Be Here Now in the Moment: Simple Ways to Stay Present, Mindful
Thinking is a useful tool for us humans. We deal with the problems of life with the mental tools of recall, foresight, and logic, powered by our emotions.
Emotions also are useful tools. An angry tone will make "Stop it!" more effective. Joyous affection will make endearing words more pleasing and memorable than if said deadpan. "Help!" yelled with fright and urgency in it will more likely get attention than if said with no emotion.
But just as it makes no sense to leave a car engine, a lamp light, or a stove on when it is not being used, it makes no sense to be constantly thinking thoughts and re-churning emotions, needed or not.
Especially wasteful of one's time and mind power is to replay in one's mind patterns of thoughts and emotions pertaining to an incident that is past and done, or to incessantly worry and fret about a future decision or possibility. Using one's mind power for thoughts and feelings of resentment, regret, longing, apprehension, or other mental tethers to the past or future is at best of limited and short-lived usefulness. Such thoughts and feelings block one from finding interesting, or even noticing, the present moment, with its opportunities for appreciation, productivity, and creativity.
Some of the techniques I describe for being in the moment are used also in certain types of meditation, such as in mindfulness meditation or in mantra meditation. Here I am describing a different use of these techniques for a different purpose. The techniques that I describe below are for use when not meditating, when going about one's activities of the day. Regular meditation will increase the efficiency of the techniques described here, and the techniques described here will help bring into one's active life the gains of daily meditation.
These techniques differ from meditation techniques in these ways: 1) They are of comparatively brief duration, and 2) It's fine to switch from one to another,which can be done in an instant. For instance, one meditation technique is to mindfully observe one's breathing for 20 minutes, half an hour, or some other time unit, and to do only that, returning to mindfulness of breathing whenever one's mind strays. For present purposes, just a few seconds of mindful breathing may be sufficient to bring one's mind from wanderings in the past or future back to the present. Once back, one can just breathe without being particularly mindful about it.
And when it really is helpful to be mentally in the past or the future, that shift, too, from or back to the present, can be done in an instant. [What a beautiful day! Nice breeze! Where did I park my car? Think back an hour. Ah, I remember! It's that way. I'm watching for it.] There is nothing wrong with mentally wandering back or forth in time, when that's of help. It's just that the present is when and where one's life is "on live" and not in some mental re-run or speculation.
In My Own Experience
Bringing my mind back to full awareness of the here and now, instantly and noticeably reduces any feelings I may have of anxiety, depression ('the blues'), boredom, resentment, self-pity, dread, or worry. For years I was mired in such negativity.
Then I learned Transcendental Meditation (TM), the mantra meditation technique taught to my TM teacher by the late Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The routine of TM for 20 minutes twice daily gently, gradually, and effectively, over months, years, and decades, released a lot of my built-up negativity, allowing my usual state to instead mostly be a mellow equanimity combined with curiosity, gratitude, and fellow-feeling for all things. I became more productive and creative -- for instance, drafting and revising my first novel and getting it accepted for publication. I continue to meditate fairly often.
Regularly practicing TM, or any other technique of deep meditation, is like twice daily brushing and flossing one's teeth, while using the techniques described in this article is like as needed giving one's mouth a quick water rinse or using a toothpick.
The best default state of mind is attentive awareness. Why best? Because happiest, most interesting and satisfying. Described below are simple, easy ways to bring one's wandering mind instantly back to immediate awareness of the here now moment.
Without controlling, changing, or influencing it, notice and observe your breathing. Hear and feel each breath as it enters and leaves your nostrils, as your body, naturally and automatically, in response to its needs, moves the diaphragm down and up, breathes in and out. Once being mindful of your breathing has brought your attention away from thoughts of what was, might have been, or might come, and your awareness is of here now, then just go about your business in a state of full awareness, taking no special notice of your breathing.
Observing one's breathing is the handiest mindfulness technique for returning one's awareness to the present and maintaining it there, because a living person does not ever not breathe for long, but any other regularly repeated action can be mindfully observed as a way to bring one's attention to the present. If you are walking when you realize your mind has wandered, note your steps. If you are eating, mindfully chew each bite. If you are dancing, dance mindfully. Remember that I am not discussing mindfulness meditation. Be mindful of an activity just long enough to return your attention to the present, and then just enjoy being there, doing whatever seems best.
