The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly. – The Buddha
We’ve heard this before that instead of looking backwards or forwards, we should live in today. But is that something that is easy to do, especially in today’s fast-paced world, where you have so many demands on your life and time? There’s always something coming up that we need to prepare for or anticipate, and our lives are so well-documented that it’s never been easier to get lost in the past. Given the fast pace and hectic schedules most of us keep, a base level of anxiety, stress, and unhappiness is the new norm. We may not even realise it, but this tendency to get sucked into the past and the future can leave us perpetually worn out and feeling out of touch with ourselves.
The cure for this condition is what so many people have been saying all along – conscious awareness and a commitment to staying in the “now.” Living in the present moment is the solution to a problem we may not have known we had. But what does it actually mean to “live in the present moment?” How could we be living in anything but the present?
Living in the present is not just an arbitrary term or a popular phrase—it’s a recognised and evidence-backed lifestyle that psychologists are quick to recommend for those struggling with anxiety and stress in their day-to-day life. Being in the present moment, or the “here and now,” means that we are aware and mindful of what is happening at this very moment. We are not distracted by ruminations on the past or worries about the future, but centered in the here and now. All of our attention is focused on the present moment.
Why is being present minded so important? Being present minded is the key to staying healthy and happy. It helps us fight anxiety, cut down on our worrying and rumination, and keeps us grounded and connected to ourselves and everything around us. Although it has become a popular topic in recent years, living in the present is not just a fad or trendy lifestyle tip, it is a way of life that is backed up by good science. Being present and exerting our ability to be mindful not only makes us happier, it can also help us deal with pain more effectively, reduce our stress and decrease its impact on our health, and improve our ability to cope with negative emotions like fear and anger.
Living in the now is so difficult because we are always encouraged to think about the future or dwell on our past. Advertisements, reminders, notifications, messages, and alerts are all so often geared towards the past or the future. Think about how often we are busy doing something else, perhaps even fully engrossed in it, when we are jolted out of our flow by our phone’s sudden “ding!” Our phones are incredible pieces of technology that allow us to do so much more and do it so much more efficiently than ever before, but we really need to take a break from our phones at least once in a while. Other factors that contribute to our inability to live in the now include the fact that we often edit out the bad parts of our experiences, making our past seem more enjoyable than it really was, we face a lot of uncertainty when we live in the present, which can cause anxiety and our minds simply tend to wander! It can be tough fighting these factors, but luckily we are not slaves to the tendencies of our brains and it is possible to overcome our more destructive or harmful urges and make better choices.
We need to have a balancing act between the past, present, and the future. We need to look back over our past successes and mistakes and learn from them and be planned for the future or prepare ourselves for what is to come.
It’s essential when we want to a healthy life to spend some time thinking about the past and the future, but it’s rare that we don’t think enough about the past or the future—usually our problem is focusing too intently, or even obsessively on the past or the future.
One of the aims of mindfulness and a key factor in living a healthy life is to balance your thoughts of the past, the present, and the future. Thinking about any of them too much can have serious negative effects on our lives, but keeping the three in balance will help us to be happy and healthy people. It’s hard to say what the exact right balance is, but we will know we’ve hit that when we worry less, experience less stress on a regular basis, and find ourselves living the majority of our life in the present. So how do we ensure we get to this healthy balance? Here are some guidelines to keep in mind. Think about the past in small doses, and make sure we are focusing on the past for a reason, perhaps to relive a pleasant experience, or maybe identify where we went wrong, or figure out the key to a past success. We should think about the future in small doses, and make sure we are focusing on the future in a healthy, low-anxiety way which means we don’t spend time worrying about the future and think about the future just long enough to prepare for it and then move on. And lastly, we need to stay in the present moment for the vast majority of our time. It’s easy for me put these down here and I also struggle, but if we keep doing this, we will get better with practice.
