Staying Present

present man staring at sky

A major aspect of Buddhist psychology and psychotherapy is the notion of being present. What does this mean exactly? And why is presence important to our mental health, happiness and overall well being?

The truth is, the present is the only moment that exists. Let me repeat that simultaneously incredibly simple and complicated reality: your entire life is happening now. This moment. And it's always just this moment. The future and the past are illusions created by our minds (or egos, in Buddhist terms). We remember the past through memory and we anticipate the future through imagination...and one of the major traps of the future and the past is the illusion of control. Our minds believe that thinking can actually give us some sort of control over outcomes; that is if by thinking about (and therefore anticipating) the future, we can figure out what will happen and plan for things to go just as we want them to go - or mitigate against any impending disaster.

The reality is, we aren't fortune tellers and we simply can't predict the future, no matter how much we like to trick ourselves into thinking we can. And even if we could predict the future, thinking about some possible threat is in no way, shape or form productive in terms of protecting ourselves.

When we think about the future - or relive the past - we are simply robbing ourselves of the opportunity to live our lives. We are taking ourselves out of the present, away from whatever is happening in the here and now, and escaping through our minds.

Research has shown, however, that presence - being mindfully aware of your current experience - is critical to well-being. Mindfulness has been shown to decrease anxiety, depression, stress and chronic pain, among other mental and physical health benefits.

So what do we do about this constant "checking out"? Step 1: we bring mindful awareness to our thinking. In order to change the fact that we're dwelling in the future or past, we have to first notice that we're doing so. We must first catch ourselves, without judgment and with a lot of compassion, and realize that we followed some train of thought down the rabbit hole and are no longer "here".

Then, we use anchors. We ground ourselves in the present moment, in the here and now. Three techniques I particularly like are using the breath, "grounding in the senses", and doing a "body scan". In terms of the breath, you simply bring your awareness to your breathing, noticing your inhalations and exhalations. You feel your body as you breathe - you listen to it, notice it - and in doing so, are returned to the present moment (because you're always breathing in this moment). With "grounding in the senses", you tap into your current reality through your 5 senses - taste, touch, sight, sound, smell. You choose an object of focus - the chair you're sitting on, the traffic that surrounds you - and you pay attention through your senses, asking yourself what exactly you taste, feel, see, hear and smell (or whatever is relevant). A final technique is called a "body scan", in which you bring your awareness to your feet and "check in" with all the sensations in your body, "scanning" from your toes up to the crown of your head. Again, the key is to notice without any judgment, but rather, with a stance of compassionate curiosity.

Today, try to remain in the here and now, because, in the words of poet Omar Khayyam, "this moment is your life".