Live in the Moment: 10 Ways to Instantly Be Present
In My Experience
Bringing my mind back to full awareness of the here, now moment instantly dissolves or noticeably reduces any feelings anxiety, dread, depression, boredom, resentment, or impatience.
For years my mind was mired in such negativity. Then in December 1973 I learned Transcendental Meditation (TM), the mantra meditation technique taught to my TM teacher by the late Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The routine of doing TM for 20 minutes twice daily gently, gradually, and effectively, over months and years, released the bulk of my built-up stress and negativity, allowing my usual state to instead mostly be a mellow, alert equanimity combined with appreciation, curiosity, and enthusiasm for accomplishments. I became more creative and productive.
For instance, during the 1990s I wrote a novel that a publisher accepted; I transitioned my used books business from mail-order to Internet-based; I got happily married at age 52, and I did that while I was the primary caretaker of my mother, hemiplegic and aphasic from a stroke, helping her to have a life as well as be safe and comfortable. I did those things with an effectiveness and a gladness that for me would have been impossible without the previous years of TM daily practice.
I continue these days to meditate often, and Transcendental Meditation continues for me to result in less negative, more positive, feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Like a ship that moves better through the water because freed of barnacles, if I meditate regularly my mind tends to be less on resentments, regrets, and anxieties and more on eagerly solving problems, on creating (e.g., hubs), and on encouraging and cheering others.
Regularly practicing TM, or any other technique of deep meditation, is like twice daily thoroughly brushing and flossing one's teeth, while using the techniques described in this article is like as needed giving one's teeth a quick water swish.
The best default state of mind is attentive awareness. Why best? Because most interesting and satisfying. Described below are simple, easy ways to bring one's wandering mind instantly back to awareness of the here, now moment.
Why Care About Noticing This Present Moment?
Thinking is a useful tool for us humans. We deal with the problems of life with the mental tools of recall, foresight, and reasoning with logic.
Emotions are also useful tools. An angry tone will make the injunction "Stop it!" more effective. Joyous affection will make endearing words more pleasing and memorable than if said deadpan. "Help!" yelled with fright and urgency 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, 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 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, each present, gone-in-an-instant 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 wandering in the past or future back to the present. Once back, one can just breathe without being particularly mindful about it, while noticing, for instance, a passing by bicyclist, the scent of a peach, what a friend is saying.
And when it really is helpful to be mentally in the past or the future, that shift, too, can be done in an instant. [What a beautiful day! Nice breeze! Where did I park my car? Think back an hour. The mind's attention goes momentarily back in time to recall what happened and returns to the present. 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 an "on live" experience and not some mental re-run or preview.
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 of your presence in the happening scene, taking no special notice of your breathing.
Do that as often as you like. I find it especially helpful when listening to someone's long anecdote, when my mind tends to wander during the little pauses as she-he talks.
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, attentively aware of whatever in the scene in each instant interests you.
Dancing is repetitive movements, stepping in a pattern to music. Many people enjoy it. When dancing, one might mindfully count the beats of the music or notice one's steps or observe one's partner's movements.
On the other hand, many people regard other repetitive movement activities with resistance. As one of them is happening, they wish it were over and done with. Why not enjoy the washing dishes dance, the making a bed dance, the tidying a room dance, the vacuuming a rug dance, the assembling factory parts dance, the using the copy machine at the office dance, and so on?
Need music? No radio, mp3 player, or dance band? Imagine whatever music or song suits the dance and comes to mind.
2. Repeat a Word
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, as needed, I repeat a word or phrase in my mind. One of my favorites is "hallelujah." Some others are "amen," "maranatha," "boom," "la," and "holy moly."
3. Use Your Senses
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 persons, of animals, of whatever is moving, of whatever is lovely.
Play cop and look for whatever is suspiciously out of place. Look about you with an artist's eyes, noticing arrangements of color and form and what 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 yourself 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 moment by moment. Live life live.
4. Participate in Games, Sports, and Other Pastimes
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, or 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 days ago cussed at you, you will probably strike out.
Hunting, with rifle 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 and sports, as fits your circumstances and interests, are enjoyable ways to live in the moment.
5. Mentally "See" Just Ahead
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 imperceptible instant (like, an imagined nanosecond) 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—in, say, a hundredth of a second or a millisecond or a nanosecond—and to do that continually. Because the gap between what is now and what is coming in that 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 future possibilities.
