If you were to ask a hundred people if they wished they were able to live more fully in the present moment, almost all of them would answer “yes.”
Probably not that surprising. It’s a popular notion these days. There are entire books dedicated to the topic, whether it’s Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now or Ram Dass’ book Be Here Now from decades ago, or countless others. And there are all these other ways in which Eastern religions and philosophies have found popularity in the West, whether it’s mindfulness, meditation, or even the things you’ll find communicated during yoga classes at a studio or gym down the street, where a common refrain is coming fully into the here and now.
But what I find amazing is this: If you were to ask a hundred people who had somehow never been exposed to any of these other sources telling them that it was important or beneficial to be more present, most of those people would still probably tell you they wished they could live more in the here and now. Why? Well it means that there is something in us that already knows it’s a good thing without having to be told. It means that the knowing of this is innate, it’s an intuitive and natural thing.
For one thing, being present generally feels good. We’ve all had experiences of that whether we consciously noticed or not.
When you’re completely present, your attention isn’t being carried off into the past and future. Part of the reason this tends to feel bad is that the mind has a tendency to wander to the negative — the worries, the things we should’ve done or said differently, and so forth. Some believe there is an evolutionary or survival-based reason for that, but even if that tendency helped keep us from being eaten by tigers, when we’re not in any real danger it’s an unfortunate habit to have to live with.
But the really surprising thing is that even if our attention wanders to a pleasurable memory or something positive about the future, it turns out we’re still worse off than if we were present-focused. If you have never seen Matt Killingsworth’s research about mind wandering, here is a great summary presentation he gave during a TED talk:
When you’re completely in the here and now, you’re in a state of flow, a state of non-resistance. And it usually feels pretty good.
But being present isn’t limited to just feeling good. The practice of being present is linked to increased productivity, improved concentration, better athletic performance, reduced stress, better immunity, lower blood pressure, improved relationships, even weight loss (which is possibly linked to lower stress and the associated stress hormones).
So if it feels good and it probably has a ton of other benefits, and most of us intuitively know it’s good for us, then you’d think our default would be to pretty much be fully present all the time. Yet being present is actually a somewhat of a rarity.
Isn’t that strange?
I’d ask the question “why?” but I can’t say I really know the answer. It’s probably due to our conditioning, probably driven by habit, and possibly a handful of other things. And as somebody who has dedicated a substantial amount of time to trying to cultivate the ability to be present through years of Zen practice, I can tell you it feels almost like we human beings are hardwired (or at least really deeply ingrained) to avoid the present moment even when it’s in our best interest not to avoid the present moment.
So how can we live more fully in the now? Here are some approaches.
Meditation. This is the practice with the highest impact when it comes to presence. Simply put, it is the practice of being here, now. It’s important to note that there are different types of meditation that focus on different goals. While all have their merit and there can be overlap among them, I find one of the best practices for learning the art of presence is mindfulness.
Mindfulness, in essence, is being present to your experience. It is watching your thoughts, feelings, sensations and perceptions as they arise and pass without getting caught up in them. By building your capacity to witness your experience without attachment or reactivity, you remain more grounded in the here and now. It gives you emotional balance and mental stability.
So mindfulness meditation, very simply, is carving out a dedicated period of time where you are doing nothing more than practicing being mindful, which is to say, observing your thoughts, feelings, sensations and perceptions without getting carried off by them.
Often when the practice is taught, the recommendation is to have an object of meditation such as the breath that becomes your primary focal point. You just watch those raw sensations, and each time you notice your mind has wandered off, you simply return your attention to the breath. The goal isn’t to concentrate intently on your breath. Instead, the breath (or whatever your object of meditation may be) is simply a home base; it’s somewhere to rest your attention so it doesn’t bounce all over the place, which would make it difficult to observe your experience.
Cues and reminders. Usually the moment we’re off and running in our daily life, the momentum of our habit of living almost entirely in our heads all day is rampant. If you meditate, you tend to catch yourself more frequently throughout the day and the moment you’ve caught your mind wandering, you’re already present in that moment. Of course, pretty soon you’re usually off again.
It can be very helpful to set cues for yourself that remind you to be present. I’ve experimented with this a ton. I’ve worn a bracelet or a ring as a reminder. I’ve carried objects with me. I’ve set visual cues around like objects or notes to myself. I’ve set vibrating reminders on my phone, or used multiple apps with random mindfulness bells to remind me to come back to the now.
