One of the things I have struggled with tremendously in my life is staying present in the moment. I have always been a thinker. Often times lost in daydreams as a child. As I got older the fantasies and dreams of youth turned to anxiety and worry in adulthood. I tended to worry about the future, my children, my parents, my life and where I was headed in general. Mostly though, I had a tremendously difficult time letting go of the past. I spent a large amount of my day thinking about what had happened in my life, conversations I wish I could have had, things I wish I had done differently. Playing out scenarios in my head over and over. Trying out different outcomes, as if that was a possibility. In all of that thinking and re-living the past and obsessing about the future, the one place I spent very little time, was in the here and now.
When we spent a large part of our life in the past or in the future, it leaves us feeling depressed and anxious. Overthinking is a way for us to assert control over situations and outcomes that ultimately we don’t have control over. It robs us of the moment. Joy, creativity, peace, always lives in the moment. I have a lot of clients that will tell me that their joy was in the past. That there is no joy in the present moment. That is a construct of our conditioned thinking. If you had joyful moments in the past, they still happened in the "now" of that time. It’s just that the “now” moment was in the past. Everything always happens in the now. Yet we lose so much of our life thinking about the past and future.
Here are 3 ways that you can use to stay more consistently in the present moment.
1. Pay attention to your thoughts
If you start paying attention to your thoughts you will realize that they are always in the past or the future. In the present moment, there really is no thought. There is only being. Try it out! Stop whatever you are doing and bring your attention fully to the here and now. Engage all your senses. What can you smell? What can you see? What can you hear? Simply observing what is happening right now. Not five minutes ago or ten seconds into the future. Now. What you will find is that there can be no worry or thinking in the now. Throughout your day, keep checking in with your thoughts.
2. Give yourself little reminders
When I first started attempting to live more in the present moment, my mind was so active and on autopilot that I actually needed constant reminders around me to check in with myself. I had sticky notes on the bathroom mirror and on the fridge asking me “Where are you right now?” I had a ritual of checking in with myself at every traffic light. I checked in with myself before eating and going to bed. Two years later, and I don’t need the visual reminders but I still check in with myself before I eat and at traffic lights.
3. Distract yourself
Find a hobby or activity that requires you to focus fully on the present moment. I have found that when I’m sailing in a race that in order for me to stay safe, I cannot be daydreaming or thinking about anything else. When I’m learning about my French lessons, I cannot be thinking about something else. If I am having an evening where I am especially melancholic, I bring out my computer and dive into French lessons. Simply give your brain something to do and it has to stop obsessing over things that aren’t happening in the now. It could be counting out dance moves while doing Zumba, or coloring in a mandala in a coloring book. Anything to keep it busy and engaged in the here and now.
I remember when I was younger my grandma told me she didn’t daydream because she didn’t have time for that kind of nonsense. Back then I was appalled! Now looking back, I remember her counting her knitting stitches, digging up potatoes or transplanting flowers with intense focus. I realize that a more accurate statement would have been “I don’t think about the future because my brain is busy in the here and now”. Staying present is a skilled practice. In this day and age with TVs distracting us every waking moment, the radio blasting in the car, headphones in on walks through nature, the ever-present phones, we have stopped valuing being present. We somehow have gotten the idea that by focusing on the future and all we want or need to do, we are somehow more productive. In truth, it is making us increasingly unhappy and dissatisfied in our lives.