Keeping your attention in the present is the world’s most useful (and underrated) skill. Last week’s post on shutting up your mind throughout the day was a big hit, but it only hinted at the benefits.
The presence habit does much more than make for a peaceful walk to the store. There are actually hundreds of practical applications to practicing everyday mindfulness, even if you have no spiritual aspirations at all.
Here are just a few:
1. Cravings become obvious and easier to overcome.
All you have to do to quit smoking is notice when you’re having a craving, and respond to it by doing anything other than putting a cigarette in your mouth. That is the entirety of the goal, and it’s small enough to be achievable any time. If you lose sight of that, you might misunderstand quitting as some big, abstract goal that can never be done now, such as “Maintain perfect self-control for the rest of your life.” It works the same with anything else.
2. It takes the edge off physical pain.
It’s the last thing you might think, but turning your awareness towards the feeling in your stubbed toe or aching stomach makes it much easier to bear. If you’re turning away from a sensation of pain, it gets mixed with resentment, wishing, blame, and other kinds of mental neediness. This is what makes pain into suffering. When you put your attention right onto the pain, it’s remarkable how it takes the edge off. It’s still pain, but you know you’re handling it.
3. Working out gets a lot easier.
Your workout might sometimes seem like a big, long grueling thing, but that’s only when you’re thinking about it. When you’re actually doing it, you’re never required to do more than a single moment’s action. You never have to actually “do” a whole workout at all, or even a set — and in fact you can’t. At no point do you have to do any more than complete the current rep. Keep your mind there.
4. Big projects stop being scary.
For the same reason that you can’t actually do a whole workout, you can’t actually do a whole project. All projects consist of single actions, most of which are no tougher than dialing a phone, explaining something to someone, Googling someone’s contact info, or sketching up a model. Once you have a plan, it’s easy to make progress if you stay zoomed in on the requirements of the moment, and only zoom out in order to figure out what they are.
5. Food tastes better and you eat less of it.
Try paying full attention to all the sensations of eating a bite of food. Put your fork down between bites to remind you. For most people this is a much more intimate and involved eating experience than they’re used to. It takes longer, it tastes better, and for some reason you become satisfied sooner. It’s also easier to negotiate that moment when you decide to stop eating, because you’re not already leaning mentally towards the next bite.
6. It’s easier to get better at musical instruments, sports skills, and pretty much everything else.
Developing the habit of paying attention to how you’re fretting this guitar string right now is going to improve your playing much more quickly than accomplishing your goal of running scales for an hour every day for a month. Improvements in physical skills are usually subtle changes in the feel of doing the skill. You notice these differences when you’re observing your body in the moment, and miss them when you’re occupied with quotas, systems, concepts and theory.
7. The world gets a “playground” sort of feel to it again.
You had this all the time when you were a kid. As we become adults we learn to live less and less in the world, and more in our thoughts about the world. When you come back to the present moment, your jumble of thoughts about your life situation shrinks in significance, and the place where you actually are regains its rightful uniqueness. This makes every scene more interesting, because you’re getting your information about it from what it actually is right now, rather than from the rapid-fire associations your mind makes.
8. You can figure out what’s bothering you very easily.
When you maintain a state of presence, the introduction of unease is really conspicuous. This makes it pretty easy to identify the thought that set you off. If you notice that the pit in your stomach appeared the moment somebody said the words “exam week,” it’s a lot easier to interpret the feeling as a normal, passing reaction, and not lapse into a snowball of thinking that leaves your whole life looking suddenly bleak.
9. You find yourself doing things in smarter ways without thinking about it.
When I’m being mindful, I find I’m inclined to hang up my pants instead of dropping them on the floor. It takes virtually the same effort, but one creates a life of clothes on the floor and one creates a life of relative tidiness and self-respect. This is one of the most rewarding parts of the mindfulness habit: an uncanny, real-time sense of the wise thing to do.
10. You stop fidgeting and nail-biting, and notice why you do it.
If I notice when I’ve started fidgeting, I’m able to quickly relax the body and let the impulse go. But more importantly, it gives me a clear view of my attachments. Fidgeting is a sign you’ve lost awareness of the moment, and often it’s triggered by some specific hangup of yours. This is very useful self-knowledge — learning what you can’t let go of — and fidgeting often points directly to it.
11. You become less attracted to passive entertainment like TV.
One of the big draws of television is that it’s an effective way of giving you a break from your thoughts at the end of the day. A mindfulness habit gives you frequent breaks from your thoughts throughout the day, and so you no longer need TV as a therapeutic device. You’re already “unwound” by the time you get there. It can still be entertaining, but your standards for what to watch will rise.
12. Deadlines, debts and obligations don’t hang over everything else you do.
Rationally, you might realize that there’s no sense thinking about these things except at times you are doing something about them. But if you’re used to living in your head, your obligations visit you constantly on an emotional level, like an expanding cloud that darkens unrelated aspects of your life. The habit of investing your full attention in what you’re doing means learning to let go of thoughts that you’re not going to act on right now. With some practice, you begin to realize that it’s safe to do that.
13. Your face disappears, taking self-consciousness with it.
Your face actually isn’t visible to you during almost all of your day-to-day activities, but when you’re in a self-conscious state it seems like you’re always seeing it. That persistent self-image reinforces your preoccupation with your appearance and with what others are thinking. When you’re truly inhabiting the present moment, you can keep your attention pointing outwards, and forget your face for a while, becoming instead a receptive space for other people’s faces. [More on this idea here.]
14. Meeting other people triggers fewer feelings of inferiority and superiority.
If you stay in the present when you meet someone, abstractions like job titles and education levels seem quite distant, if they’re present at all. You get a feel for the other person’s humanness above their social position, and visual cues matter less. This humanness is a shared quality, and on that level you feel like equals. It’s impossible to see someone’s personhood and simultaneously appraise them, or wonder how they are appraising you.
15. You become better at sex.
Nobody has ever wowed somebody else in the sack while thinking about their taxes. Keep your attention on real-time physical and emotional sensations, and you crowd out trains of thought concerning body images, performance histories, breakfast possibilities and the name of your ex. Presence is sexy.
These are just fifteen out of hundreds of places to apply your attentional skills. It’s all a matter of learning to put your attention where you want it. I’ll be writing more on how to do that, but in the mean time last week’s post talks about practicing mindfulness, as does this post. The book Wherever You Go There You Are is also an excellent place to start.
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.