All of these have worked for me. But in my own experience, they tend to work only for a certain period of time, at which point they lose their effectiveness. When they do, I move to a different approach. But the way I see it, each time I’m interrupted from a mental trip, even if it’s just once, it’s a moment of presence I might not otherwise have had. And the more you catch yourself, the more it happens on its own.
Slowing down. It’s hard to be present when you’re running around at a frantic pace. There is something about being hurried that seems to correspond with being mentally agitated and lost in thought. Certainly there are exceptions, but on the whole it is difficult for most to be present in this rushed state. By consciously slowing down, it’s possible to really, fully experience this present moment. This one right now. And this one. Slow down while you walk and notice how it feels to walk. Slow down while you eat and notice the sensations of eating. You don’t have to do it all the time, but it helps to do it every now and then.
Associate presence with certain habitual routines. There are so many brainless activities we do each day, and usually those times are spent lost in thought. Washing the dishes at home. Walking from meeting to meeting or riding an elevator at work. Sitting at a red light. Brushing your teeth. Pick one of these routines and each time it happens, remind yourself it’s a time to practice presence — create a conscious link between that activity and presence. When you have one of those habits ingrained, pick a new one, and keep adding to your repertoire.
Taking breaks. Mental momentum tends to build up throughout the day. I work at a job that requires me to devote a lot of my concentration and brainpower to thinking, working on a computer, or interacting with others, such that I can feel my mind getting more and more stimulated throughout the day. There is inertia behind this. I start my day with a period of meditation and am generally at my most present then, but little by little I find that if I don’t take breaks, this mental momentum builds and erodes my ability to be present throughout the day. When I consciously take breaks, even just a minute here and there to watch my breath, I can keep that mental momentum from building. It really works, and I notice a tangible difference with stress too.
Positive thinking. While strictly speaking, presence is a state where thought moves out from center stage, there is a place for positive thinking. Negative thoughts are really sticky. Much of the time, they are what carry us off into stories about the past or the future. Negative thoughts beget more negative thoughts. And they are harder to let go of. The more we devote our attention and effort to maintaining a positive head space, the more we are creating an environment that is conducive to presence.
* * *
I’ve been practicing meditation and incorporating these practices into my life ever since first devoting myself to Zen about ten years ago. You’d think that by now I’d be in the upper echelons of presence, a real pro. And in one sense I’ll tell you I see it as the single most transformative practice of my life. I’m certainly more present than I was before (although it’s worth mentioning this is not the sole purpose of Zen in case I’m giving that impression), and I think many of the benefits have permeated into my life in a real and palpable way.
But this feels like one of those things I could be at for the rest of my life and still never master. It could be I’m just slow. But I know that for myself, and I know for many others as well, this is not like learning most ordinary skills. It is not like learning a musical instrument or learning to speak another language. You aren’t on a steady, gradual, uphill trajectory of skill-building until you’ve put in your requisite hours at which point, voila, you’ve achieved mastery.
It’s much less linear than that. You make progress and you backtrack. Sometimes you go months and you can’t even tell if you’ve moved forward. Often your progress is so gradual you can only notice it months in retrospect.
Some of this is because the very practice of presence makes you more conscious of mental noise as well as more likely to notice your lack of presence. So very often you are making significant progress, but it actually feels like you’re getting worse. This is because your attention is getting more sensitive so to speak.
I know when I first got into Zen, I had these grand hopes for a life free from stress or suffering that would reveal itself in relatively short order. And there have been real experiences of that along the way. But on the whole my experience has been much more ordinary and gradual than that.
The thing is, what I really signed up for, whether I realized it or not, was not some idea of how my life would be if I practiced what I was supposed to practice and achieved what I was hoping to achieve. That’s another form of wanting life to show up on my terms. Really, I was signing up for a different relationship with life as it actually is.
I really wanted to show up for life more fully.
Somewhere inside, on some level, I sensed I was missing out on my life. Just like those hundred people who intuitively know that being more present is a good thing, I knew I was missing something. I wasn’t fully there for my life. I was almost sleepwalking through parts of my life, or in some cases I was consciously wishing away moments of my life. All the while I intuitively knew I was missing the richness of it all, the richness of both the bad and the good.
To me, that’s what being present is all about.
I don’t mean to make it sound overly flowery, like you’re going to love all your shitty moments because it’s precious life we’re talking about and every moment is sacred. You aren’t always going to feel like the moments of your life are precious.
But what courage and resilience to be able to show up and face every moment completely without the need to avoid or escape it. What incredible openness and balance comes from learning to receive each and every moment as it is. What an amazingly full life comes when you are committed to experiencing every last drop of it through and through.
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