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15 unexpected side-benefits to living in the present moment

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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.

Photo by Alexandre Duret-Lutz
Tobi March 17, 2014 at 12:13 am

Amazing how we all experience the feelings you write about and how so few of us are actually able to understand and utilize them.

David, did you know that science has discovered a laziness gene? apparently there are two versions of the same gene, one long and one short. People with the thing one tended to have college degrees and that sort, the short gene tended to be the people who worked in retail their whole lives and such.

Do you think some people have a harder fight with biology than others when trying to improve themselves as a person?

There are genes that make people more prone to addiction, anger, and any number of challenges.

I admit upon realizing this I had pretty much lost all hope until here you come with mindfulness… because no matter what your body says you don’t have to listen to it.

David Cain March 17, 2014 at 8:07 am

I admit upon realizing this I had pretty much lost all hope until here you come with mindfulness… because no matter what your body says you don’t have to listen to it.

This is really important. The habit of present-moment awareness makes everything into something you simply notice, then you can decide consciously what to do. The normal human state is to already be reacting to something before you even notice there was something to react to.

Tobi March 17, 2014 at 5:05 am

That wasn’t the most eloquently put, I usually write more intelligently. This is why a person should pay attention to what they’re doing and not what they’re thinking!

Jonny Hung March 17, 2014 at 6:54 am

Maybe
If children
Had the choice
They wouldn’t choose classrooms
They would play and play
Lost in timelessness, thoughtlessness, freedom, youth
Naturally knowing, naturally doing what they want
Everything changes when they learn to be adults
Mindfulness turns to mindlessness, media and hype
Contrivance without contentment, actions need reasons
Adults do have a choice
But behave like wardens
For themselves, instead
Of kids
Heartbreaking

Kirsten March 17, 2014 at 7:51 am

Good morning, David
Thank you for this! Especially for number 14. I have to see someone next weekend I’ve spent the last 15 years being envious and jealous of because I’ve compared myself to her ‘labels’. After reading your post, the realization hit like a clap of thunder that, despite the fact that she’s a family member, I’ve never really gotten to know who she is as a person. Suddenly I’m curious instead of tense and have vowed to spend some one-on-one time with her learning who she is in her ‘human-ness’.
I’ve been enjoying your posts for well over a year now and I’m very glad you’ve been able to step away from The Man and spend your days thinking and writing.
Best,
K

David Cain March 17, 2014 at 8:08 am

A great motto to remember is “Meet everyone on equal ground.”

BNL March 17, 2014 at 8:23 am

Hey David – You mentioned the Power Of Now last week, and now “There You Go.” Have you also read much of Thich Nhat Han? It seems like your philosophy is trending in that direction (as is mine).

David Cain March 17, 2014 at 10:04 am

A little bit. It think it’s time to revisit him.

nrhatch March 17, 2014 at 8:44 am

Beautiful post, David. Mindfulness makes us feel ALIVE! We no longer have to do more to be more. We have time to stop and smell the roses.

David Cain March 17, 2014 at 10:09 am

Thanks Nancy.

John March 17, 2014 at 9:16 am

Mindfulness is where it’s at. I think it’s also beneficial to give thought to the future and the vision/goals we all have. How do you balance this?

I’ve recently become fascinated with “The Strangest Secret” by Earl Nightingale. It’s definitely worth a listen. If you’re interested, check it out on YouTube and let me know what you think in terms of mindfulness in the present vs. making our dreams a reality.

David Cain March 17, 2014 at 10:13 am

I think it’s also beneficial to give thought to the future and the vision/goals we all have. How do you balance this?

Good question. What I do is I make sure I actually have a goal when I notice I’m thinking about the future — a decision I’m trying to make or something I’m trying to plan. Usually there’s no goal though, I just end up thinking about the future because something triggered the thought. I drop these as soon as I notice I’m doing it.

John March 18, 2014 at 9:51 am

Right. I’m trying to train myself to make sure that when I’m future-oriented, it’s always with a goal or vision in mind and not “XYZ” will happen at this social event I will attend or whatever it may be.