Dancing is repetitive movements, stepping in a pattern to music. Many people enjoy it. On the other hand, many people regard other repetitive movement activities with resistance, wishing each were over and done with even as they do it. Why not enjoy the washing dishes dance, the making the bed dance, the tidying rooms dance, the vacuuming dance, the assembling parts at the factory dance, the opening mail at the office dance, and so on? If you can't play music on a radio or mp3 player, make up music in your head.
Repeating a Word Technique
This is like using a meditation mantra. I've found that, as I go about the routines and activities of a day, I can reduce mind chatter and keep my awareness more in the present moment if I repeat a word or phrase in my mind. One of my favorites is "hallelujah," which I sing or chant in my head. Others are "boom" and "amen."
Five Senses Technique
You can't help but be aware of your here and now if you intentionally and actively look, listen, smell, feel, or taste. To bring your awareness to the present in an instant, simply look at what is in your sight. Take note of any person(s) or animal(s), of whatever is moving; of whatever is a particular color, of whatever is straight or curved, of shadows, or of other details.
Play cop and look for whatever is out of place. Look about you with an artist's eyes, noticing arrangements of color and form and whatever would be a good photograph or painting. Look with a parent's eyes, seeing possibilities for play, danger, and teaching. Look with a reporter's eyes, asking what's the story here.
Just so, just listen. As I draft this paragraph, I hear a clock ticking and, from outside my apartment, the tires on pavement sound of passing cars. I can't be attentive of the sounds I hear and be daydreaming at the same time. Perhaps where you are you hear a refrigerator motor, a bird call, a frog, the wind, your footsteps. Whatever you hear, or even if you are surrounded by silence, listen attentively; just by doing that, you will be in the moment.
Touch anything and note its feel. Just doing that will instantly bring your attention to the present. Touch several things with awareness -- a desk, a cell phone, a keyboard, a chair, a pet, whatever. Or take note of the feel of your weight, of gravity pulling you down, or of the feel of breeze on your skin, or of any sensation of warmth or cold. Then, aware of now, go about your business.
Take note of the smells coming to you. I have a terrible sense of smell, so usually I can't smell anything, but just trying to smell whatever I can brings my attention to the present. Smell, when I do smell something, is the perception most likely to bring a nostalgic memory. A gasoline smell might bring a memory of my grandfather's Model A Ford; a grass smell might bring a memory of mowing the lawn when I was a child growing up in an Illinois village; a fish smell might bring childhood fishing memories. I welcome such memories, say an affectionate hello and good-bye to them, so to speak, and then give attention to the smell in its present context.
Being mindful of the lick of ice cream in your mouth is a fuller, more intense taste pleasure than will be your memory of the taste experience. Notice the good old days as they are going by now. Live life live.
Game and Sports Techniques
I think that a major reason the playing of games is popular, whether sport games, parlor games, card games, or board games, is that games put one's attention in the present. A game is an excuse to not be thinking about problems, plans, arguments, and worries and to instead take a micro vacation, one's mind in the moment.
Sports and pastimes keep one of necessity focused on now. If your mind gets to thinking about the past or the future while, for instance, you are playing ping-pong, pounding a nail, riding a bicycle, playing a musical instrument, or sewing a hem, then you are liable to miss the ball, hammer your thumb, ride into a pothole , play a wrong note, or sew a crooked hem line. If while you are a batter waiting for a pitch in baseball, you are having Walter Mitty daydreams, or you are thinking about what you should have retorted to the other car driver who last year cussed at you, you will probably strike out.
Hunting with gun or camera requires paying attention. If you are not alert at the crucial moment, you won't be able to act in time when the 10-point buck stands like a statue staring at you before bounding away, or when the mallard flies right over your head.
"Woolgathering" while you are playing, for instance, poker or chess will decrease your odds of winning. Not paying attention in some sports -- car racing, glade skiing, canoeing difficult rapids, skywalking -- can lead to serious or fatal injury.