6. Imagine You Are "On Camera"
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 screenplays. One time back in the 90s a TV movie starring Helen Hunt that John wrote, 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 shot, seconds long, in the movie. I and the other background characters are blurred to put the audience's attention on the main characters.
The on camera technique is to pretend that cameras are 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 in a pretend high tech way as words or as mental images.
The director is Mr. (or Ms.) Intuition—or sometimes in my imagination "the Spirit," as in the words to the spiritual and civil rights movement song, "Do what the Spirit says do." He (or she) is very supportive and encouraging, suggesting not only what to do moment to moment but with what attitude to do it. Director's Voice: "Confidently flip the frying egg."
When I am "on camera" in that pretend way, not only is my attention in the present, but, encouraged by the imaginary director, this technique helps me to be more confident, courageous, and decisive and less awkward in the present than usual.
7. Imagine You Just Stepped Out of Dr. Who's TARDIS
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.
Pretend that you, alone, just stepped out of the TARDIS and that it immediately disappeared, leaving you wherever you are to fend for yourself. Expect the unexpected. Stay alert.
8. Pretend You Are On Vacation
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.
9. Take Responsibility for Active Children
If you are a parent, a sitter, a schoolteacher, a playground supervisor, or anyone else responsible for the safety and well-being of toddlers or young children playing or studying near you, you'd best have your attention on the present moment, even if the children at the moment are self-motivated and creatively finding permissible ways to occupy themselves. If your attention strays, within seconds a minor disagreement between two children might have turned into a fight or a toddler who has scarcely learned to run might be dashing toward danger. When with young children, one needs to stay mentally present, aware and alert.
The same goes for keeping an eye on puppies or kittens.
10. Want to Be Here Now
This is the simplest and most effective technique for living in the moment, for being present—to choose to want most of all to be here now. When others speak of "the good old days" or of better times to come "after the revolution" or "when our savior comes" and ask you where and when you wish you were, 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 immediately with your senses. Want it. Possess it. Be aware of it, for its instant. If the moment you are in sucks, want to be, and be, in it, changing your circumstances.
In my theology, to do God's will is to "take it as it comes," within each instant of experience doing one's best to do what seems fitting. This, I think, is the lesson of the Bible / Torah / Quran story of Joseph, son of Jacob.
What is your preference?
Those are a few of the ways to opt to be in the moment. No implication is intended that being fully present, aware, mindful is better than having one's attention on a memory, 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.
The instant you enter a moment, you are leaving it. Or it is leaving you. Wonder at the ever now flow of moments.
While Mindfully Chatting on Her Cell Phone
Taking being in the moment to extremes can cause inconvenience, embarrassment, or harm.
Suppose I am mindfully doing domestic tasks, my attention on my actions, and all is fine as I wash dishes or whatever, and my mind never leaves the present to think ahead to what to fix for supper and to realize that something I want to prepare is in the freezer and needs to be thawed. Result: A late supper.
Or suppose that I am mindfully watching the clouds as I walk and I walk into a lamppost.
Or suppose that I am mindfully shopping in a supermarket, my attention on my shopping list and my surroundings, and my mind never leaves the present to go back in time via memory to remember that my spouse asked me as I was leaving our place to please buy her something chocolate. Result: Disappointment for her and embarrassment for me.
So don't be in the moment 100% of the time. The technique I use is to imagine my mind functioning like a mind map. (What's that? Search the Net on: Buzan mind map.) The center is the here and now. The branches represent briefly thinking back into the past and ahead into the future as knowledge of them affect what I do now.
Another analogy is a wagon train bringing settlers into the American West in the nineteenth century. Scouts were sent ahead to look for hostile Indians, robbers, natural obstacles and dangers, suitable campsites, etc., and search parties were, I suppose, sent back to help stragglers. The scouts and the searchers didn't wander off and forget about the wagon train. They scouted a little ahead or searched a little behind, keeping their purposes in mind and soon returning to the wagon train. Just so, my attention frequently and briefly leaves the present moment to consider what from the past I need to remember now and what is coming up in the future that I need to anticipate now.
For instance, at the present my mind is mainly on drafting this prose but keeps remembering that I am to wake my wife at 7 a.m., in less than an hour.
© 2011 Brian Leekley