Chris @ Flipping A Dollar March 17, 2014 at 9:27 am

As a nail biter, I’d love to be more in the moment and stop it. I’ve tried to figure out what my trigger is in the past, and it seems like it’s just my go to when my hands are empty and I’m busy doing something else. I started holding a pen to make it a littler harder, but regressed back to my usual nail biting pretty quickly. I don’t think I’ve isolated the real cause yet. :-/

David Cain March 18, 2014 at 8:28 am

Do you actually want to stop? For example, if you’re in the middle of it and you notice you’re doing it, do you stop? If you decide it’s something you don’t want to do, all it takes is for you to become aware of the urge when you notice it, and put your attention into your body. But if it’s unconscious you may not even notice you’re doing it.

Billy Flynn March 21, 2014 at 10:53 am

Hey Chris,
Have a look at a book called the Power of Habit; it talks about nail-biting specifically and the rewiring of the things we do by habit. Interesting perspective,.

Good luck!

Randall Pitts March 17, 2014 at 10:35 am

Mindfullness or living in the moment is an important ability for sure, but I suggest you need a balance. I often get lost in the moment or consecutive moments when playing guitar or doing just about anything I love to do. Getting lost in the moment intensifies that moment, that experience, but as I said before, you can get lost. If you are not careful you won’t know where you are going. Life should be like driving a car. You should devote the most attention to where you are going and not on the mechanics of driving. This way you can have control over your destination. You don’t think continuously about how tightly to grasp the steering wheel or how much pressure you put on which pedal. These things have been learned and have become automatic; which is a good thing. This frees capacity for paying attention to where you are going and for avoiding dangerous obstacles. Mindfullness as you state it is like concentrating on the mechanics of driving. You become hyper-aware of the sensations, emotions and feelings of these actions and less aware of where you are driving. I suggest you create a sense long-term mindfullness. The lack of this “paying attention to the long-term” is the cause of most human suffering. We already think too short-term. We need a balance between short-term and long-term awareness.

David Cain March 18, 2014 at 8:44 am

Hmmm…. the idea of “balance” is a tempting line of thought, but there’s no need to be “aware of the future” at all, and in fact it isn’t possible. The future only exists as present-moment thoughts. So the question is always how you manage your attention in the present, and whether you are aware there’s any managing to do at all.

What mindfulness does is keeps you out of the habit of aimless thinking. If you need to think about some aspect of the future (what road to turn down next, for example), staying in the moment only makes your mind freer to do that. Thinking still happens, but because there is less aimless thinking, relevant thoughts are easier to notice, act on, and let go of.

Randall Pitts March 18, 2014 at 10:20 am

Hi David,
Funny how one word makes such a big difference when communicating. I meant you need to be aware of “a” future. Most importantly, “the” future you would like to experience. Mindfullness is just about how you focus your attention in the present. We need to balance our attention between the present, that which we are experiencing right now, a desired future (so we know where we are going and why we are acting like we are at the moment) and even the past (so we can learn from our mistakes and successes). Most people don’t spend enough time attending to their possible future and just float from one day to the next, one year to the next, reacting to the things that happen to them instead of acting in a way that actually creates the future they would like to have.

David Cain March 18, 2014 at 12:46 pm

Words are tricky, especially when it comes to talking about internal states. I agree with you that there is a place for deliberate thinking about your future. It is tremendously useful and relatively few people do it. It think it is really important to keep it intentional though, as in decide when to do it and decide when to stop, otherwise it can drift quickly into aimless thinking, even thinking about what you don’t want to happen in the future.

Blake March 17, 2014 at 11:25 am

Great post, David, and thank you for the time that you put into this blog.

David Cain March 18, 2014 at 8:45 am

Thanks Blake.

Sally March 17, 2014 at 7:37 pm

I like them all, I think I can work on applying #3 and 4 (workouts and projects) especially.

I have already tried this with #15…. and I have to say you are SO right :D . Not just that you get better at it, but that the whole experience is better.

