It seems rather easy to understand at first:
Life only takes place right now.
My life is unfolding at this exact moment — while I type these words.
Conceptually, we all understand that the past is gone and the future is not here yet. So when I ask people what it means to “live in the present moment,” most define it as “now”. But then comes the hard part: to actually live life in the present.
It’s harder than you think.
How many times have you driven home from work, without remembering the actual trip? How often do you go out for a run or a walk and find yourself thinking about something else?
Perhaps you got into an argument with your boss earlier in the day or you’re upset at your partner for something she said. Your exercise time is then spent ruminating over past episodes.
What about the very act of worrying? Have you ever caught yourself consumed by fear over something that may or may not occur in the future?
I’m sure we can all identify with some of these scenarios because our minds are remarkable pieces of machinery that never stop thinking. But if I go out for a run and spend the entire time daydreaming about something else, am I really living in the present moment?
Just a few days ago I took my dogs out for our daily run in the mountains. The surroundings were breathtaking and being out in nature always nourishes my soul.
Yet, it dawned on me when I got home that I had spent an hour running around on auto-pilot.
I didn’t recall listening to the birds or looking at the gorgeous view or even at my dogs, as they ran around happily. I spent the entire time immersed in the movies of my brain. I was actually running while rehashing a conversation I had days before.
Not only was I rehashing the dialogue but I was adding more words, things I should have said or done. Life was unfolding right before my very eyes (if I had bothered to look) while I was stuck in the fantasies of my brain. Great.
I can already hear a faint protest:
“What’s wrong with letting the mind wander? You still got your exercise in!”
Well, yes, I did burn some calories.
But do you see what I missed?
I missed the birds, the trees, my dogs, the movement of the clouds above, my breath, my heartbeat, the scent of wildflowers, the gentle touch of the breeze on my face. I traded all that for my mind movies.
Now, does that seem at all like a fair trade? In essence, for a whole hour, I missed Life. I missed a sliver of time in my life that I cannot get back.
But there is hope! All we have to do to live life in the present — the only place where life actually occurs — is to be more mindful of everything we do.
Be the watcher of thought.
Recognize that you’re the consciousness that lies beyond the endless activity of the brain. Observe your thoughts from a distance and then redirect your attention to whatever you’re doing at that precise moment. That’s exactly what I did on my run the very next day.
It’s easier to start practicing mindfulness by focusing first on your external environment. I paid attention to the birds, the trees, my dogs, the scenery.
But then I focused on what renowned Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh calls the “anchor” of the present moment:
I listened to and felt my breathing with every stride. And suddenly, the world became more alive and my mind quieted down.
Every single time you find yourself immersed in your mind movies, stop for just a second and focus on your breath. Take a deep breath in through your nose and look around you. Then slowly release the breath.
In just a few seconds it takes to inhale and exhale, you will quite literally feel life change. And that’s when you’ll be living in the present.
When all else fails, just listen to this Jason Mraz tune!