“It’s important to live in the present moment” – how often have you heard it? Perhaps you have also heard similar advice like “Don’t get entangled in thinking about the past or the future – live in the now!” or “All you have is this moment. Don’t miss it.”
All these (probably overused) sayings boil down to the same basic message: it’s vital to live in the present moment. When we are present and use our capacity for mindfulness, it makes us happier. It helps us deal with pain more effectively, reduce our stress and its effects on our health, and improve our ability to deal with negative emotions such as fear and anger. Abraham Maslow summarized it by saying: “The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness.”
OK, we get it. But do we really? Mindfulness became such a buzzword, and many think that living in the present is just a fad or trendy lifestyle tip. It’s nothing like that; it is so much more; it’s even essential to find our way in this ever faster-changing world. Let me explain.
Do you need to meditate to become more mindful?
Being in the present moment or in the “here and now” means that we are aware of what’s happening in that moment AND that we can notice when we get distracted and bring our awareness back to the here and now.
Although mindfulness meditation is a method for developing this ability, what’s more important is to flexibly apply mindfulness in day to day living by using various simple techniques. That’s the real process of mindfulness at work and to become more present.
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So you don’t need to meditate cross-legged for at least half an hour every day or even travel to faraway retreats in Bali to become more mindful and enjoy its benefits. Mindfulness and living in the present moment is much more familiar to us than we often think – which leads us to the question, “why aren’t we cultivating it all the time?”
Being mindful is not a state but a skill
I think many people fail in cultivating their ability to be more mindful because they see mindfulness as a state to be achieved instead of a skill to be developed. The aim of mindfulness is not to achieve stillness of mind and shut down thoughts.
Being mindful is the act of noticing that your mind has been hooked by rumination, worry, or any other distracting thought process and then consciously choosing to return your awareness to the present moment. Each time you do this, you strengthen your “mindfulness muscle.”
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This also means that mindfulness is not some magical ability that some have and others don’t. It’s a capacity within all of us; it’s just that most of us don’t consciously access it that often, so our mindfulness muscle is not that strong.
We are (un)fortunately not zebras
Do you know the famous book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky? In this book, Sapolsky explains why zebras are experts in staying in the present moment. Zebras can go from a state of extreme distress after being hunted by a predator to a relatively calm and relaxed state as soon as the zebra comes out of a danger zone. How is this possible?
The answer is that zebras are not equipped with a thinking mind that willingly takes them out of the present moment. The zebra is not plagued by trauma when its mind brings it back to the present after it has escaped, nor does it feel overwhelmed by guilt for having survived while another has not.
We get seduced by our past and future
It’s different for the average human being; we hang on to our difficult and negative experiences and thoughts. This, of course, has proven extremely useful for us as a species because it helps us plan for the future or learn from past experiences.
However, it also has its price. The price is that the past and the future so seduce us that it becomes incredibly easy for us to take our thoughts and emotions as literal truths. We ruminate over past failures or worry about future events that have not yet happened to us. As a result, our ability to respond to situations immediately ahead of us is severely limited.
This can cause us to behave inflexibly when we narrow our past experiences or ideas about the future. We may not accept new challenges because we’ve always considered ourselves to have failed in the past and therefore predict that our future will look the same. While this might, of course, be true, action based only on a conceptually captured past or future becomes quite limiting and leads to repetitive and unhelpful cycles of behavior.
Mindfulness helps us to become mentally more flexible
So it’s really our mental flexibility that we increase when we start to become more mindful. Mental flexibility is a key skill that makes us response-able in a challenging situation and represents our ability to reduce automatic reaction patterns and promote awareness of internal content – our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and memories – at a given moment. We can step back and look at our inner experience instead of acting from it.
Probably even more important, it develops our capacity to acknowledge how precious any given moment is. It allows us to use the only available window to make change happen – the present moment.
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You see, the greatest strategy, the most powerful intention, the most profound new way of being will be in vain without your ability to catch yourself in the moment; to realize that this moment, right now, is an opportunity to apply a new strategy, to realize your intention to emerge in a new way.
In other words, without this mental flexibility, it’s difficult to change or to adapt to the constant changes in our modern world successfully.
It’s all about pausing, noticing, and accepting rather than lengthy meditation practices
Let’s look at a practical example – the workplace. Work is getting more and more synonymous with speed, productivity, and dynamism – no matter whether you work in a big corporation or as a small business owner from home.
While contacting the present moment doesn’t necessarily mean that you slow down or stop your work, it has a quality of pausing and reflection that helps you better deal with modern workplaces’ relentless forward energy. You develop the ability to be both in action and to look at yourself in action, and you can determine whether your current behavior is benefiting you and in alignment with your goals and values, or is it an old habitual reaction that started automatically.
Remember, no significant change happens without sufficient self-awareness of the present moment in which you can realize that “here comes the trigger; this is one of those moments to be on my guard; now it is time to practice my new behavior.”
From the mental flexibility perspective, this means that your potential focus of attention is widening, and new ways of effectively dealing with challenges will open up. While before you were avoiding stimuli that you found disturbing or threatening, now you can face these challenges and move forward despite their existence.
Cultivating your ability to interact flexibly with the present moment gives you the strength and confidence to be more in direct contact with actual contingencies. This can mean becoming more aware of resources or alternative options.
For example, concern about future poor performance can easily limit useful actions in the present. A more present attitude takes measures that could include preparing for the performance by seeking appropriate support from others or doing things to replenish mental and physical resources.
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So cultivating mindfulness and the present moment is not about lengthy meditation practices (although those can be very helpful). It’s merely developing your ability to pause, notice, and accept before moving on.
So next time you’re facing a challenging situation, try to take these simple three steps:
- Pause to take a mindful break and notice your current thoughts and feelings.
- Accept them and take a few deep belly breaths.
- Choose to respond following your goals and values.
Let me know what other steps you’re taking to be more present and act on your goals and values.