Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is the only moment. – Thich Nhat Hanh
At some point during everyone’s journey of self-growth and spiritual discovery, they learn that living in the present moment is important.
The advice to “be in the now,” or some variation of it can be found in a million and one different articles, books, videos, and podcasts.
The present moment is put forward as a solution to many of life’s problems; whether to heal our emotional wounds, unleash our creative minds, improve our interpersonal relationships, or release our tension and stress.
Often, though, the “how to” bit is omitted. You’re just told to be present, end of. It’s easy, right, so no further instruction is necessary.
Well… no. If it were that easy, we would all be doing it. We wouldn’t need to be told to do it. It would be the norm.
Instead, a typical person will spend much of their waking life in some far distant place and time – mentally speaking, at least.
Their minds will be ablaze with chatter. Thoughts will run riot. The present moment will elude them.
So how do we go about entering and staying in the present moment?
Let’s begin with a definition.
What It Means To Live In The Present Moment
Contrary to popular belief, living in the moment doesn’t mean emptying your mind of all thoughts.
It means focusing on whatever you are doing so as to not be aware of the passing of time.
In other words, when you are living in the moment, you do not notice the minute hand ticking by because you are consciously absorbed in action.
And you don’t necessarily have to be sitting quietly and still to experience the now. Believing that meditation or other calm activities are the only portals into the present moment is a mistake many people make.
Yes, the action you focus on could be your breathing or the observation of the natural world around you, but it can be a multitude of other things too.
Another myth about being in the moment is that you shouldn’t think about the past or the future. In fact, if the task you are focused on is learning from past events so as to plan for future ones, you can be very much present.
The key is to be emotionally invested in neither past nor future. Instead, you might consider the past to be information, knowledge, experience, and the future to be nothing more than a projection of possibilities.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s look at some ways to be more present in the moment.
Lose Yourself In The Flow
As we just alluded to, there are many ways to live in the present moment. The common theme is always one of focused attention.
When you give something your full attention, you induce a state of flow; a condition where your mind consists of an unbroken series of moments, either of targeted thought or non-thought.
Targeted thoughts are those that relate directly to the task at hand, assuming there is one.
When you play competitive sport or a musical instrument, for instance, you are focused purely on these things. You may well be thinking, planning, strategising, but it is all targeted at what you are doing.
Non-thought is what most people typically picture when they think about living in the moment. It is when your mind is empty of the sort of “I” thoughts that most often float around our heads.
Your mind is still active in a state of non-thought, but it is impersonal. Your senses still send signals to your brain and you still have to digest and decipher those signals, but you are not “speaking” in your mind.
An author, penning their next novel, lost in their imaginary world, is in a state of flow.
A computer programmer, deep in thousands of lines of code, is in the flow.
A carpenter, fastidiously taking measurements and crafting wood into a desired form, has entered a flow state.
A skilled Buddhist nun, meditating to the sound of a singing bowl, is in the flow.
Though only the last of these individuals is sitting in a state of non-thought, they are all living in the moment in their own way.
Learn Something New
One of the easiest ways to enter a flow state is to learn something new. It doesn’t so matter what it is, so long as it requires your attention.
Just be aware that once learned, many things stop becoming doorways into the present because you are able to do them on autopilot.
Take driving a car, for example; during the learning process, you have to pay full attention to what you are doing. Once mastered, you can steer, change gears, check your mirrors, and adjust speed without really thinking.
Therefore, the onus is on continued lifelong learning that challenges your mind over and over so that it has to remain focused and alert.
Remove The Clock
Time isn’t precious at all, because it is an illusion. What you perceive as precious is not time but the one point that is out of time: the Now. That is precious indeed. The more you are focused on time – past and future – the more you miss the Now, the most precious thing there is. – Eckhart Tolle
As we touched upon when trying to define living in the now, not being aware of the passing of time is key.
If we clock-watch, we are not focused on what we are doing. We are, instead, anxious about how much or how little time we have left in an allotted period.
A worker who is bored and constantly checking the time cannot pay full attention to what they are doing. As a result, they find it much harder to maintain their flow state and their day drags.
On the flip side, a worker who has a deadline to meet and who always has one eye on the clock will also find it difficult to stay in a flow state. Only, they will probably find that their deadline comes sooner than they hoped for.
A worker who just gets their head down and forgets about what time it is can remain focused in the present moment and on the task at hand. They will get as much done as is possible in the day, whether a deadline passes or not. Time won’t seem to go by slowly or quickly for them.
Anchor Yourself Through Your Senses
When you are not living in the moment – when your head is full of thoughts of past and future – you’ll find that your senses are dulled.
You simply cannot focus intently on two things at once.
Think about how many times you’ve mindlessly walked somewhere with a head full of thoughts and not remembered any of your journey. You don’t remember because you didn’t truly experience your senses of sight and sound and touch.
We can use this to our advantage to bring our attention back to the present moment.
If we focus intently on our five senses, thoughts of the past or future are unable to take hold in our minds.
Sit in a park on a warm summer’s day and feel the heat of the sun on your skin. Eat an orange slowly and experience the intense flavor as the juices flow over your taste buds.
Listen to the noises of the world; the birds, the cars, the hubbub of life. Go into a bakery and smell the wonderful aromas. Climb a hill and gaze out across the land below.
Do these things with a sense of purpose and do them at every opportunity. Make it part of your daily routine to focus on what you can see, hear, taste, smell, and touch.
What should you do when you are trying to live in the moment and your head fills up with some thought or another?
First, remember that not all thoughts are a hindrance; if the thought is related to what you are doing, there’s no need to do anything.
