I am reading a fascinating novel right now about a women who has lost her long-term memory.
She wakes up every day next to her husband — a man she doesn’t recognize — in a room she can’t identify, with a life she can’t recall. Every day, someone has to explain to her who she is and what her past was like.
Losing your memory would mean losing your entire identity. Imagine if you couldn’t remember your friends and family, your past accomplishments, the myriad of life experiences that created the person you’ve become today.
But there are times when it might not be so bad to lose our memories. Wouldn’t it be nice not to dwell on past mistakes or painful life events? Wouldn’t it be liberating to live without regret, shame, heartache, and anger?
In fact, if we’re going down this “what if” road, wouldn’t it be wonderful to stop worrying about the future as well. Rather than our minds controlling our thoughts and leading us into painful memories or imagined problems, what if we could just be happy right now?
What if we could choose the thoughts we want to think and ponder the past and future only when it suits us in the moment?
If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to be happy. And, like me, you’ve probably spent countless hours in negative thinking — replaying painful past events or fretting about the future.
Happiness is our primary goal, yet we spend most of our mental energy on negative thoughts. Doesn’t it feel as though we’re in a constant battle against ourselves to eek out a little happiness in an otherwise worried, regretful, or angry state of mind?
It’s taken me years to figure this out, but there is only one place to find happiness — in the present moment. The only reality you have is right now. The past is dead. The future hasn’t been born. Your only opportunity for happiness is in what you are doing or thinking at this very moment in time.
It’s easy to grasp this concept intellectually, but tell it to your stubborn, ruminating, out-of-control mind. Keeping your mind focused on the present moment is like trying to capture fleas. You almost have to lose your memory (and the knowledge that you’ve lost your memory) in order to stay present for more than a few minutes at a time.
But there is a way to unhook from the mental bonds of the past and future in order to live happily — and you don’t have to lose your memory in order to do so.
Are you living in the present moment?
1. Practice daily mindfulness.
This will be tricky for anyone whose mind is constantly elsewhere. Most of us are unaware of how unaware of the moment we are. We can be in the midst of one activity while our mind is careening off in a million different directions.
Begin by simply paying attention to this tendency, and as often as possible, bring your mind back to the present moment. If you are in the shower, pondering all you have to accomplish today, train your thoughts to be aware of your shower — the feeling of the warm water, the smell of the soap, the way the water splashes against the tile. When you’re driving down the road, turn on the music, open a window, and simply enjoy driving and moving yourself through space and time.
The more you practice training your mind to dwell in presence, the more control you’ll have over your thoughts and ultimately your emotions. Emotional suffering arises from thought — about the past or future. The present moment is always perfect.
2. Focus on the task at hand.
When you are engaged in an activity at home or work, be fully engaged. Don’t try to multi-task or race through one project just so you can get to the next and beat the clock. Productivity is important, but not when you sacrifice mindfulness and engagement.
It’s impossible to enjoy your daily work when you are racing through it, or if you are constantly distracted by your thoughts, your computer, or other people. Think ahead about a daily project or task you find enjoyable. When it’s time to perform the task, turn off your phone, close your door, and remove any potential distractions. Allow yourself as much time as possible, but if you need to move on to something else later, set a timer so you aren’t looking at the clock.
Completely immerse yourself in the task at hand. Become so absorbed in it that you lose track of time and feel at one with the project. If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to the task.
Attempt this kind of focus with more and more tasks, as you grow more skilled and comfortable. Try it even with tasks that aren’t so engaging, like washing the dishes or paying bills. Don’t think about it — just do the work with full attention.
3. Observe your thoughts.
Once you have more awareness around being present, you’ll notice more and more how often you aren’t present. Don’t judge yourself about this. Everyone struggles with the “monkey mind” and with constant distraction.
When you catch yourself in a negative thinking loop, pretend you are a separate person observing your thoughts. In your mind’s eye, see yourself standing on the sidelines of your thoughts, just looking at them without condemnation or judgement. You don’t need to struggle to change the thoughts, label them, or do anything except be the watcher.
As you begin to dis-identify with your thoughts, they will have less power over you. You’ll be able to release them more easily and see them for what they are — simply manifestations of consciousness. Thoughts are not reality. They are just your mind regurgitating random notions like a computer gone haywire. As you become the observer, you will almost become amused at your rambunctious, exasperating thoughts.
4. Identify your emotions.
Thoughts that are deeply entrenched, those you’ve identified with for many years, can produce some very powerful emotions. This is what really causes our greatest suffering. If someone told you as a child that you weren’t good enough, then you replayed that thought over and over. You created a habit, a mental loop that reopens the initial wound every time you think the thought.