David Cain March 18, 2014 at 8:47 am

An easy way to remember #3 is to try to make each rep your best rep ever, in terms of form.

Jon March 17, 2014 at 8:42 pm

Great read as always David… It’s so strange how easily we loose track of the present moment as we get older… We develop this often illogical fear of the future … And obsess about our pasts …when we were kids we didn’t have a past to engage with and our futures were defined as what we were having for dinner later that day :) … Ego is a big culprit in the loss of presence … And ego can grow hideously as we become adults.. Getting the playground feel back begins with realising the ridiculousness of our own egos

David Cain March 18, 2014 at 8:51 am

The ego becomes less of a concern when you start to get into the habit. In a mindful state, it’s really not there. In order to feel the ego’s sustained presence, you have to spend long parts of your day lost in thought, because it’s composed entirely of thoughts. Frequent returns to the present fragments these running thought patterns, and so your ego becomes less relevant.

Tushar March 17, 2014 at 10:30 pm

Great article.
Your first article I read was “How to walk across a parking lot” when it came out. I try to be mindful whenever I remember it, it gets better over time. :)

The biggest advantage I have found is that it allows me to have more time for things I want to do. Being mindful means I cannot sit idle and think about stuff. Sitting idle while being mindful, unless I’m meditating on something, becomes boring real fast. So I just either doing something which I had to start “later”, or pick up some old task to complete.

“How to live on 24 hours a day” by Arnold Bennett is also a great book about the same subject.

David Cain March 18, 2014 at 8:53 am

I like the sound of that title. I’ll put it on the list.

David Cain March 18, 2014 at 8:53 am

Looks like it’s on project gutenberg, for free:

http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2274

Shane March 18, 2014 at 5:13 am

Hi David,

I was wondering if mindfulness practice changes your perception of time. Days and weeks seem to go by very quickly for me these days and I was wondering if mindfulness would change that. I imagine it would.

Cheers,
Shane

David Cain March 18, 2014 at 9:00 am

Great question. Yes, it does. Time is a psychological phenomenon. You don’t really experience it except as thoughts relating different memories and ideas of future events. In a mindful state, the moment feels still, because sensations like being late, or not having enough time, or running out of time, etc, are not there, because they only exists as thoughts. This is a big theme in The Power of Now — learning to stop creating psychological time.

Amit March 18, 2014 at 5:13 am

Your articulated profound thoughts are very calming for the nerves. i am from india”the land of spiritualty”(as they say) yet the surrounding popular culture of superficiality has gripped the mass imagination so much that people are at a loss when faced with even trivial issues which other wise can be easily resolved by the practice of deep thinking. i am 23 and i only speak for my generation.

David Cain March 18, 2014 at 9:03 am

I have wondered about that — India is the birthplace of so many spiritual practices, yet today it is also booming economically and western-style materialism seems to be emerging. All the more reason to explore spiritual practice I guess.

Duška Woods March 18, 2014 at 12:53 pm

David, thank you again for caring and shearing. All your pointers are true, achievable and extremely important to master in order to be happier and more effective in our personal life’s journey. Wish someone would have thought us this before along with all the other knowledge we are learning in our schools and some of which we forget and never need in life. You are very good in conveying the ideas and concepts in very simple easily understood ways, thank you again and be well.

David Cain March 21, 2014 at 2:22 pm

Hi Duška. Wouldn’t in be great if we even just introduced this kind of practice in public schools? Thinking of that makes me realize how much the world can change in a generation if good ideas become popular.

britt March 22, 2014 at 10:19 am

Wonderful article! Living in the present can be such a challenge in today’s fast-paced society. As you pointed out though, they are so many marvelous benefits to practicing mindfulness, and the effect tends to snowball into other areas of your life. I credit mindfulness and intentional actions with helping me overcome almost a decade of depression.
Thanks for sharing!

Joe March 23, 2014 at 1:10 pm

I love these points. Thanks for sharing. Since I relocated from Western New York to Florida, I have stopped the habit of listening to podcasts on my morning runs. I am amazed at how being present for the runs has made them more effective. They are a mental reset and not just a physical endeavor any longer.