To live a balanced life, include in it some play time. Games, sports, and other pastimes, as fits your circumstances and interests, are an enjoyable way to be in the moment. Especially precious is the moment you realize you survived a dangerous feat unscathed. Yay!
The 'Seeing Ahead' Technique
This is one of my favorite techniques for living in the moment. Form a mental image in your mind of what you intend to do in the near future. Perhaps you intend to take a plane trip next week or to do grocery shopping tomorrow. Whatever is coming up for you pretty soon, picture that. Now picture what you will be doing in the even nearer future. Perhaps you have in mind to get the mail, drink a glass of water, and see what's on TV. Keep shortening how far in the future you will do what you now visualize, until you visualize what you are going to do in an instant. For example, mentally see yourself sitting down on a chair an instant before you sit, reaching for your loose shoelaces an instant before you reach, grabbing the ends of your shoelaces an instant before you grab them, pulling your laces tight an instant before you pull them, and so on.
The technique is to visualize your future as you expect it will be in an instant (say in a guesstimated millisecond) and to do that continually. Because the gap between what is now and what is coming in an instant is too short to think about or even to notice, the apparent effect will be direct awareness of your present continually arriving here now out of infinite future possibilities.
The 'On Camera' Technique
My very favorite be here now technique is similar to the last one, but it adds a fun element of pretense. My brother John Leekley writes movies. One time back in the 90s a TV movie starring Helen Hunt that John wrote, em>In The Company of Darkness, was being made, and some scenes were being filmed in a Chicago suburb less than an hour's drive from where I then lived. I got to visit the set one day and watch the filming, which I did with much appreciation and wide-eyed interest.
At one point the director asked me to play a background character, which I gladly did for the fun of it. What I've remembered ever since about the experience is how alert and aware I was while on camera. I wanted to do my little part just right, so I would please the director and the actors and not ruin the shot with a flub. I had to be realistically in character and react appropriately without calling the audience's attention to me. When the cameras were on, I was very much aware of my every movement, my stance, my expression. The director said I did fine. They shot the scene a few times from different angles, plus some closeups of the main characters. I was in some of the shots but not most of them; I ended up in just one brief, edited shot in the movie. I'm a background blur that you'll miss if you blink and won't notice if you don't blink, because you'll be watching the main characters.
The on camera technique is to pretend that cameras are now filming the happening now scene in the movie of your life. Being "on camera" makes one very aware of being here now. You improvise, guided by the Director's suggestions, which come to your mind in a pretend high tech way as words or image.
The Director is Mr. Intuition, and he is very supportive and encouraging. He suggests not only what to do moment to moment but with what attitude to do it. Director's Voice: "With enthusiasm and confidence, you break the two eggs into the batter."
When I am "on camera" in that pretend way, not only is my attention in the present, but, encouraged by the imaginary Director and a host of affirming imaginary spirit beings, this technique also helps me to be more confident, more courageous, more decisive, and less awkward than usual for me.
The 'Doctor Who' Technique
Doctor Who is a TV science fiction fantasy series in which a Time Lord known as The Doctor, starting from the far away planet of Gallifrey, travels through space and time, having adventures on different planets, including earth, using his ingenuity to save societies from calamities and villains. The navigation controls of his TARDIS spacetime ship have been damaged, so when he travels in it, he doesn't know where or when it will land. Each time it lands, Doctor Who must learn fast how to survive and cope in whatever situation he finds himself.
To me the Doctor Who stories symbolize reincarnation. This is the concept that when a human dies, that entity's disembodied soul spends some amount of time in another dimension (different cultures of the world and different psychics have different stories about the details) and then chooses to be reborn. Delivered by his or her mother like Doctor Who is delivered wherever whenever it lands by his TARDIS spacetime machine, a newborn begins learning at birth about its new here now world.
Pretend that you have been traveling with Doctor Who and that you just stepped out of the TARDIS, which to your dismay immediately left, leaving you wherever you are to fend for yourself. Expect the unexpected. Stay alert.
The 'On Vacation' Technique
Taking vacation trips is popular in part because during a vacation one's mind is attracted more than usually to the here and now. The sights, sounds, and smells are unfamiliar. Around every bend of the road an adventure might await. A stranger might be friendly or unfriendly. A momentary lapse of attention might mean missing an interesting landmark, an awesome view, or a fascinating happening.
