As Josh did the dishes, his mind wandered to a memory of lost love. "I was happier back then," he thought. Regrets washed over him.
Greta barely noticed the people around her on the bus. She was busy thinking about the mistakes she made that day.
Frank checked his cellphone the very instant he was left alone. It was automatic.
We spend most of our time preoccupied with the future, mired in the past, or just checked out. I am not making a judgment about that. It’s just an observation-something about the natural inclination of the brain. Our minds float away, forgetting to notice what is happening now.
But we can shift our mind to be in the present moment. And when we do, we wake up a visceral part of us. I am alive. I am here. Nothing bad is happening to me right now. I have come to use the present moment as a rest stop, a refuge from the unknowable future and the traumatic past.
There are a slew of practical advantages to being in the present moment. For example, it is only when we are in the present moment that we can:
1. Read the mood, emotion, and intention of others with maximum accuracy to communicate effectively and grow our relationships.
2. Know what emotions we are having, know what we feel in our body, notice the thoughts our mind is generating, and gain control of our actions. Awareness of these experiences fosters mental health.
3. Change how we feel by caring for and tending to our Self so we feel better.
So, how do we bring our Self into the present moment?
I shift my attention to the soles of my feet. I feel my feet on the ground. Do you feel your feet on the ground (or your body on the bed if you’re lying down)?
I turn my attention to my breathing. I notice each breath: In and out…In and out. Do you notice that you are breathing right now? Can you notice each breath in and out for a total of 10 seconds?
I turn my attention to my surroundings. I see my husband reading the paper. I see my books. I see my wallpapered walls. I see a scuff mark on the floor. Do you see the room around you? Can you name 3 things you can see right now?
I turn my attention so I hear the sounds in my environment. I hear my neighbor’s voice through the front door of my apartment. I hear the sound of the electric guitar playing from the den. I hear the street traffic. What do you hear now? Can you name 3 sounds?
I sense my body and what it needs and wants. My stomach wants food. My shoulder is sore — I need to adjust my position. The sensations in my body tell me the emotions I am currently experiencing. Right now I am both happy and also a little sad for several people I love who are suffering. Can you check in with your body and see what emotions and sensations you notice now?
There are some challenges to being in the present moment.
We become aware of things that make us uncomfortable. Sometimes what we feel is strange and scary. Or we become aware of thoughts in our head that are harsh, beating us up for our perceived limits and flaws. If we have no education on what to expect or tools and guides for how to stay calm, being in the present moment can have challenges. It did for me at first.
Remember the folks from the beginning of this post? They were not in the present moment. Here's why and the reasons might surprise you:
If Josh, who got pulled into past regrets, came into the present moment, he’d sense his agitation. The pride and excitement he felt as a result of receiving an outstanding work review from his boss overwhelmed him and raised his anxiety. Josh had no idea that he blocked those good feelings using regret as a defense mechanism.
If Greta was in the present moment, she'd have to manage the shame she felt about being a “loser.” (She was not a loser at all, by the way!) Like the tip of an iceberg, her shame and low self-esteem was all that was conscious. Shame, an inhibitory emotion, served to block her long-standing buried anger at the kids in elementary school who had severely bullied her thirty years ago.
If Frank stayed in the present moment instead of turning to his cellphone, he’d get in touch with the terror he felt when he was left alone. Ironically, his job as a successful and high-powered litigator fooled everyone into thinking Frank was fearless and secure in every way.
With all the activity pushing us away from the present moment and causing us to want to avoid how we feel, how do we learn to increase our ability to stay in the moment?
The same way a pianist gets to Carnegie Hall. No, not by taxi. But by practice!
You might be wondering, "Are there any tools to help me practice?"
The answer is Yes!
The practice of mindful meditation is all about staying in the here and now of the moment. There are plenty of free, guided meditations, as well as Apps like Head Space, to help. Pema Chodron's audios are also helpful for this practice. Her voice is comforting as well.
Another great tool is The Change Triangle. One of the reasons I personally use and love teaching The Change Triangle is that it prepares us and guides us through whatever arises when we are present. It helps us understand our emotions so what we experience is more tolerable, less frightening and less mysterious. The Change Triangle also guides us on what to do with our discomfort to make it more manageable like simply naming and validating core emotions without judging them.
Lastly, some of us want or need the company of another person as a guide. A meditation coach or an experiential therapist offers individual attention. Suffice it to say, there is no shortage of help when it comes to learning how to stay in the present moment. The rest, however, is up to you.
Learning to be in the present is a great way to get to know our Self more deeply. We do NOT have to go on that journey. We can live in the past. We can live in the future. And we can distract ourselves endlessly with all our screens. But to feel alive and vital, we must live in the present moment, at least some of the time.
Are you here now?
Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW is a psychotherapist, author, blogger, and speaker specializing in emotions and how to work with them to feel better. Her New York Times article, “It’s Not Always Depression, Sometimes It’s Shame” was the #1 emailed article on March 10, 2015 and lead to the book Hilary is currently writing entitled “It’s Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, & Connect to Your Authentic Self "(Random House USA & Viking Penguin UK, 2018). She also enjoyed being the Mental Health Consultant to the television show Mad Men.
You can sign up for Hilary’s blog to learn more about emotions, tips for everyday living, and updates on the book at hilaryjacobshendel.com.