Think about a time when you were fully present. Maybe it was while watching a beautiful sunset when you were enraptured by the bright pinks, oranges and subtle blues in the sky. Maybe it was while taking the first bite of ice cream on a warm summer day when you fully soaked in the cold, sweet, creaminess of it. Maybe it’s laughing uncontrollably with your friends at an old and ridiculous inside joke. Now think about what those times would have been like if you were distracted: eating your favorite ice cream while writing work emails at 8 pm or scrolling through Instagram while laughing with your friends. Distraction limits our enjoyment of these wonderful moments. Being fully present allows us to fully engage and enjoy life.
I’ll be honest: being present also means that we will fully feel the hard parts of life. Many of us have perfected ways to escape our pain, to metaphorically run away from that tightness in our chest, the pit in our stomach, the tension in our neck. Yet, I have learned in my own life and through my training as a therapist that being present and bearing witness to our pain is powerful and healing. Mastering the art of being present is about creating opportunities to fully enjoy and soak in all of the amazing things we experience, and it is also about being there for ourselves in times of pain or sorrow. Mastering the art of being present is about learning to live a full life.
We live in a world that constantly draws us away from the present. We spend our days planning our futures, we worry about past mistakes. We scroll mindlessly through social media pages when we’re bored or want to be distracted. In addition to our culture of distraction, there are individual factors that pull each of us out of the present moment. Below, I review common reasons we get pulled away from the present as well as strategies to help you master the art of being present.
We live in a world that constantly draws us away from the present. We spend our days planning our futures, we worry about past mistakes.
Worries about the Future
Some of us spend a lot of time worrying about the future. We worry about whether the project we’re working on will go well. Whether we’ll get the promotion we’re hoping for. Whether our relationship will work out. Whether we’ll have enough money to cover our bills this month. Our minds find any number of things to worry about related to the future. Often, this worrying is related to an attempt to protect ourselves from a feared future outcome. We feel that if we just think about all of the potential, usually negative, outcomes we will be able to protect ourselves from experiencing difficult things. Unfortunately, worrying about negative experiences in the future often makes us feel bad in the present and does nothing to prevent these negative things from happening. Worrying about the future is usually associated with experiencing anxiety. If you are worried about the future, this may be a signal that there is something you need to think through in a calm and measured manner. Thinking things through in an intentional way should help you to let go of intrusive, anxious thoughts that pull you away from the present moment.
Regrets about the Past
Ruminating about past mistakes is another thing that can pull us away from the present moment. We might be hanging out with our friends, hoping to have a good time when our mind starts reminding us of how we weren’t there for a friend in the past or how one of our friends disappointed us when we were having a hard time. Focusing on the past and things that we wished had turned out differently keeps us from fully enjoying the present and is connected to feeling depressed. Our mind may pull us to replay past experiences in an attempt to try to figure them out or “fix” them. This usually stems from a lack of acceptance of what has happened. I encourage you to accept the past as it was (this does not mean that you liked what happened) in order to move forward and live fully in the present.
Discomfort with the Present
Another central thing that can cause us to pull away from the present moment is feeling uncomfortable in the present. This could be feeling bored or frustrated at work, which prompts us to spend a lot of time planning and fantasizing about a trip we want to take in the future. It could be feeling disappointed after a first date and getting caught up in a glossy memory about how well a previous partner treated us in the past. When we are uncomfortable in the present, our mind tries to help us escape by pulling us to think about a positive future or a wonderful memory from the past. While doing this can help us to escape our current discomfort, it does not address the root of our discontent and often causes us to feel even less happy with our current situations.
Identifying the specific things that pull you away from the present will help you as you work to increase the amount of time you spend in the here and now, and the strategies below will help you master the art of being present.
Mastering the art of being present is about creating opportunities to fully enjoy and soak in all of the amazing things we experience, and it is also about being there for ourselves in times of pain or sorrow. Mastering the art of being present is about learning to live a full life.
Strategies for Being Present
It can be helpful to think of the ability to stay present as a muscle that you strengthen with practice. Meditation is a great way to strengthen this muscle. In mindful breath meditation, we sit quietly and bring our attention to our breath. Our minds wander to any number of things, pulling us out of the present, eventually we notice our minds have wandered, we acknowledge our thinking and gently bring our attention back to our breath. We do this repeatedly during the period when we’re meditating and over time we begin to have longer stretches when we are just in the moment, paying attention to our breath. If it is difficult for you to sit still, you might try doing a walking meditation in which you walk slowly in a circle, attending to the feeling of your feet touching the floor and the movement of your body. You can also try mindful eating, which involves eating slowly, noticing the smell, texture, taste, of food as you eat it. As we develop this muscle of being present, we can spread it into our daily lives. If you’re new to meditation, I recommend checking out Headspace to help you get started.
Pause to Pay Attention
Creating times in your day where you pause to pay attention to what you’re witnessing and experiencing can also help to increase the time that you spend in the present moment. I recommend setting a calendar alert or reminder for a few times a day. When the alarm goes off take a few moments to pay attention to the present moment. Take a few deep breaths, do a quick scan of your body to notice what physical sensations you’re experiencing, look around wherever you are to notice what you see, notice, what you hear, notice what you smell, notice anything you’re feeling.
Be Willing to Feel
As I mentioned above, being present involves being present to your feelings. In order to stay present, it is important to be willing to feel. Emotions are part of being human and being present with our emotions is the best way to process and release them so they don’t come back later or get expressed in a way that we aren’t proud of. As you work to master the art of being present, I encourage you to cultivate your willingness to feel life’s ups and downs. If you have experienced trauma or feel flooded when you try to be present with your emotions, it may be helpful to go to therapy for additional support in processing your emotions and healing from the trauma you have experienced.
No one is perfectly present all of the time. The art of being present is not about achieving a goal – it is about committing to a path of being present. I encourage you to be kind to yourself along the way and to remember that even if you have spent minutes, hours or days outside of the present moment, you can choose right now to bring your attention back to what is happening here and now.