George Mason March 24, 2014 at 5:43 am

Insightful article! I definitely like the message of feeling alive not just like you are existing, i find reading helps me keep focused and in the real world. Instead of hours of TV which is mind numbing and just anti-social

Thanks David

Thu March 25, 2014 at 2:07 pm

I’ve been reading your posts for over a year now.. became a subscriber but have been reluctant to leave a comment til now to say thank you. It was by accident that i came accross your first post at one of the lowest point in my life. Your mention of must reads like The Power of Now really saved my mind if not my life altogether. That lead to other readings by Thich Nhat Hanh. I’m a completely different person or one with an entirely different level of consciousness now than i was a year ago. This post as well as your next post on the two different species describes so well the dysfunctional state of being by getting lost in one’s mind all the time. Thank you for being there, for sharing your profound insights in a way that an average person can relate to. It’s difficult wading through esoteric teachings sometimes. You’ve made it more relatable in that you are finding your way on this journey just like the rest of us are doing.

A Jesuit priest once said something along the line of ‘we are not humans having a spiritual experience, we are spirits experiencing temporarily what it’s like to be human’ I see you as a luminous spirit through your writings :)

Tony H March 29, 2014 at 8:17 pm

Great post David, these are all great points. So often I forget to slow down and just take in the moment, but when I do those are the high points of my day. Thanks for sharing!

Jason March 29, 2014 at 10:35 pm

Hi David,

I’m particularly attracted to benefits 4 and 12 – relating to the scariness of big projects or difficult obligations that can feel overwhelming. I also find that not only does being more present about what’s in front of me make everything easier, but the further out I go into the future (e.g. envisioning a 20 year career), or the more of the project I consider, the more fearful I get and the less I believe in my ability to handle it. Unfortunately I have a terrible habit of doing this, but can never seem to identify at the time that it’s only the way I’m thinking that’s causing these doubts, not the reality of my situation or abilities.

Awesome work David, really appreciate the value you’re continually adding to my life and many others – keep it up!

Cheers,

Jason

David Cain March 31, 2014 at 9:12 am

Hi Jason. This “zooming in” effect is so powerful, and if you’re interested in it you may want to try sitting meditation. Every session you are learning to differentiate between thoughts and physical reality, and when you do that, the past and future seem much less significant, because you can see they are only thoughts. One pushup, one penstroke, life is never bigger than that.

Jason April 1, 2014 at 10:40 pm

Thanks David – I’ve sporadically tried focusing on being fully present while doing some activity, like your doing the dishes example, but never seem to get very far past the 10 – 15 second mark. Very keen to improve though – sounds like having a go at ‘proper’ sitting meditation might be worth committing to…

Julet April 10, 2014 at 12:31 pm

I am LOVING your posts. I just stumbled across this during my search for being ‘in the moment’. I’ll admit, it’s purely for the sake of theatre training, since every instructor and director spits out those words at least ten times a day, and most of our technique is based around awareness and being ‘in the moment’. For the longest time I thought I was in this so-called ‘moment’, until I looked deeper into what it means. Then I stumbled across this website. Your insight is exactly what I’ve been looking for.

Nathanael May 6, 2014 at 2:39 pm

Here’s the thing: I actually dislike living in the present.

I enjoy planning and I enjoy anticipation and I enjoy the satisfaction of having anticipated and defused future problems.

Living in the future is *fun*.

I understand the value of living in the present when thinking about the future is pointless, frustrating, and unproductivve — but honestly, when it’s not like that, I want to spend a lot of my time in the future.

And I think we need people who are like this because this is how great projects get planned.

You wrote in the comments:
“What I do is I make sure I actually have a goal when I notice I’m thinking about the future — a decision I’m trying to make or something I’m trying to plan. Usually there’s no goal though, I just end up thinking about the future because something triggered the thought. I drop these as soon as I notice I’m doing it.”
Now that makes sense.

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