Focusing on the present moment

In our daily lives, our mind is rarely on what is happening in the present moment.  We are often consumed in multi-tasking, planning ahead for the future, reminiscing about the past, or immersed in repetitive thought patterns.    We often go through our daily lives on “auto-pilot” and don’t pay attention to the smells, sounds, tastes, and sight around us as well as observing our internal thought processes.  In addition, we often have a lot of judgment and chattering in our heads, based on previous experiences. “That was so stupid of me!” “What a jerk!”  “I’m fed up!” are all automatic judgments of ourselves, others and situations.   Our bodies often pay the price of not living in the present when we perseverate on stressful past and future experiences and experience tension or distress in various parts of our body as a result.  Mindfulness, which has its roots in Budhist meditation is consciously paying attention in the present moment in a non-judgmental manner.  Taking on a non-judgmental mind-set allows us to view situations with more clarity and distance ourselves from our habitual reactions, emotions, and impulses.  By observing that the mind is continually making commentary and that thoughts are not always correct, we are more capable of detaching ourselves from thoughts that are untrue or unproductive.  Thus, happiness is not solely brought about by a change in our external circumstances but, in part, by releasing automatic reactions that don’t serve us well. In addition, by experiencing the sensations of our environment (i.e. the chatter of people talking, the feeling of the air-conditioning on our arms, the aroma of food cooking, the vibrant colors of the pictures on the wall), it keeps us grounded in our present circumstances and not lost in past or future moments.

Positive psychology proponents have developed a number of practical applications of mindfulness which has been shown to reduce stress and depression and increase positive emotion.  Scientist Jon Kabat-Zinn describes how mindfulness is an activity that can be done at any time.  For example, while walking to your car, you can be mindful of the sound of the wind whistling, the smell of the fresh air outside, the feeling of your feet repetitively hitting the pavement, and the visual scenery around you.  You can also be mindful of your mind’s commentary: "Today was so stressful…I hate my job.” “I can’t wait to get home to dinner with my family.”  “It’s pretty outside.”  Once you identify experience as mental content, you have the freedom to merely observe judgments/perceptions and not identify or get caught up with them.

Exercise #1: A basic mindfulness exercise begins with sitting down and focusing on your breath.   Focusing on your breathing can often help return you to the present when you are lost in mental chatter and aren’t in the here and now.  Find a comfortable chair to sit in, in a quiet location, and set a timer for 10 to 20 minutes.  Close your eyes and begin paying attention to your breath, as you inhale and then exhale.  Notice the sensations that your body experiences, such as your stomach moving or your shoulders slightly rising, as you breathe in and out. If your mind begins to wander, observe what thoughts are going through your mind, and then  return your concentration back to your breathing.  As you continue to attend to your breathing, scan your body for tension or tightness, starting with your feet and moving slowly up your body all the way to your head.  If you notice any rigidness in your body, see if you can release or soften it. 

Exercise #2: Pick any cleaning activity that you do in your house on a regular basis, such as washing dishes.   Pay attention to the sensations, feelings, smells, sights, and noises as well as any thoughts you may have.  You may feel the sensation of the water as it touches your skin, the feeling of the smooth dishes, the noises of the glasses clinking together as you put them in the dishwasher, etc.  If your mind begins to wander, observe the content non-judgmentally, and then gently return your attention to the task at hand.

Exercise #3: We often eat in a hurried manner, rarely taking the time to really experience the flavors, textures, and aromas of our meals.  Find a quiet place to sit down and take time experiencing a favorite meal.  Chew slowly as you attend to the smells, tastes, and sights of your chosen dish.  If distracted, notice your thoughts and then return to the present moment.  Pay attention to your stomach and note when you are starting to feel satisfied or full.     If you enjoyed this activity, try it with a friend or spouse and compare notes!

Exercise #4: Virtually any activity can be transformed into a mindfulness activity.  You can bring mindfulness to anything that you do, whether it be walking, cleaning, eating, talking, bathing, etc.  Pick an activity that you would like to bring mindfulness to.  How did that activity change, once you brought attention to it in the present moment and without judgment?  What automatic thoughts ran through your head?  Did you feel any differently after you completed the mindfulness activity?