Do you ever feel like life is moving at the speed of light? Does your brain ever feel like it’s always looking towards the future and frantically asking: “Okay that’s done, what are we doing next?” Would you like to be less future-oriented and enjoy the present more? For those of us with overactive minds, relentless to-do lists, or who are prone to bouts of future-oriented hand-wringing, today we’ll talk about how to come back to the present moment.
There’s a lot of tools out there on mindfulness and the benefits of mentally staying in the present moment. I certainly agree with the benefits of staying mentally in the present, but if I’m honest I struggle to stay mentally present. I’m giving myself a graceful hall pass on not staying present right now due moving and a litany of other life transitions that have gone on in the past month; a big move, job changes, and upcoming travel for starters. I’m trying to be better at present-minded thinking and the more there is to mentally process, the more challenging living in the present becomes.
If you’re anything like me, when you’re at the end of your life you don’t want to get think back and say: “Wow, I had a great time but I didn’t often appreciate the moments while they were actually happening.” That would be a life tragically lived; to be given the gift of life and a conscious mind, but not fully and sensorily appreciate the gift of being alive.
Over the years through therapy, reading, and interacting with some of the wisest teachers I know on this subject (a long list which ranges from my young nieces and nephews to the Dalai Lama), I’ve done my best to develop some tools for staying in the present moment. At the risk of infringing on copyright, I’ll refer to these sticky ideas as the 3Ms: movement, mantra, and making notes.
This one is simple: move your body.
All of this future-orientedness begins in the mind, so get the body involved in movement takes some power away from the mind’s relentless chatter. Go for a walk, jam your heels in your running shoes, find a hiking trail, go to a dance class, unroll your yoga mat. The lineage of yoga that I practice, Ashtanga, uses asana practice as a moving meditation. I find it so much easier to connect to the present when my body can take the lead and let the mind follow. Yes, it’s an easy button and I don’t care. So if you find seated meditation too difficult, I’m giving you the gift wild permission to start with movement to appreciate the here and now.
The benefits of movement are well documented and include: improved circulation, fresh air, the opportunity to sweat, burned calories, increased metabolism, and some free or social time depending on your activity. Best of all, your body will make you endorphins for free which gives you extended coping mechanisms after your workout is done. Endorphines are useful for when your mind will inevitably wander forward into the future and ask questions like: “What are we going to do for the summer?” and “You need to remember to call Such and So”, and “Did you remember to send a birthday card?” after your workout is over. Those questions will still come up, but you’ll have your endorphins coursing through your system and they can speak up and answer the questions with: “Thank you for the reminder. We’ll take care of these tasks later, but we prioritized the body’s needs for exercise so we need to take a shower and hydrate now. Thank you for your concern.”
Movement: a quick trick to rewire the brain and let the body become the lead project manager on present-moment orientation.
A mantra is a collection of words that helps interrupt mind chatter and ground you into the present moment. Some people use verses from sacred texts or phrases that instantly remind them of how they want to feel. Years ago I had a necklace custom made on Etsy with one of my favorite mantras: BE HERE NOW. I especially love the hammered pattern contrasted with the words of the mantra that are prominently displayed. To me, the hammered pieces are the mind chatter and the BE HERE NOW is a loud and insistent reminder that I ought not to be distracted by the challenges and imperfections of life. Just be in the present right now. The necklace also serves as a feather-light somatic reminder on my upper chest that I’m fully within my right to take a full and deep breath.
If you can’t think of a mantra, don’t worry. Allow your mantra to find you. You’ll know your mantra when you hear it, read it, or maybe feel it. When your mantra comes to you, I invite you to stop what you’re doing and take a deep inhale breath and double the length of the exhale breath. Write your mantra down, repeat it again and again until it becomes second nature to say it aloud or silently in your mind. Be creative or pay someone creative to put that mantra in your life on a piece of art so you can have access to it early and often. Allow your mantra to bring you back to your breath.
This one has two meanings: make an actual to-do list, and/or take notice of what’s around you. Both are powerful tools for staying in the present moment.
I don’t think I need to teach you how to make a to-do list, do I? Write down all of the tasks and reminders that are in your mental chatter bank in a list. Leave nothing off the list. Carry that list with you throughout the day or use an app and add to the list as needed. When the task is on a list, give yourself the chance to forget about it. It doesn’t need to take up space in your head anymore because it’s written down. When you’re ready to be productive, pull out that list and start checking things off.
Making note of what’s around you is also one of the most powerful tools in my anti-anxiety arsenal. Start noticing what’s around you. Name it. For example, right now I could say: “There are three framed colored pencil drawings that my grandmother made of pink flowers on dark paper in white frames hanging on the wall in front of me.” State these things out loud if possible. Bring yourself back to what is within your sensory reach right here, right now.
Yet another making-note technique that helps me when I’m experiencing uncertainty is making a two-columned list: “What I don’t know” and “What I do know”. Right now I’m trying to sell my car and it’s not happening on my timeline (as if anything ever does!) So on my “What I don’t know” list is the question: “Will my car sell?” on the “What I do know” list is: “I’ve done everything I can to prepare my car for sale; now I need to sit and wait.” Waiting means patience which is a whole other blog post or five.
So many of us future-oriented people are afraid of doing these presented-oriented tasks. “But what if we forget the tasks?” our egos scream at us. This is the part where we have to trust ourselves to remember and that we will remember if the task is important enough. We need our tools. Get out and move. Say a mantra. Use a to-do list. In the long-term (ha, there’s that future orientation again!) we ought to ask ourselves: why are we so scared of forgetting things? What would happen if we dropped these tasks? Will we be untrustworthy? Unloveable? Or simply human? My vote is for the last one.
What sorts of techniques do you use to bring yourself back into present-oriented thinking? I’d love to learn from you, so leave a comment below.
Breathe, believe, and be here now beauties.