Here are three that many people find helpful. The first is to simply thank your mind for each thought. Notice what you're thinking, thank your mind for this thought (and all thoughts your mind produces to protect and guide you), then inhale deeply, filling your lungs. As you release the air slowly, imagine the thought drifting away as you empty the air from your lungs. Do this for a minute or two.

A second thought releasing strategy is to picture your thoughts as leaves on a stream. As each thought comes into awareness, imagine putting it on a leaf in a stream that's flowing along at a moderate pace. Then just watch it drift around a bend and out of sight. Do the same with the next thought. Keep up the visualization until you feel less stuck and have more distance from the thoughts your mind is offering you.
This exercise can take many forms. Some people find it easier to visualize placing thoughts on helium balloons and then watching them as they drift away on a breezy day. Or you might place your thoughts on Frisbees and watch as they sail out of sight. You could do the same thing with cars, clouds crossing the sky, or just about anything you can imagine coming and then going, passing in and out of your awareness. Be creative and choose something that resonates with you. All you need to do is attach your thought to a moving object and watch it as it disappears. Then wait for the next thought and do the same. Just notice and let go.

A third form of thought releasing involves opening your hand. The strategy for this technique is to use a physical gesture of release as you let each thought go. When a thought comes into awareness, observe it for a moment and then open your hand as if you were freeing a captured dove. This gesture-of both surrender and letting go-parallels the opening of your mind so you can move on to the next moment and whatever awareness it brings.

The Take Home Message
We're all blessed with a human mind, and subject to its constant chatter. We don't have to treat every thought it proffers so seriously. We don't have to act on its advice when our experience tells us that the advice is limiting, unhelpful, and self-defeating. The techniques described here will help you contact this basic truth.

You don't need to change the contents of your mind. You don't need to change what you think. You need to change your relationship with your mind and its infinite products. Your mind is a word machine that keeps coming up with thoughts whether you want them or not, and whether they are useful or not. It will keep this up until the day you die.

You have two choices here. One is to get hooked into thinking that you are your mind, and that every thought reflects reality. With this choice, you'll be stuck in a futile attempt to think differently before you can live differently. This will keep you from acting on your valued intentions and leave you dwelling in your head.

Or you can accept these thoughts and be willing to take them along for the ride. You can observe them with equanimity while pushing ahead with what matters. With this approach, there is nothing to be fixed or changed. All you need to do is watch, accept, and distance yourself from mental chatter as you move toward what matters to you, right where you are. 

Try it the next time you take a shower -- just be present and notice what's happening.

With a Kind Heart,

John P. Forsyth


Author of The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety, ACT on Life, Not on Anger, and a professional book called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Anxiety Disorders: A Practitioner's Guide.  His forthcoming book, Your Life on Purpose, will be available on Amazon and most major bookstores in November 2010.

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