This technique is to pretend you are on vacation. See, hear, and smell your familiar surroundings with an attitude of curiosity and wonder.
Want to Be Here Now
This is the simplest and most effective technique for living in the moment, for being here now -- to choose to want most of all to be here now. When others speak of the good old days or of the coming utopia and ask you about the times and places you wish you could experience again or wish to experience in the future, say, believe, and feel that your heart's desire, your greatest wish is to be here now. This moment is what you can, fleetingly, possess with your senses. Want it. Possess it. Be aware of it, for its instant.
This ultra-simple technique is that I pretend or imagine that I am glowing--that my whole body is glowing like a firefly, except steadily. Of course no one, me included, can see any glow, but I imagine feeling my body glowing as though it really were.
What are the benefits of glowing?
- It is pleasant enough that I like doing it but not so pleasant that I mind not doing it.
When I have nothing to do--when I am waiting for the faucet water to turn hot or waiting for a computer program to load or waiting for a bus--I can glow. It's something to do and an alternative to fretting, worrying, or grousing.
- There are many simple tasks that I can do at the same time that I am glowing. I can wash dishes while glowing, get dressed while glowing, and so on. While I am busy glowing, pretty soon a bunch of tasks have gotten done, it seems effortlessly and in little time. If a task requires closer attention, I give it and automatically stop glowing.
- When I don't know what to do next with myself and many shoulds are competing for my attention, I glow. That satisfies my feeling that I should be doing something. And then usually intuition sends me an impulse what task to do next.
- Glowing helps me to listen attentively. If I am glowing as I am listening to someone, I can occupy myself with glowing during their pauses, decreasing the risk of my mind wandering and missing what is said next.
Often while I'm "glowing" I also pretend that I am starting to float. I don't know why, but this rising up, starting to float sensation brings a feeling of elation to my body and a big smile to my face.
What is your preference?
Those are a few of the ways to be here now. No implication is intended that being fully present is better than having one's attention on a memory, an anticipation, a hope, a worry, or a conundrum. Use the mind's tools, such as thinking and memory, when and as needed, and afterward bring your attention again to your here and now, using such techniques as described above. It takes but an instant to switch from one of the techniques to another or to switch from mindfulness of the here and now to thinking about the past, the future, or hypotheticals and then back to the present moment. The instant you enter a moment, you are leaving it. Or it is leaving you. Wonder at the ever now flow of moments.
Addendum February 2015: Mind Mapping and Mindfulness
This winter I have been learning and practicing mind mapping as developed and taught by Tony Buzan. It is a wonderfully useful and easy way to take notes, as of a meeting or a lecture, or to brainstorm, as when formulating a plan, a novel, or a hub. Doing mind mapping with pen and paper led me to the practice of mental mind mapping. I realize that it seems peculiar to do something mentally that is based on a way to write that is based on how brain/mind processing of information and ideas naturally works.
Suppose that, using one of the techniques described in the essay above, my attention is here, now, in the present, or such a tiny instant, fraction of a second, ahead in time as to be experienced as what is becoming becoming now. Supposed that as I am experiencing and enjoying the wonder of now, I open my refrigerator door and see a package of ground beef and think, "Lunch. Hamburger. Yum," as I reach for it. An example of mental mind mapping would be if I were to very briefly, in moments, think ahead, mentally seeing branching possibilities—ground beef, supper, chili, or spaghetti sauce, or tacos, so for lunch tuna salad on toast or in a sweet red pepper or on lettuce, or vice versa, tuna salad for supper; the salad is quicker to prepare and I have things to do, places to go in the afternoon, so I pause my reaching for the ground beef and grab the mayonnaise and celery instead and step to the pantry shelves to grab a can of tuna. Suchlike brief mental mind mapping of future consequences of president actions doesn't take one's attention away from the here and now for long—just moments—and makes smooth sailing ahead, metaphorically speaking, more likely.
Why wouldn't I mentally look a little further ahead to the probable consequences to myself and to life on earth of a meat diet? Good question. Substitute a vegan example, or substitute a nonfood example of mental mind mapping, such as whether to turn on the TV when there are so many other possibilities.