Everyone agrees it’s important to live in the moment, but the problem is how. When people are not in the moment, they’re not there to know that they’re not there, therefore overriding the distraction reflex and awakening to the present takes intentionality and practice.
Living in the moment involves a profound paradox: You can’t pursue it for its benefits. That’s because the expectation of reward launches a future-oriented mindset, which subverts the entire process. Instead, you just have to trust that the rewards will come. There are many paths to mindfulness—and at the core of each is a paradox. Ironically, letting go of what you want is the only way to get it.
Too often, the beautiful moments of life are drowned out by a cacophony of self-consciousness and anxiety. So what can we do to hush the buzzing mind?
You Are Not Your Thoughts
Life unfolds in the present. But so often, we let the present slip away, allowing time to rush past unobserved and unseized, and squandering the precious seconds of our lives as we worry about the future and ruminate about what’s past. “We’re living in a world that contributes in a major way to mental fragmentation, disintegration, distraction, decoherence,” says Buddhist scholar B. Alan Wallace. We’re always doing something, and we allow little time to practice stillness and calm, which is something we should also dedicate more time into.
When we’re at work, we fantasize about being at home or on vacation; on vacation, we worry about the work piling up on our desks. We dwell on intrusive memories of the past or fret about what may or may not happen in the future. We don’t appreciate the living present because our “monkey minds” jump from thought to thought like monkeys swinging from tree to tree.
Most of us don’t undertake our thoughts in awareness. Rather, our thoughts control us. “Ordinary thoughts course through our mind like a deafening waterfall,” writes Jon Kabat-Zinn, the biomedical scientist who introduced meditation into mainstream medicine. In order to feel more in control of our minds and our lives, to find the sense of balance that eludes us, we need to step out of this current, to pause, and, as Kabat-Zinn puts it, to “rest in stillness—to stop doing and focus on just being.” – To concentrate on the sensations of our body rather than on emotions.
Living in the moment—also called mindfulness—is a state of active, open, intentional attention on the present. When you become mindful, you realize that you are not your thoughts; you become an observer of your thoughts from moment to moment without judging them. Mindfulness involves being with your thoughts as they are, neither grasping at them nor pushing them away. Instead of letting your life go by without living it, you awaken to experience.
Cultivating a nonjudgmental awareness of the present bestows a host of benefits. Mindfulness reduces stress, boosts immune functioning, reduces chronic pain, lowers blood pressure, and helps patients cope with cancer. By alleviating stress, spending a few minutes a day actively focusing on living in the moment reduces the risk of heart disease. Mindfulness may even slow the progression of HIV. It’s alarming how stress can lead to so many physical illnesses.
Mindful people are happier, more exuberant, more empathetic, and more secure. They have higher self-esteem and are more accepting of their own weaknesses. Anchoring awareness in the here and now reduces the kinds of impulsivity and reactivity that underlie depression, binge eating, and attention problems. Mindful people can also hear negative feedback without feeling threatened. They fight less with their romantic partners and are more accommodating and less defensive. As a result, mindful couples have more satisfying relationships.
Mindfulness is at the root of Buddhism, Taoism, and many Native-American traditions, not to mention yoga.
Here are a few tricks to help you along:
1: To improve your performance, stop thinking about it
That’s the first paradox of living in the moment: Thinking too hard about what you’re doing actually makes you do worse. If you’re in a situation that makes you anxious—giving a speech, introducing yourself to a stranger, dancing—focusing on your anxiety tends to heighten it.
“Focus less on what’s going on in your mind and more on what’s going on in the room, less on your mental chatter and more on yourself as part of something.” To be most myself, I need to focus on things outside myself, like the music or the people around me. Mindfulness blurs the line between self and others. When people are mindful, they’re more likely to experience themselves as part of humanity, as part of a greater universe. That’s why highly mindful people such as Buddhist monks talk about being at “one with everything.”
2: To avoid worrying about the future, focus on savoring the present
Often, we’re so trapped in thoughts of the future or the past that we forget to experience, let alone enjoy, what’s happening right now. We sip coffee and think, “This is not as good as what I had last week.” We eat a cookie and think, “I hope I don’t run out of cookies.”
