The Precious Present: Learning to Live in the Moment

By Howard Peiper

Life unfolds in the present. But so often, we let the present slip away, allowing time to rush past unobserved and unseized, squandering the precious seconds of our lives as we worry about the future and ruminate about what’s past. When we are at work, we fantasize about being on vacation and, when we finally take that trip, we worry about the work piling up on our desks. We dwell on intrusive memories of the past or fret about what may or may not happen in the future.

We need to live more in the moment. Living in the moment (also called mindfulness) is a state of active, open, intentional attention on the present. When we become mindful, we realize that we are not our thoughts; we become an observer of our thoughts from moment to moment without judging them. Mindfulness involves being with our thoughts as they are, neither grasping at them nor pushing them away. Instead of letting our life go by without living it, we awaken to experience.

Cultivating a nonjudgmental awareness of the present bestows a host of benefits.

Mindfulness reduces stress, boosts immune functioning, reduces chronic pain, lowers blood pressure, and helps patients cope with cancer. By alleviating stress, spending a few minutes a day actively focusing on living in the moment even reduces the risk of heart disease.

Follow the Path
There are many paths to mindfulness—and at the core of each is a paradox. Ironically, letting go of what we want is the only way to get it. Here are some other suggestions:

1.      To improve our performance, stop thinking about it (unselfconsciousness). That’s the first paradox of living in the moment. Thinking too hard about what we’re doing actually makes us do worse. If we are in a situation that makes us anxious—giving a speech, introducing ourselves to a stranger, dancing—focusing on our anxiety tends to heighten it. Focus less on what is going on in our mind and more on what is going on in the room, less on our mental chatter and more on ourselves as part of something.

2.    To avoid worrying about the future, focus on the present (savoring). Often we’re so trapped in thoughts of the future or the past that we forget to experience, let alone enjoy, what is happening right now. When subjects in a study took a few minutes each day to actively savor something they usually hurried through (eating a meal, drinking a cup of tea, walking to the bus) they began experiencing more joy, happiness and positive emotions, and fewer depressive symptoms. The hallmark of depression and anxiety is “catastrophizing,” which means worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet and might not happen at all. Worry, by its very nature, means thinking about the future, and if we hoist ourself into awareness of the present moment, worrying melts away.

3.    To make the most of time, lose track of it (flow). Perhaps the most complete way of living in the moment is the state of total absorption or flow. Flow occurs when we are so engrossed in a task that we lose track of everything else around us. Flow is an elusive state. As with romance or sleep, we can’t just will ourself into it, all we can do is set the stage, creating the optimal conditions for it to occur.

4.    If something is bothering us, move toward it, rather than away from it (acceptance). We all have pain in our lives, whether it’s the ex we still long for, the jackhammer snarling across the street, or the sudden waves of anxiety when we get up to give a speech. If we let them, such irritants can distract us from the enjoyment of life. The minds natural tendency when faced with pain is to attempt to avoid it by trying to resist unpleasant thoughts, feelings and sensations. Acceptance of an unpleasant state doesn’t mean we don’t have goals for the future. It just means we accept that certain things are beyond our control. The sadness, stress, pain or anger is there whether we like it or not. Beter to embrace the feeling as it is. Nor does acceptance mean we have to like what is happening.

Living a consistently mindful life takes effort. But mindfulness itself is easy. Mindfulness is the only intentional, systematic activity that is not about trying to improve ourselves or get anywhere else. It is simply a matter of realizing where we already are. We can become mindul at any moment just by paying attention to our immediate experience. We can do it right now. What is happening this instant? Think of the “self” as an eternal witness, and just observe the moment. What do we see, hear or smell? It doesn’t matter how it feels (pleasant or unpleasant, good or bad). We roll with it because it’s what is present; we are not judging it. And if we notice our mind wandering, bring ourself back. Just say to our self, “Now, Now, Now.”

Remember, when we are living in the moment that is our precious present.

Dr. Howard Peiper, N.D., nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, has written several bestsellers on nutrition and natural health. His blog is:

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