There’s an old Buddhist meditation joke which goes something like this: If you want to hide something really well, where’s the best place to leave it? In the present, because no one is actually here.
At the root of the joke lies more than a seed of truth. Even for those who actively spend designated periods of time concentrating on being present, it’s a challenge to stay in the now. The mind has a tireless ability to wander, roaming into the future or the past. We notice this happening when we meditate because we’re consciously bringing our awareness back into the present moment. Trying to bring more mindfulness into our daily lives can be an even greater challenge.
According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Mindfulness is the practice of being present at any given time, no matter what activities we are engaged in. (Learn more in 6 Techniques to Staying Present.)
For most people, our mindset is not automatically one of mindfulness. We tend to live in a continual state of planning, remembering and ruminating. All of these pull us away from the present. Technology can exacerbate this, with our smart phones and social media providing even more distraction from what is happening around us. They draw us out of the present and into different times, places and people.
So why does this matter? It matters because when you are not present, you miss out on much of the experiences and sensations that life has to offer.
How to Shift Your Mindset to Being Present
Begin small. It’s unrealistic to expect to be mindful at all times. Instead, find small moments to practice mindfulness. Like any other art, mindfulness is a skill that can be developed. Only practice makes perfect. Try the following: before beginning a task, pause for a few deep breaths so you can check in with yourself. Are you aware of your surroundings? Or have you spaced out? Here's another one: before getting out of bed in the morning, take a moment to notice how you are feeling. What's your mindset? Your thoughts? What physical sensations can you notice?
Use mindfulness anchors. Choose certain triggers to remind yourself to practice mindfulness during the day. For example, every time you put on your shoes, try to become hyper-aware of every sensation. How do the shoes feel? Are they tight at the laces? Do your toes bump against the edge? Another good reminder could be every time you open the refrigerator door. Try placing a sticky note on the milk with the word "here" on it. Stop yourself for a moment and check in with how you're feeling and what is going on for you in that particular moment.
Let yourself be fascinated by the present moment. One of the barriers to mindfulness is the mind’s desire for constant stimulation. Use that desire to allow yourself to become completely absorbed by what is happening in the here and now. Slow down and check in with all your senses. What are you seeing? What smells are there? What do you hear? What's the air temperature on your skin? Really pay attention to and actively notice everything that comes into your field of awareness though your five senses.
Notice your thought patterns and use mantras to bring you back. If you are prone to getting distracted by repetitive or anxious thoughts, mantras are a good way to break the cycle. A beautiful mantra for mindfulness comes from a Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, and goes as follows: “I have arrived, I am home.” Try repeating this mantra to yourself three times whenever obsessive thought patterns arise. You could also choose to actively stop and think through the thought pattern in a deliberate way. Keeping a journal is another effective tool for getting to the bottom of negative thought patterns. (Read more in What's a Mantra?)
Remember non-judgement. Judging yourself for not being present is counterproductive. Instead, calmly acknowledge when your mind is agitated or distracted. Thank yourself for noticing and let go of the idea that you “should” be any other way. Approach the journey to mindfulness with kindness and gentleness toward yourself. Celebrate any small changes you notice and acknowledge your effort every time you remember to check in. (Read more in Ahimsa: A Self-Practice.)
Becoming more switched "on" is an enjoyable process. Bring your awareness to all the amazing things that are happening around and within you. Life only happens in the now so soak it in and rejoice!