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Do you find it difficult to stay in the present?

Does your mind keep wandering?

Thinking about what to do in the future? Or reminisce about the past?

I’m a planner and a dreamer. As a child, I love to daydream and imagine stuff. As an adult, I love to think about the future and plan everything out.

But if there’s one lesson my depression episode has taught me, it’s to stay present and live in the moment.

A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.

Mindfulness is important, not only for our mental health but also for our physical health and spiritual life. It reduces rumination and stress, helps us regulate our emotions and thoughts, and calms our body down. It can also help us be more peaceful, self-compassionate, and grateful for the life that we have.

You might have heard or read books from spiritual teachers such as Eckhart Tolle and Thich Nhat Hahn that teaches you how to be in the now. Or perhaps you are aware that psychologists use mindfulness in their therapy treatments.

But what exactly does it mean to be in the now? And how do we focus on the present moment?

What Does It Mean to Live in the Moment?

Our mind, when left alone, tends to be in auto-pilot mode. It starts to wander around, thinking about the past or the future. While you are brushing your teeth, you might be thinking of the tasks you have to do in the office. Or perhaps you are washing the dishes and you start thinking about how your spouse has never once helped you with the housework.

Practicing mindfulness means when you are brushing your teeth, you focus on what you are doing now — brushing your teeth. And when you are washing the dishes, you pay attention to the dishes you are washing. Any other thoughts you have are most likely to bring you out of the present moment. If you are not aware or mindful enough, you can be lost in your thoughts for a very long time.

You have to train your mind to stay present.

Living in the moment simply means to bring your awareness back to the current moment. The biggest challenge, however, is our mind.

Most of our minds don’t like to stay in the now. They often get out of hand, running back to the past or the future and escaping from the present moment. We have to intentionally and persistently bring our minds back whenever we caught it wandering, and train it to stay present.

Why Is Staying in the Present Moment a Struggle?

Our past and future are mental illusions.

There is only the present moment. We can never go back to the past or go into the future no matter how much we think about it. When we think about the past or the future, we are thinking in the now. In other words, we are using the time we have in our present moment to form these mental illusions.

Sometimes, our memories and outlooks for the future aren’t even positive, to begin with. They are painful and bleak, but yet we still cling to them. What is their draw? Why do we still keep going back to the past and into the future?

Reflecting on the Past vs Dwelling on the Past

Our past can give us valuable insights into our current behaviors and actions. They can help us decide what to do in the future. We can learn from our past mistakes and tell ourselves not to make the same mistakes again.

The past can also provide us with good memories of the time and bonds we have with our special ones. It helps us to remember our ancestors and be grateful for what they had provided us.

However, the past can also hold us back if we dwell on it too much or get obsessed with it.

The past is only meaningful when it helps you now.

Reflecting on the past doesn’t help you at all if you don’t apply the lessons learned in the now. Having regrets and ruminating about the past doesn’t help you change the past or resolve your current problems. They’ll only keep you trapped in the past.

The reason why we continue to live in the past is that we haven’t accepted our past mistakes or that things have changed.

  • If only I have done this or have not done this previously, I’ll not be in such a state now.
  • I shouldn’t have agreed to this.
  • Things used to be better.
  • Things aren’t the same anymore without him or her.

The past also provides us with a sense of familiarity. We are so afraid that the future will not be as good as the past, so we rather stay in the past and not embrace what is.

Planning for the Future vs Fantasizing about the Future

Staying present doesn’t mean that you don’t plan for your future or have goals anymore. You can live in the moment and plan for the future as long as you don’t rush the process. It requires you to accept the current state you are in.

You don’t set a goal and keep asking yourself why you are not there yet. You don’t let your expectations kill your joy in the current moment. Your wanting to be in the future will only create more stress and anxiety for you and overwhelm you now.

When we are too focused on the future, we miss the point. The future can only be enjoyed in the present moment. We can only enjoy the future when it comes. So we must learn to enjoy the present moment. If not, when it does come, we won’t know how to enjoy it too.

Planning helps us decide what to do now.

People love to live in the future because fantasizing about it gives us a false sense that we are living the reality now. However, dreaming about how nice it is to reach our goals keeps us from acting on our goals now. We plan so that we can execute. There is no meaning in planning if we don’t execute our plans.

Furthermore, when we wake up from our fantasy and realize how distant we are from what we have imagined, we suffer. So letting go of our mental illusions of the past and future, and learning to live in the moment is important.

How to Stay Present and Enjoy the Present Moment

Learning to stay present takes training. It takes daily practice. Below are some things you can do every day to help you be more mindful.

1. Start and end your day right.

The start of your day has a domino effect on the rest of your day. It sets the tone for your day.

I realize once I wake up, my mind will start to be very active. I’ll start thinking about random stuff such as what to do later, the conversation I had or want to have with others, and etc. This takes me away from the present moment.

For almost a year, I’ve been practicing meditation in the morning. It helps to break my habit of overthinking and also gives my mind a break. Instead of rushing to work in the morning, wake up earlier if you have to and perform your morning routine. It doesn’t have to be meditation. For you, it could be running or yoga. Anything that helps you to suspend your mind from thinking is great.

Your day starts the night before.

Another thing I realize is if I want to wake up early in the morning and start my day right, I need to sleep early and have ample rest during the night. We always have something more we want to do before we end the day — one more episode of our favorite TV program we want to watch, one more website we want to surf, one more task we need to complete, and etc.

