It never ceases to amaze me how easy it is to get caught up in our heads, worrying, speculating and strategizing about the future, and ruminating on whatever went wrong in the past. It seems we focus far less on what’s actually happening in the present moment, here and now – even though we know that we are most in touch with reality and our inner wisdom when we are present.
Most of us tend to live in a past and future state, where the now-moment gradually gets buried under a mountain of distractions. Without realizing it, we’re thinking ahead to the rest of the day, the rest of the week, the rest of our lives…
Or we’re caught up grappling with uncertainties like:
- Does that noise under the hood indicate a really expensive car repair?
- What if my retirement funds don’t hold out?
- Will I be able to find love after this divorce?
Maybe we’re looking backward, stewing over someone’s careless remark, or one of our own that we wish we could take back. Or maybe we’re cringing over a choice made in the heat of the moment and waiting now for that shoe to drop.
It’s not difficult to see how these concerns accumulate into a pile of emotional tinder that can keep us on edge, tense and worried, and just about everywhere on our timeline but now.
Mindfulness Can Help
In a previous post about mindfulness, I talked about how focusing your mind’s attention on relaxing your posture and breathing freely helps to anchor you in the present moment. I call this method the Practice. I show you how I do it in the PDF below.
If you’ve tried the Practice or other mindfulness methods, you’ve already experienced how the conscious choice to breathe with now-moment awareness reduces stress and calms your nervous system.
When you’re experiencing anxiety or depression, or when you’re new to awareness practice, it will take time and effort to remember to do the Practice. It will also take time for your body and mind to return to a more relaxed state as a daily baseline.
So, don’t expect to focus on being present for five minutes and then, miraculously, you’re no longer anxious! But think about it this way: even 5% more calm is also 5% less anxious. Each incremental amount of calm affects the way you deal with stress in a positive way.
If you do the Practice routinely throughout your day, every day, the beneficial effect adds up over time. The reason is simple: when you develop a habit of getting back to the now-moment several times a day, you’ll become increasingly aware when your presence slips. Being able to notice this is a game changer!
Dimensions of Presence
If you’re not sure how to tell when you’re present in the moment, or how to regain presence when you feel it slipping, here are three dimensions of awareness to consider.
1. Awareness of your physiological and emotional state.
- How does your body feel? Are your muscles tense or relaxed? Are you slouching or assuming a posture more likely to cause discomfort or pain? Where are you holding tension? In your neck and shoulders? In your lower back?
When you feel awareness of the present moment slipping, this is a good place to check in first. The interesting thing is, whenever you pay attention to your physiological state in the now moment, you automatically become aware of your emotional state.
- Are you experiencing reactive emotions like shame, blame or self-pity? Are you fearful or agitated? Are you moody or shut down?
Once you’re aware of your emotions, you are more able to regulate them so they don’t distort your perceptions, behavior and choices.
2. Awareness of your mental state and accompanying storylines.
- Where is your mental focus? Are you tired or distracted? Is your mind foggy or racing? Are you worrying about the future or dwelling on the past?
- Is there a narrative running in your head like, “This always happens to me… he always… every time I…”
Notice the connection between your storylines and your emotional and physiological state. What happens when you fixate on the narrative playing on repeat inside your head? Can you notice how it feeds your emotions?
Now, what happens when you make an effort to focus on your posture and breath and stay in the present moment instead? The difference might be subtle at first, but very often it can pull you back from the brink of a full-blown reaction.
3. Awareness of a more complete picture of what is happening in the now, with sensory details.
- Where are you in space? What are you physically doing?
- What are the textures of the things around you? What sounds do you notice? What smells?
Think in concrete terms. Make an effort to see yourself as you are right now, with no storyline or emotional reaction or judgement. Then, keeping an awareness of your breathing, describe the room or outdoor area or vehicle – whatever space you occupy. If you’re eating, make an effort to really taste your food or your beverage and notice the accompanying physical sensations.
Pay attention to where your mind goes today. You can either jot down notes for later reflection, reflect in the moment, or use this as a journaling opportunity.
- Pick three times to check in with yourself. For instance: lunch, mid-afternoon and early evening. If you really want to challenge yourself, see if you can check in once an hour.
- Reflect on the incidents from the past you found yourself ruminating about. What kinds of worries and fears did you project onto the future? What percentage of each hour would you estimate you actually spent in the here and now?
See if you can start integrating more of this awareness throughout your day. And when you recognize these familiar worries or fears coming up, try to keep yourself in the present moment with the Practice. Even if you can only interrupt the cycle for five minutes, this will go a long way to reducing your anxiety and overall stress levels and increasing your sense of calm.
Let me know in the comments how it went. I’d love to hear what you discovered.
Take good care : )