Instead, relish or luxuriate in whatever you’re doing at the present moment—what psychologists call savoring. This could be while you’re eating a pastry, taking a shower, or basking in the sun. You could be savoring a success or savoring music.”
When subjects in a study took a few minutes each day to actively savor something they usually hurried through, like eating a meal, drinking a cup of tea, walking to the bus, they began experiencing more joy, happiness, and other positive emotions, and fewer depressive symptoms.
Why does living in the moment make people happier? Because most negative thoughts concern the past or the future. As Mark Twain said, “I have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.” The hallmark of depression and anxiety is catastrophizing—worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet and might not happen at all. Worry, by its very nature, means thinking about the future—and if you hoist yourself into awareness of the present moment, worrying melts away. Savoring forces you into the present, so you can’t worry about things that aren’t there.
3: If you want a future with your significant other, inhabit the present (breathe)
How does being in the moment make you less aggressive? Mindfulness decreases ego involvement. Focusing on the present reboots your mind so you can respond thoughtfully rather than automatically.
Of course, during a flare-up with your significant other it’s rarely practical to duck out and savor a raisin. But there’s a simple exercise you can do anywhere, anytime to induce mindfulness: Breathe. There’s no better way to bring yourself into the present moment than to focus on your breathing. Because you’re placing your awareness on what’s happening right now, you propel yourself powerfully into the present moment. For many, focusing on the breath is the preferred method of orienting themselves to the now—not because the breath has some magical property, but because it’s always there with you.
4: To make the most of time, lose track of it (flow)
Perhaps the most complete way of living in the moment is the state of total absorption psychologists call flow. Flow occurs when you’re so engrossed in a task that you lose track of everything else around you. Flow embodies an apparent paradox: How can you be living in the moment if you’re not even aware of the moment? The depth of engagement absorbs you powerfully, keeping attention so focused that distractions cannot penetrate. You focus so intensely on what you’re doing that you’re unaware of the passage of time. Hours can pass without you noticing.
Flow is an elusive state. As with romance or sleep, you can’t just will yourself into it—all you can do is set the stage, creating the optimal conditions for it to occur.
The first requirement for flow is to set a goal that’s challenging but not unattainable—something you have to marshal your resources and stretch yourself to achieve. The task should be matched to your ability level—not so difficult that you’ll feel stressed, but not so easy that you’ll get bored. In flow, you’re firing on all cylinders to rise to a challenge.
To set the stage for flow, goals need to be clearly defined so that you always know your next step. It could be playing the next bar in a scroll of music, or finding the next foothold if you’re a rock climber, or turning the page if you’re reading a good novel.
You also need to set up the task in such a way that you receive direct and immediate feedback; with your successes and failures apparent, you can seamlessly adjust your behavior. A climber on the mountain knows immediately if his foothold is secure; a pianist knows instantly when she’s played the wrong note.
As your attentional focus narrows, self-consciousness evaporates. You feel as if your awareness merges with the action you’re performing. You feel a sense of personal mastery over the situation, and the activity is so intrinsically rewarding that although the task may be difficult, action feels effortless. This is even more true when you’re engaged in something like your own personal and unique natural talent to create something you love.
5: If something is bothering you, move toward it rather than away from it (acceptance)
The problem is we have not just primary emotions but also secondary ones—emotions about other emotions. We get stressed out and then think, “I wish I weren’t so stressed out.” The primary emotion is stress over your workload. The secondary emotion is feeling, “I hate being stressed.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. The solution is acceptance—letting the emotion be there. That is, being open to the way things are in each moment without trying to manipulate or change the experience—without judging it, clinging to it, or pushing it away. The present moment can only be as it is. Trying to change it only frustrates and exhausts you. Acceptance relieves you of this needless extra suffering.
Suppose you’ve just broken up with your girlfriend or boyfriend; you’re heartbroken, overwhelmed by feelings of sadness and longing. You could try to fight these feelings, essentially saying, “I hate feeling this way; I need to make this feeling go away.” But by focusing on the pain—being sad about being sad—you only prolong the sadness. You do yourself a favor by accepting your feelings, saying instead, “I’ve just had a breakup. Feelings of loss are normal and natural. It’s OK for me to feel this way.”