We all want to maximize the use of our day. But sleeping late will affect our mood the next morning. We will find it harder to wake up early and have the willpower to perform our morning routine, let alone staying present.

2. Focus on sense perceptions and use them as reminders.

When you catch your mind wanders off during the day, use your five senses, touch, smell, hear, sight and taste, to bring you back to the present.

I like to have pebbles near my work desk. Whenever I catch my mind drift off to “la-la land” and not focusing on my current task, I will touch and hold on to these pebbles. Touching them and feeling their textures help me to focus on the present moment and keep me grounded.

What can you have near your workplace to keep you grounded?

It’s about strategically designing your workplace so that it encourages and reminds you to stay present. Here are some ideas:

  • Touch: You can have small pieces of cloths with different textures, bean bags, or a soft toy near you.
  • Smell: You can place flowers, plants, or even coffee powder near your work desk. Something that has a strong, nice aroma that makes you pay attention to it.
  • Hearing: Light instrumental music, audio of the nature such as rain or river, guided meditation, and etc. The best is sound or music that doesn’t have any words or lyrics to them, especially those that evoke strong emotions.
  • Sight: Just look out the window or at your surrounding, and notice what you see without paying attention to the conversation around you. Focusing solely on the colors and the sight helps.
  • Taste: Take a bite into a piece of lemon or have a sweet.

The important thing is to enjoy sense perceptions as they are and not judge them. Just focus your attention on the items and not comment on how beautiful they are or not, or how sour they are or not, and etc. Because when you do, you engage your mind. It starts to judge and analyze what you perceive through your senses.

3. Develop a habit of asking yourself, “What am I doing now?”

We are need reminders to help us stay mindful, so surrounding ourselves with things that keep us grounded help. But we can also develop a habit of self-reminding. I find it very helpful to ask myself, “What am I doing now? What am I suppose to do now?”

Especially when I was in my bed and my mind was thinking about a million things, I would ask myself the question. It reminds me that I’m supposed to be sleeping and I can continue the thinking during the day.

Asking yourself a question is a more gentle approach to be mindful.

Instead of criticizing yourself for not living in the present, asking yourself a question gives you the same outcome without being judgmental. It gives you an opportunity to choose the best path for yourself. You are not forcing yourself to stay present. You are giving yourself a choice. There is a choice between doing your task now or think about the issue in your mind.

Regardless of what you choose, you are being mindful and staying present. Even if you choose to think about the past and present, you are doing it from a place of intention. Your mind is not drifting off automatically on its own without your permission.

4. Control your mental consumption.

As per Thich Nhat Hanh, consumption is not just what you eat. It’s also what you allow your mind to consume every day.

In this modern time, we are consuming information at a much higher pace than before. And we are reacting to information much quicker than ever. When our mind has to deal with so much information, it gets tired and it’s much harder to stay present-minded.

Our mind is all over the place reacting to the things around us.

Instead of being mindful of what we do, we have developed this habit of reacting to the events around us. We are constantly waiting for things to come up or looking for things to react to.

Social media is a great example. When our minds get bored, most of us just allow our minds to consume whatever we can find on social media. We don’t filter what we consume and when we receive a notification on our phone, we feel an urge to see what it is. Our phone dictates where we put our attention to. 

What you read, what you listen to, and what you watch is important. You can structure your life in a way that you do things intentionally and mindfully instead of allowing your mind to go auto-pilot and down the rabbit hole. For example, you can turn off the alerts and notifications from your phone and social media. In this way, you give yourself more space to stay in the present.

5. Shake up your routine once in a while.

Having routines can help us to save a lot of time. But it can also make our mind restless and bored when it gets used to the routine. A restless mind is more likely to find joy in its own mental illusions, and the past and the future.

From time to time, you need to change your routines. A new routine makes your mind pay attention to. It requires your mind to learn and gets it working again. This keeps your mind present.

Do something challenging to get yourself into the flow.

Your mind needs challenges. Otherwise, it will create its own problems to solve. Introducing a challenging task occasionally will help your mind stay focused on the present moment.

However, it’s not advisable to choose a task that is way beyond your abilities and skills. If you do, you will feel stressed, anxious, and overwhelmed instead. Your mind will want to escape into the past or the future to stop yourself from experiencing these difficult feelings.

To be in the flow, you need to balance between the challenge and your abilities. Push yourself too little and you will get bored and apathetic. Push yourself too hard and you will find it hard to cope.

6. Pay attention and accept the present moment.

Mindfulness and staying present is all about paying attention. You give your full attention to whatever task is at hand. Whenever you find yourself distracted from your current task, pay special attention to your thoughts, emotions, and habits. Ask yourself:

What are you running away from? And why?

What are you resisting? What can’t you accept? You can learn something valuable about yourself even when you fail to stay present. Being present in the moment doesn’t mean you are immune to thinking about the past and the future.

Recognizing moments that you have gone off-track is also part of living in the present. You can only catch yourself getting distracted when you have awareness in the present moment. So you are doing something right.

Instead of blaming yourself for your mistakes which will only keep you trapped in the past, accept that you are distracted. Accept that you are running away. Accept the present moment as what it is. And simply, bring your mind back to the present moment gently and repeatedly until it becomes a habit.

Featured Photo Credit: Two year goatee / Johnny Silvercloud