Here's Why You Struggle To Stay Present
So many of us humans tend to go through our days on autopilot, which is essentially the opposite of mindfulness. We act unconsciously or habitually, even forming thoughts and judgments without conscious awareness of what we are doing (or why or how well). We just react.
We spend most of our energy rehashing the past or rehearsing the future: wishing, hoping, planning, ruminating, missing, regretting. We are disconnected from what is happening in our lives — right now, in the present moment — and even within our own bodies and minds. In this mode, emotions seem to just sort of happen to us, and we might not acknowledge them, understand them, or realize we can control them.
Or we might try to dodge emotions or shut them out. Either way, this is a recipe for emotion to overwhelm us. When we are not in the moment, we don't actually feel our feelings, and that creates more of the very emotions we may wish to avoid. It also doesn't (and can't!) solve the problems we are trying to escape.
So, what can we do?
We can make another choice. We can switch off the autopilot and take the wheel ourselves. This starts with mindfulness. Anyone can do it, even those whose usual M.O. is a far cry from being mindful. Mindfulness is a skill like any other, so it can be learned. Also like any other skill, the more you practice it, the better you will get at it.
So here's the two-word guide on how to practice mindfulness: pay attention. And I mean really pay attention. To things as they are. In the present moment. And that's it.
Well, of course there's more (see the multitude of books and blogs already devoted to this subject). But in a nutshell, that's really all you need to know. Being mindful means summoning awareness and attention and deploying them inwardly and outwardly, with intention and compassion and without analysis or judgment. Notice all that is happening within your mind and body and in the world around you right now. Attend to one thing at a time — acknowledge, observe and accept each sensation, experience, thought and feeling as it arises —from moment to moment.
Modern life is chock-full of habits of the mind that get in the way of mindfulness. Be on the lookout for them in your own life. Steering clear of these is key to practicing mindfulness.
Eight of the most common barriers that keep you from being mindful
- Thinking about the past and the future takes you out of the moment
- Being in denial
- Attaching to thoughts or observations
- Pushing away thoughts or observations
- Having a lack of intention
- Having a lack of compassion
- Judging, analyzing, criticizing or evaluating
Judgment is one of the most common ways that keeps you from being mindful. Whether you are judging your experience as good, bad or ugly, it's an obstacle to being fully present in the moment. And you do it all the time. Everyone does. The way to do it less — the way to not let judging interfere with your ability to be mindful — is to increase your awareness of when you are judging.
Try spending a few days noticing all the judgments you make throughout the day. About anything and everything: "What the hell is that lady wearing?" "Yuck, this food is gross!" "I should not be the one handling this!" Any time you catch yourself playing Judge Judy, notice it, label it as a judgment, and resist the temptation to judge yourself for being judgmental.
Then try to tell yourself the same story but with neutral (nonjudgmental) language: "Her shirt is bright." "Oh, that is bitter." "I have a task that I do not like." With enough practice, you'll begin to make that kind of switch automatically — in mindfulness practice as well as in life.
Adapted from Wise Mind Living: Master Your Emotions, Transform Your Life by Erin Olivo, PhD. Copyright © 2014 by Erin Olivo. Published by Sounds True.
Erin Olivo, PhD, MPH, is a licensed clinical psychologist, and has been an assistant clinical professor of medical psychology at the Columbia University, College of Physicians and Surgeons since 2004. She is the former director of the Columbia Integrative Medicine Program, which she headed in collaboration with Dr. Mehmet Oz.