Acceptance of an unpleasant state doesn’t mean you don’t have goals for the future. It just means you accept that certain things are beyond your control. The sadness, stress, pain, or anger is there whether you like it or not. Better to embrace the feeling as it is.
Nor does acceptance mean you have to like what’s happening. “Acceptance of the present moment has nothing to do with resignation,” writes Kabat-Zinn. “Acceptance doesn’t tell you what to do. What happens next, what you choose to do; that has to come out of your understanding of this moment.”
If you feel anxiety, for instance, you can accept the feeling, label it as anxiety—then direct your attention to something else instead, observing your thoughts, perceptions, and emotions go through your mind without getting involved. Thoughts are just thoughts. You don’t have to believe them and you don’t have to do what they say.
6: Know that you don’t know (engagement)
You’ve probably had the experience of driving along a highway only to suddenly realize you have no memory or awareness of the previous 15 minutes. Maybe you even missed your exit. You just zoned out; you were somewhere else, and it’s as if you’ve suddenly woken up at the wheel. Or maybe it happens when you’re reading a book: “I know I just read that page, but I have no idea what it said.”
These autopilot moments are what can be called mindlessness—times when you’re so lost in your thoughts (not actions) that you aren’t aware of your present experience. As a result, life passes you by without registering on you. The best way to avoid such blackouts, is to develop the habit of always noticing new things in whatever situation you’re in. That process creates engagement with the present moment and releases a cascade of other benefits. Noticing new things puts you emphatically in the here and now.
We become mindless, because once we think we know something, we stop paying attention to it. We go about our morning commute in a haze because we’ve trod the same route a hundred times before. But if we see the world with fresh eyes, we realize almost everything is different each time—the pattern of light on the buildings, the faces of the people, even the sensations and feelings we experience along the way. Noticing imbues each moment with a new, fresh quality. Some people have termed this “beginner’s mind.”
Orchestra musicians who are instructed to make their performance new in subtle ways not only enjoy themselves more but audiences actually prefer those performances. When we’re there at the moment, making it new, it leaves an imprint in the music we play, the things we write, the art we create, in everything we do. Once you recognize that you don’t know the things you’ve always taken for granted, you set out of the house quite differently. It becomes an adventure in noticing—and the more you notice, the more you see and the more excitement you feel.
One of my latest experiences was a curious one. I was in the flow of the moment whilst listening to a song I created years ago and that I also had already listened many times before, but suddenly I saw how there was something special about this moment, as if I was seeing my past self that had sent a message to the future me. The message was simply about me now being aware for the first time of the intricacies of the song, something that I’ve never listened in the same way before, as if I was yet not ready for it even though it was a past creation. Does this make sense? Well, if it doesn’t it doesn’t matter anyway, because the sensation was powerful.
“So mindfulness is the only intentional, systematic activity that is not about trying to improve yourself or get anywhere else”, explains Kabat-Zinn. “It is simply a matter of realizing where you already are.”
You can become mindful at any moment just by paying attention to your immediate experience. You can do it right now. What’s happening this instant? Think of yourself as an eternal witness, and just observe the moment. What do you see, hear, smell? It doesn’t matter how it feels—pleasant or unpleasant, good or bad—you roll with it because it’s what’s present; you’re not judging it. And if you notice your mind wandering, bring yourself back. Just say to yourself, “Now. Now. Now.”
Here’s the most fundamental paradox of all: Mindfulness isn’t a goal, because goals are about the future, but you do have to set the intention of paying attention to what’s happening at the present moment. As you read the words printed on this page, as your eyes distinguish the black squiggles on white paper, as you feel gravity anchoring you to the planet, wake up. Become aware of being alive. And breathe. As you draw your next breath, focus on the rise of your abdomen on the in-breath, the stream of heat through your nostrils on the out-breath. If you’re aware of that feeling right now, as you’re reading this, you’re living in the moment. Nothing happens next. It’s not a destination. This is it. You’re already there.