By Tracey Ashcraft
It was summer of 1985 in New Jersey. I was with my boyfriend in his ’68 primer gray Ford pick-up truck. We were on our way to the shore on Route 9, “the poor-man’s parkway,” the old route to the South Jersey shore towns, which is speckled with farmers markets. The one we stopped at looked almost like an afterthought on the side of the road. Instead of a large wooden rooftop with rows of veggies and cash registers, this stand consisted of a picnic bench and a few baskets full of the most gorgeous, misshapen, homegrown, Jersey tomatoes.
Before I knew what was happening, my boyfriend pulled the truck over to the stand. He bought a bag of tomatoes and hopped back into the truck. He handed me one. I didn’t understand. Tomatoes were for salads and hamburgers. He said: “Just eat it like an apple.”
“Really? Now? Just plain?” I quizzed. “Hmmm…,” I thought, “Why not?” I bit into the juiciest, sun-warmed, flavorful tomato I had ever tasted. I was too young to truly understand what a sensual experience was, but as the tomato dripped down my chin, I started to get it. I was letting go of what society expected of me and diving into the moment through my senses of sight, smell, and taste.
Why is it important to live in the moment?
Real living happens in the present moment. We’ve all most likely heard this quote before:
“Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is God’s gift, that’s why we call it the present.”—Joan Rivers
When we shift our awareness to the present moment we can experience joy. As I sit here writing this article, I notice my present. It is a snow day. My daughter is off from school. We are sitting on the couch, sharing a cozy blanket. We are each playing on a laptop. My legs are warmed by the heat emanating from the laptop motor. It is quiet except for a slight hum from the computers and a light clicking from my fingers typing. The world is white outside. We are safe. I am content.
Noticing the present can change how we perceive time. What I have noticed is that when I become more aware of my present moment, time tends to slow. Our children don’t grow up so fast. We can savor juicy life events.
Living in the moment also can be a cure for depression. Noticing negative thoughts and bringing our awareness into the present moment is cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT. CBT is an empirically based treatment for improving mood.
What keeps us from enjoying the moment and our lives? It’s too easy to get caught up in worrying about the future or torturing ourselves with shame about the past. Engaging in worry or shame are learned habits. These habits can be broken if we learn to recognize when we are engaging in them.
Ruminating on negative thoughts can really zap the joy from our lives. Self-judgment is another way we steal joy from our personal experience.
Here are a few ways to live in the moment:
Catch yourself in the act. When you are worrying, notice you are worrying. Force your mind to stop. Focus on what is happening in the present. You can do this by noticing sounds, sights, and smells. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? This is called being mindful. Mindfulness is a word used to describe recognizing and standing in the present moment.
Create a gratitude list. When you worry you are in fear. When you are in shame it can be like living in hell. When you catch yourself in the act of these habits it can be helpful to create a gratitude list. Pull out a piece of paper or create a note on your phone. List as many things as you can think of for which you are grateful. It can be more powerful to list simple things. For example, most of us are grateful that we have a warm place to live on a cold day. We can be grateful that we are not hungry. Today I am grateful that my family is home safe from the snowstorm.
Play. Nothing has more potential to bring you into the present moment than playing. It is pretty hard to worry when you are running down the basketball court ready to make a shot. Try playing video games like Wii sports or Mario Cart. You probably will be laughing in minutes!
Get in the zone. Have you ever become so engrossed in a project that nothing else seems to exist? Some call this being in the zone. Whether you are making art, cooking a delicious meal, writing a story, hiking a mountain, you can be in the zone. And when you are in the zone, it is hard to be worrying about the future or lamenting the past.
Take a risk and try something new. Create new experiences that awaken your senses. Much like biting into a warm summer Jersey tomato for the first time, new experiences will help you feel alive and in the present. Go ahead and try something unexpected! Imagine painting with finger paints as an adult. Notice how the paint feels on your fingers as you move it around on the paper. If it’s snowing where you live, go sledding down a nearby hill. Feel the rush of cold air against your cheeks as you zoom down the slope. Jump on the hopscotch court drawn on the sidewalk. Try a new kind of sushi. Take a risk and jump right into the present.
Be gentle with yourself. As you incorporate these new techniques into your life, don’t beat yourself up. Breaking the worry/shame habit takes time. Learning to be more mindful of the present moment is well worth the practice. Be on the lookout for your next simple experience and enjoy the moment!
Tracey Ashcraft, M.A., L.P.C., is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Coach. She specializes in helping adults and college students cope with emotionally intense people. With a Master’s Degree in Counseling, Tracey has been helping people heal from toxic relationships for more than 10 years. She brings her sense of humor and a tell-it-like-it-is style that helps people get to the truth quickly. Sessions are offered in Boulder, CO, and via phone or video chat. For more information visit www.bestlifetherapy.com.