So how can we live in the moment, but also plan for our future? It may seem complicated to figure out this delicate balance, but it’s not as complex as it seems. When we engage in mindfulness or present moment meditation, we are not ignoring or denying thoughts of the past or future, we are simply choosing not to dwell on them. It’s okay to acknowledge and label our past and future-focused thoughts, categorise them, and be aware of their importance. The important point is to not allow yourself to get swept up in thinking about the past or future. When we are aware and present, we don’t need to worry about getting caught up in thoughts of our past or anxiety about our future—we can revisit our past and anticipate what is to come without losing ourselves.
Present moment awareness is a great way to cut down on how much you worry. The following six steps will help us become more attuned to the present and rid ourselves of excess anxiety. We should cultivate unselfconsciousness and let go and stop thinking about our performance. We must practice the art of savouring which means avoid worrying about the future by fully experiencing the present. Another step is to focus on our breath and allow mindfulness to make us more peaceful and smooth our interactions with others. And then find our flow and make the most of our time by losing track of it. We should also improve our ability to accept, move toward what is bothering us rather than denying or running away from it. Lastly we should enhance our engagement and work on reducing moments of mindlessness and noticing new things to improve our mindfulness.
For yoga practitioner, it is an excellent way to get connected to the present and stay in the moment. Yoga has many reasons that it is helpful for mindfulness, but one of the biggest is certainly the focus on the breath. However, for people like me, who are yoga-challenged, I believe that breath control and meditation helps in the pretty much the same way. Set aside some time every day, preferably in the mornings and meditate. It is not an instant cure, I will be honest. I used to meditate on and off previously, but since about April this year, I have start meditating seriously and it has taken me about six months for me to actually see results. I feel I am now more aware and also less stressed and things that used to cause me anxiety and stress have actually reduced. The best thing, I have started not worrying about things that don’t really matter and have started to beome non-judgemental and disengage myself from stressful situations which earlier used to make me spend hours worrying about.
I have found five execises which help to strengthen present moment awareness. The first is a mindful body scan, which I love and try to do at least twice a day, once in the morning to energise me and the second in the evening to help me relax. So how do we do a body scan? Sit or lie down and take a few deep, mindful breaths. Notice the way the breath enters and exits our lungs. Starting with your toes, focus the attention on one part of the body at a time. Pay attention to how that area is feeling and notice any sensations that are being experienced. After a few moments of focused attention, move up to the next part of your body, so from the toes to the feet to the calves, abdomen etc. If you are doing a body scan to relax, start from the top of your head and work your way downwards. Not only is a good method for putting you in a mindful state right off the bat, it can also help you notice when your body is feeling differently than normal. You might catch an injury or illness that you wouldn’t normally notice, just by taking a few minutes each morning to scan your body.
Another good exercise that can help set the right mindful tone for the day is to write in a journal. I have spoken about this previously and I like to use Google Docs for this as this allows me to sync the page across my different digital devices. For a more mindful day, when you start your day, take a few minutes and make an entry and write what is in your mind and clear it. Journaling like this allows us to remove all the thoughts from our heads and allow us to relax. The best thing, at least for me, is that these pages are very confidential and nobody other than me can access it. A physical book on the other hand, may land in hands you would rather not read what you have written. You can also visualise your goals which will make it more likely that they will be followed through and become mindful on a more regular basis. I like using project management tools to track my tasks for a week and when I check them off, it is a wonderful feeling. And when I finish my weekly tasks before Sunday, it is a serious high! People also say that taking a mindful walk among nature is a good way to cultivate mindfulness. Just engage all your senses and stay aware of what’s happening both around you and within you, be intentional with your awareness; notice your feet hitting the ground with each step, see everything there is to see around you, open your ears to all the sounds surrounding you, feel each inhale and exhale, and just generally be aware of what is happening in each moment. Lastly before you end your day, take a few minutes and review your day. Think back to the start of the day and remember your mindfulness exercise that kicked it all off. Think about how it made you feel. Think through the rest of your day, being sure to note any particularly mindful moments or memorable events. Take stock of your mood as you moved through your daily routine and end your day on the right note.
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. 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.