Monday, November 17, 2008

The Art of Now: Six Steps to Living in the Moment

"Life unfolds in the present. But so often, we let the present slip away, allowing time to rush past unobserved and unseized, and squandering the precious seconds of our lives as we worry about the future and ruminate about what's past. ... When we're at work, we fantasize about being on vacation; on vacation, 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. ... .

Most of us don't undertake our thoughts in awareness. Rather, our thoughts control us. ... In order to feel more in control of our minds and our lives, to find the sense of balance that eludes us, we need to step out of this current, to pause, and ... to "rest in stillness—to stop doing and focus on just being."

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 you become mindful, you realize that you are not your thoughts; you become an observer of your thoughts from moment to moment without judging them. Mindfulness involves being with your thoughts as they are, neither grasping at them nor pushing them away. Instead of letting your life go by without living it, you 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. ... .

Mindful people are happier, more exuberant, more empathetic, and more secure. They have higher self-esteem and are more accepting of their own weaknesses. Anchoring awareness in the here and now reduces the kinds of impulsivity and reactivity that underlie depression, binge eating, and attention problems. Mindful people can hear negative feedback without feeling threatened. They fight less with their romantic partners and are more accommodating and less defensive. As a result, mindful couples have more satisfying relationships.
1: To improve your performance, stop thinking about it (unselfconsciousness).
That's the first paradox of living in the moment: Thinking too hard about what you're doing actually makes you do worse. If you're in a situation that makes you anxious—giving a speech, introducing yourself to a stranger, dancing—focusing on your anxiety tends to heighten it. ... To be most myself, I needed to focus on things outside myself, like the music or the people around me.
Focusing on the present moment also forces you to stop overthinking.
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's happening right now. ... Instead, relish or luxuriate in whatever you're doing at the present moment—what psychologists call savoring. ... 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 other positive emotions, and fewer depressive symptoms ... .
3: If you want a future with your significant other, inhabit the present (breathe).

Living consciously with alert interest has a powerful effect on interpersonal life. Mindfulness actually inoculates people against aggressive impulses ... . "Mindfulness decreases ego involvement," explains Kernis. "So people are less likely to link their self-esteem to events and more likely to take things at face value." Mindfulness also makes people feel more connected to other people—that empathic feeling of being "at one with the universe."
Mindfulness boosts your awareness of how you interpret and react to what's happening in your mind. ... Focusing on the present reboots your mind so you can respond thoughtfully rather than automatically. ... Mindfulness increases self-control; since you're not getting thrown by threats to your self-esteem, you're better able to regulate your behavior.
4: 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 psychologists call flow. Flow occurs when you're so engrossed in a task that you lose track of everything else around you.
Flow is an elusive state. As with romance or sleep, you can't just will yourself into it—all you can do is set the stage, creating the optimal conditions for it to occur.
To set the stage for flow, goals need to be clearly defined so that you always know your next step. ... You also need to set up the task in such a way that you receive direct and immediate feedback; with your successes and failures apparent, you can seamlessly adjust your behavior. ... As your attentional focus narrows, self-consciousness evaporates. You feel as if your awareness merges with the action you're performing. You feel a sense of personal mastery over the situation, and the activity is so intrinsically rewarding that although the task is difficult, action feels effortless.

5: If something is bothering you, move toward it rather than away from it (acceptance).

We all have pain in our lives ... . If we let them, such irritants can distract us from the enjoyment of life. Paradoxically, the obvious response—focusing on the problem in order to combat and overcome it—often makes it worse ... .

The mind's natural tendency when faced with pain is to attempt to avoid it—by trying to resist unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and sensations. ... But in many cases, negative feelings and situations can't be avoided—and resisting them only magnifies the pain.
The solution is acceptance—letting the emotion be there. That is, being open to the way things are in each moment without trying to manipulate or change the experience—without judging it, clinging to it, or pushing it away. The present moment can only be as it is. Trying to change it only frustrates and exhausts you. Acceptance relieves you of this needless extra suffering.
Acceptance of an unpleasant state doesn't mean you don't have goals for the future. It just means you accept that certain things are beyond your control. The sadness, stress, pain, or anger is there whether you like it or not. Better to embrace the feeling as it is.

Nor does acceptance mean you have to like what's happening. "Acceptance of the present moment has nothing to do with resignation," writes Kabat-Zinn. "Acceptance doesn't tell you what to do. What happens next, what you choose to do; that has to come out of your understanding of this moment."
6: Know that you don't know (engagement).

You've probably had the experience of driving along a highway only to suddenly realize you have no memory or awareness of the previous 15 minutes. ... Or maybe it happens when you're reading a book: "I know I just read that page, but I have no idea what it said."

These autopilot moments are what Harvard's Ellen Langer calls mindlessness—times when you're so lost in your thoughts that you aren't aware of your present experience. As a result, life passes you by without registering on you. The best way to avoid such blackouts, Langer says, is to develop the habit of always noticing new things in whatever situation you're in. That process creates engagement with the present moment and releases a cascade of other benefits. Noticing new things puts you emphatically in the here and now.
Don't Just Do Something, Sit There

Living a consistently mindful life takes effort. But mindfulness itself is easy. "People set the goal of being mindful for the next 20 minutes or the next two weeks, then they think mindfulness is difficult because they have the wrong yardstick," says Jay Winner, a California-based family physician and author of Take the Stress out of Your Life. "The correct yardstick is just for this moment."

Mindfulness is the only intentional, systematic activity that is not about trying to improve yourself or get anywhere else, explains Kabat-Zinn. It is simply a matter of realizing where you already are.
You can become mindful at any moment just by paying attention to your immediate experience. You can do it right now. What's happening this instant? Think of yourself as an eternal witness, and just observe the moment. What do you see, hear, smell? It doesn't matter how it feels—pleasant or unpleasant, good or bad—you roll with it because it's what's present; you're not judging it. And if you notice your mind wandering, bring yourself back. Just say to yourself, "Now. Now. Now."

Here's the most fundamental paradox of all: Mindfulness isn't a goal, because goals are about the future, but you do have to set the intention of paying attention to what's happening at the present moment. As you read the words printed on this page, as your eyes distinguish the black squiggles on white paper, as you feel gravity anchoring you to the planet, wake up. Become aware of being alive. And breathe. As you draw your next breath, focus on the rise of your abdomen on the in-breath, the stream of heat through your nostrils on the out-breath. If you're aware of that feeling right now, as you're reading this, you're living in the moment. Nothing happens next. It's not a destination. This is it. You're already there."

Excerpted from this much longer article:

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