When you sit back and reminisce about your life, it’s almost a given that the most enjoyable and memorable moments are the ones in which you were completely present. Do you look back with fondness all the times you spent thinking about work while you drove home, or pondered dinner while you wheeled down the frozen aisle?
Unfortunately most of life passes that way for most of us. We’re in one place doing one thing, thinking of things we aren’t doing and places we aren’t at.
The bottom line of almost all self-help, spiritual, or religious literature is that our ability to be happy is determined by our ability to stay in the present moment. The Buddhists, the Toltecs, the Bible, Eckhart Tolle, Ram Dass, Emerson, Thoreau — anyone at all who is known for having found a path to consistent, recurring joy — cites staying present as the essential teaching.
Only when we’re present do we see beauty, enjoy gratitude, and experience happiness. It’s the moments we’re present for that make life good, so it only stands to reason that being present is something we’d do well to get better at.
We all know this already. Yet most of us — normal people with errands, work and to-do lists — spend most of our time considering the past and future rather than the present. Why doesn’t it click?
The problem is most of us are extremely habituated to living in our thoughts. The remembered past and the imagined future steal our attention most of the time. Why we are so strongly predisposed this way is a huge discussion involving culture, biology, psychology and a host of other factors that we don’t need to get into right now. Suffice it to say that most of us have a serious habit of being mentally absent from the present moment most of the time.
Unless you make a serious commitment to taking on the biggest of human dilemmas — taming the rowdy mind once and for all — mindfulness will probably not establish itself as a habit for you. Some people do make a life’s work of it with daily meditation or monastery life, but if you’re unwilling to do that, can you still cultivate mindfulness on a consistent basis?
The rule about habits is that whatever you do most takes over. If you want to be a daily runner, and you miss more days than you actually go running, you’ve only made a habit of skipping running, and you’re back at square one.
To suddenly “go mindful” and try to be present all the time is about as easy as running a marathon when you’ve never even run around the block. Since most of us are not present the vast majority of the time, occasional stabs at “being in the moment” are quickly overrun by the colossal momentum of a lifetime of being lost in thought.
Baby steps seem to be in order. And many of us do try it this way. We make repeated resolutions to “notice the little things more” or “live in the now,” but these are too vague to be helpful in any practical sense. You may find yourself being present when you’ve just read an inspirational book or when someone mentions mindfulness, but in the long run it won’t take. The habit of preoccupation is so unbelievably strong that mindfulness just won’t be on your mind for long. It’s too subtle, too delicate — too light and vulnerable to withstand the swirling winds of the preoccupied mind.
Establishing a Foothold
First of all, forget about staying mindful 24-7. That’s an extremely tall order, and it isn’t necessary to be present all the time in order to experience great benefits from it.
What we want to do is get familiar with the sensation of becoming present, and do it on a regular basis. Since the preoccupied mind is never going to remind you to be mindful — that would be like a french fry vendor reminding you to buy spinach — we need something else to remind us.
So instead of trying to Be Here Now all the time, just commit to becoming mindful every time you find yourself doing one of these two simple actions:
- Opening a door
- Sitting down in a chair
That’s it. You’re off the hook for everything else.
Let the rest of the things you do slip away to the restless mind if you want. Let your mind glaze over during meetings at work. Fantasize about winning Powerball while you wait for the bus. But do give your attention wholeheartedly to these two simple actions.You owe yourself that much.
When you open a door, drop your train of thought outright (you can pick it up again shortly) and watch your hand grasp the doorknob. Pull the door open with purpose and patience. Feel its weight. Watch as a new scene is revealed. Feel the new air of the room you are entering. Listen to the sound of the first room give way to the sound of the new room. Feel this transition with undivided attention.
Then your work is done. You can go back to pondering dinner or thinking of what you should have said to that guy who cut you in line in the cafeteria last Friday. If you want.
When you sit down in a chair, lower yourself down, don’t just drop in it. Listen to any creaks or in the wood or upholstery. Feel as it takes on the weight of your body and relieves your legs of their duties for the moment. Pay attention to the sensation of being parked on this new perch. Wherever the chair is, let yourself become comfortable in it. Survey the room from your new angle.
After you’ve paid diligent attention to the sitting experience for the five or ten seconds it takes, you’re off duty again. You can resume whatever train of thought you had going before it came time to sit — wishing you had worn different shoes, or quietly disapproving of the state of today’s pop music or whatever.
Most of the time we don’t put our attention anywhere specific, so it gets sucked into our incessant mind-chatter, not unlike a kid who can’t help staring at the television. You can actually put your attention somewhere on purpose, it just doesn’t often occur to us. Pay it to the door or the chair.
If you can commit to giving your undivided attention to these two things, you will begin to see the incredible clarity that is available to you when your mind isn’t wrapped up in thoughts.
After doing this on purpose a few times, it will start to become automatic. The mere feel of a doorknob, or sensation of moving to sit will remind you to pay attention. It will be nearly impossible to open a door or sit down without snapping back into the present moment.
I must reiterate how small a commitment you have to actually make here. The dividends it pays are incredible. We’re talking maybe five seconds at a time, a handful of times a day, to plant one foot firmly in the realm of greater ease, happiness and gratitude. If you’ve been looking for an easy and powerful way to love yourself, there it is.
You will soon find that the trains of thought you have to interrupt to be mindful are seldom interesting or useful. Most of it is just noise, perpetuating itself only because you’re not putting your intention anywhere on purpose. Junk food for your mind. With these simple rituals, mindfulness — and the bliss that comes with it — will establish a sturdy foothold in your behavior, which you can expand as far as you want to take it.
You’ll begin to notice what it feels like to catch yourself mind-blathering about irrelevant things, and soon you’ll be bringing yourself back to the moment more often, and not just when you encounter a door or a chair. You probably won’t want to let yourself off the hook for everything else.
But you do have to actually do it, not just nod your head as you read this post and think it will happen by itself. These are easy, minuscule amounts of work which yield great rewards over time. But they don’t pay off if you don’t do them.
When you open a door, open the door.
When you sit, take your seat.
You’re going to do it anyway. Make it count.
If you’re interested in living more in the present
I’ve been writing a lot recently about the habit of living mindfully and its incredible benefits. I’ve been getting a lot of emails and comments from you on the topic, and it’s been my personal focus for the last year. (Some related articles: One | Two | Three | Four | Five )
Exploring mindfulness has truly transformed my life and I want to help other people do the same thing. Over the past few months I’ve put together a full-length guide on making mindfulness a lasting habit. I’ll have a lot more details later, but in the mean time you can learn more here.
Photo by Katie@!