So go a step further when you identify a thought and name the emotion you are feeling that accompanies the thought. Maybe you’re thinking, “I just can’t get everything done,” and the emotions are anger, frustration, and guilt. Again, just identifying the emotions can take the sting out of them. You might say something like, “I see I’m thinking about being overwhelmed, and it makes me feel anxious and unhappy.”
Sometimes the emotions arrive in our awareness before we have a chance to identify the corresponding thoughts. You might have a negative emotion and not completely understand what’s triggering it. Take a few minutes to name the emotion, and then say to yourself, “I am feeling sad because . . .” See what answer arises for you. More often than not, it’s a thought that’s been an unwanted visitor in your consciousness for weeks or years.
5. Spend time in nature.
Being in nature compels us to slow down and disconnect from the complications and demands of every day life. If you live near a state park, a nature trail or hike, a body of water, or any relatively private natural setting, take the time every week to spend time there.
According to a study published in The University of California, Berkley, online magazine (Greater Good), being in nature makes us more mindful. “The results show that connection to nature was associated with feelings of awe, vitality, purpose in life, and positive emotions. Nature lovers also showed high moment-to-moment awareness … .”
Remind yourself to be present when you spend time in nature. Use all of your senses to notice everything around you — the sounds of the birds and the wind; the smell of leaves or wet grass; the beauty of the sun and shadows playing off one another. Imagine for a moment if the surroundings were all black and white, with no sights, sounds, or smells. Drink in the beauty around you and allow yourself to feel gratitude for it.
Meditation is the intentional practice of disengaging from thought and being fully present in the moment. It is a means of training and transforming your mind so you can develop concentration, clarity, and inner peace. Through the practice of meditation, you’ll find you are more present, calm, and content in your daily life.
A new meditation student will spend a good deal of time in the training phase of the practice in which you are constantly steering your wayward mind back to an object of concentration. Eventually, however, you’ll reach a state of profound peace in which you control your mind rather than the other way around.
Meditation helps release the vise your thoughts have over your attention and emotions. Here’s an excerpt from my book, Peace of Mindfulness: Everyday Rituals to Conquer Anxiety and Claim Unlimited Inner Peace, that explains more about meditation and how to practice it.
7. Practice mindful exercise.
A myriad of studies have proven the powerful effect exercise has on our happiness, health, and general sense of well-being. However, you can make your exercise program far more powerful and beneficial by practicing mindfulness throughout it.
Many people resist exercise altogether because they don’t like feeling discomfort. But exercise is the perfect way to foster presence when you pay attention to your body rather than your thoughts. Rather than getting lost in your negative thoughts (I hate this. When will it be over. My legs hurt. I can’t breath), focus on the movements you are making.
Pay attention to your form, and notice how your body is feeling. Make adjustments based on what your body is telling you. Envision a beam of energy coming down through your head and filling your body. Smile during your routine, even if you don’t feeling like smiling. You’ll send happy signals to your brain that will make you feel happier.
If you want to practice a specific mind-body exercise program, check out these three.
8. Simplify everything.
When you are distracted by superfluous stuff, obligations, tasks, people, and thoughts, you don’t have the time or energy to be present or truly happy.
Define what is most important to you, and pare your life down to those things. For most people, it’s relationships, memorable experiences, interesting or meaningful work, and some important material things. The less you’re distracted by unnecessary time and energy suckers, the more time and energy you have to spend on what’s most important.
All of us go through a phase of believing more money and stuff will make us happier. We have all believed that the busier we are, the more valuable we must be. But there’s a diminishing point of return. Simplify everything to make room for mindfulness.
9. Do things differently.
Think about how many things you do in your life automatically. You’ve repeated the same morning routine hundreds of times. You drive the same route to work, do the same things when you get home, and spend time with the same people.
Repetition makes us unconscious. Not literally, but unconscious of what we’re doing. All of the sameness allows us to get lost in our thoughts and wrestle with our worries.
Think about when you first learned to drive a car. Nothing felt natural or automatic. You had to concentrate and focus on every action. You were completely in the moment. That kind of intense focus is hard to sustain, but what if you shook your life up enough that everything felt new and fresh?
What if you changed up your morning routine, took a different route to work, or had lunch with a different group of friends? Small changes are enough to bring you back to the present and help you notice what’s right in front of you. Give it a try, and you’ll see how the newness pulls you out of distraction and pushes you back into the present.
When all else fails, simply breathe. Notice each breath as you take in air and release it. The simple discipline of concentrating on your breathing brings you back to the present moment and the richness it contains. Return to breathing whenever you feel distracted, agitated, or anxious.
How do you practice being present and mindful? Please share your experiences in the comments below.
If you’d like to learn more about mindfulness, check out my book, Peace of Mindfulness: Everyday Rituals to Conquer Anxiety and Claim Unlimited Inner Peace.