If, however, the thought is something else – something born out of the past or future – the first thing to do is notice that you are having this thought.
This might sound a bit strange; how do you observe the conscious mind other than with the conscious mind?
Answer: you don’t. Your conscious mind is self-aware. It can catch itself thinking about something and recognize that this thought occurred.
Consider this: you can “hear” your inner voice, right? It has a distinct sound to it. But to hear a sound, it has to have a source and a receiver.
In the wider world, sounds come from other things and are received by your ear before being processed in the brain.
So, if you can hear your inner voice, there must be some distinction between the voice itself and the entity who hears it. This entity is your observing mind; a part of your conscious mind that is able to look upon other thoughts and understand that they are just thoughts.
How does this help?
Well, if you allow it to, this observing entity can help you to let go of your thoughts.
As soon as you recognize your thoughts for what they are, you feel less obliged to keep thinking them.
To observe a thought means to understand that it is merely a product of your mind. This devalues the thought, giving it less importance, and therefore making it easier for you to push aside.
Being able to catch yourself in the act of thinking is a key skill to learn and hone if you want to live more regularly in the present moment.
Take meditation, for example. It is not an easy thing for a beginner to stick with and thoughts will readily enter the mind.
Yet, as soon as you realize that you have drifted off into thought, it’s amazing how quickly those thoughts stop. They may return again and again, but each time you notice them, your mind loses interest in them.
Don’t Fight Your Feelings
Living in the moment does not mean being completely devoid of feelings. You can be sad or happy or any other feeling and still be present with yourself and others.
In fact, happiness is rarely a feeling we associate with anything other than being in the moment.
It is generally the more negative emotions that we associate with getting lost in thought, and that’s because we are looking for a solution to ease the feeling.
We don’t seek to end or relieve ourselves of positive feelings, so we don’t have to think about them in the same sort of way.
But the sooner you can make peace with your negative feelings like you do positive ones, the sooner you will accept them for what they are and stop thinking about them.
Don’t punish yourself for feeling anything; you aren’t weak or stupid for having and showing emotions. Trying to push them down and suppress them is only asking for trouble in the long term.
Just allow them to be; your unconscious mind will work through them in time; you needn’t try to accelerate the process by obsessively thinking about what caused them.
One thing that makes it more difficult to live in the present moment is to insist upon full control over your life.
Yes, at times you will be able to control events to a certain degree and shape your own present and future, but there is also a whole host of things over which you will have no control whatsoever.
You have two choices: resist these things and try to assert your will over them, or accept their presence.
The former pulls you away from the moment, while the latter keeps you in it.
Resisting things that are out of your control requires you to engage in a thinking process that is rather pointless. You may seek a way to gain control (which is futile), or you may bemoan events and get upset.
By loosening your grip and letting things that are outside of your control be as they are, you don’t put up mental barriers to the now.
Stop Preparing For The Next Moment
A little preparation is generally a good thing in life, but it can also be taken too far.
Many people are so caught up in preparing mentally for the next moment that they forget to enjoy this one.
They do not give the present moment the focused attention discussed earlier, but spend all of their time caught up in the near future.
“What’s next?” is the question they always ask themselves. They don’t want to be caught out by future events, but the things they worry about are often so trivial as to not warrant thinking about.
These thoughts need to be observed as we spoke about earlier if they are to be disarmed.
Four “Don’ts” And One “Do” Of Living In The Moment
To round off our guide, we’ll now explore some of the things we ought not to do when it comes to being in the now, along with one thing that is absolutely vital.
Don’t make it your end goal – this may sound a bit counterintuitive, but there is no need to think or say, “I’m going to live in the moment today.”
Finding yourself in the now is always the result of action – whether it’s transcendental meditation, embracing the company of friends, or playing a musical instrument.
Don’t intellectualize it – the more you actively try to think your way into the present moment, the more it will elude you.
Remember, the now isn’t found in your mind, it is found all around you in the things you do.
Neither should you try to rate how mindful and present you are at any given time. As soon as you find yourself thinking about how well you are doing, you’ve lost it.
Don’t set time limits on the present moment – you may think that “living in the now” is something you need to do for long periods of time. But you don’t.
The now is the everlasting moment and so even if you only manage to find it for 10 seconds at a time, that 10 seconds is better than nothing.
It might be nice to stay rooted in the present for as long as possible, but don’t underestimate the positive effect even a short period can bring. And certainly don’t berate yourself if you can only manage brief forays into the now.
Don’t think that living in the moment will solve all your problems – you may find yourself more at peace when your mind is free from worry, but this peace alone is not a universal solution to the challenges you face.
While it can be good for your emotional well-being to lose yourself in the present moment on a regular basis, you ought not to use it as a form of escapism to avoid tackling your problems.
In fact, you’ll find that the action necessary to address an issue can even be a door into the now; it’s the worrying and overthinking of a problem that keeps us from it.
DO practice, practice, practice – while you needn’t set yourself a goal of living in the present moment, you should try to practice entering it as much as you can.
Being in the flow is something that can become a habit. The more you achieve it, the easier it becomes, and the more you’ll find yourself doing it naturally.
This is partly down to the fact that the neural pathways in your brain will change as you practice. You’ll strengthen connections that promote being in the moment, while weakening ones that lead to compulsive thinking.
So wherever you are at any given time, see if you can find an activity that will take you into the present moment. Whether that’s simple breathing exercises, yoga, learning something new, getting lost in music, or something else entirely.
Our present moment is a mystery that we are part of. Here and now is where all the wonder of life lies hidden. And make no mistake about it, to strive to live completely in the present is to strive for what already is the case. – Wayne Dyer