Contacting the Present Moment

In the words of John Lennon, writing for his song “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)”, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”.

Life is happening right now. Now is the only time we have ever directly experienced. Some might recognise that the present moment is all we really have, and that suffering ensues when we fight this reality. Perhaps you find yourself getting sucked into thoughts of the past or future?

You Are Not Your Thoughts

Our human abilities enable us to remember, imagine, abstract, change perspectives, and even to think about our thinking. These are all complex processes that scientists refer to as “cognition”. However, our direct experiences all unfold here, in this present moment. The “here and now” is the only place and time whereby we can experience ourselves, the world around us, and our lives.

Deliberately holding flexible and focussed attention onto the present moment can be very challenging. We may find that we get ‘sucked in’ to thoughts about our experience – we may worry about the future, ruminate on the past, or engage in various experiential avoidance strategies – all of which move us away from the present moment.

Contacting the present moment in part involves tuning into what is happening in the environment right now. We tend to get pulled out of what is happening around us by attending to what our minds are telling us. Although thoughts can seem very real to us, they are not us, and they can pull us away from what is accessible to us in the here and now. Is your thought about how you aren’t working hard enough as real as the table in front of you? The music playing from the speakers? Or the book in your hand?

When we return our attention and centre ourselves in the here and now, we gain access to a number of core psychological flexibility processes. We can be present, open up to our experiences without judgement, and move towards what matters to us.

The present moment is home to our ability to act skilfully, flexibly, and make valued choices. Right here, in the right now, is where we provide ourselves with the opportunity to return to ourselves as active players in our lives, with meaning and purpose.  By nurturing this capacity with time and practice, we develop a skill that becomes second nature.

Mindfulness and the Human Experience

Paying attention on purpose to the here and now without judgement, evaluation, or resistance is not our default way of being in the world. As humans, we have the capacity for complex cognitive processes. Whilst these unique advantages can offer great benefit – in fact, making mindfulness possible in the first place! – they can also be the source of suffering. Our capacity to respond to private events as if they are here and now can result in reliving past experiences or imagining future ones, all the while missing out on the important moments of our lives as they occur.

Troublesome past thoughts tend to lead to feelings of regret, guilt, shame, and low mood, whereas bothersome future-orientated thoughts lean towards worry, fear, and anxiety. Breaking through difficult past and future-orientated thoughts by way of contacting the present moment allows us to create more space for the here and now.

Know that your distracting thoughts will show up – we can’t control what pops into our heads – that’s the way that the mind works! The skill to be practiced is noticing when distraction arrives, and then using your observer self to return back to the now.  

I emphasise these points upfront because clients will often say that they have difficulty staying in the present moment. If this is true for you, then you’re in good company – that’s a shared (and very human) experience! Recognising and acknowledging that this is part of the process – and not an exception to it – is key. Noticing when you have lost contact with the now is essential to the ability to return and attend to the present moment.

How Do I Stay in the Present Moment?

The key to maintaining focussed on the present moment involves the act of returning attention back when it has strayed.

This skill is learned through deliberate practice. This can involve ‘formal’ methods, such as seated mindfulness meditation or audio exercises, such as observing the breath, the body, the senses, or the present moment itself. You may wish to use imagery exercises and attention training. Other mindfulness exercises can be more ‘informal’, and help us to practice present-moment awareness whilst engaging in common daily tasks.

Goleman & Davidson (2017) suggest in their first model of mindfulness, that practice in contacting the present moment can first involve inducing a ‘state’ of mindfulness, and proceeding to develop a ‘trait’ of mindfulness.

Why is it Helpful to Practice Mindfulness?

Regular practice, whether formal or informal, will help to make the act of being present in the here and now easier.

Neuroplasticity” refers to the brains ability to modify, change, and adapt both in structure and function throughout life, in response to our experience. The brain is dynamic, not static, and is constantly learning. The brain’s brilliant malleability allows us to acquire new skills, drop unhelpful habits, adapt to novel environments, and even heal from severe trauma and injury.

Neuroplasticity is facilitated by these events, too. Every new experience or challenge that we face compels the brain to rearrange its synaptic connections. And the more you do something, the more established these connections become (see ‘tuning‘) . Repetition is the key to learning (That’s how you discovered the ability to ride a bike or write your name as a child. Now, riding a bike is like, well, riding a bike!)

Scientists have found that mindfulness can be a powerful tool for altering and strengthening key brain networks for the better. Mindfulness techniques have been shown to promote positive changes in the brain pathways involved in stress, focus and attention, memory, and mood. Some research has even found that repeated practice of mindfulness over a certain amount of time can physically change brain structures long term.

Have you tried contacting the present moment? If so, what was your experience as you engaged in a mindfulness exercise?

References:

Goleman, D., and Davidson, R. J. (2017). The science of meditation: How to change your brain, mind and body. UK: Penguin.

Tirch, D., Silberstein-Tirch, L. R., Codd III, R. T., Brock, M. J., & Wright, M. J. (2019). Contacting the Present Moment. In J. Bennett-Levy (Ed.), Experiencing ACT from the inside out: A self-practice/self-reflection workbook for therapists. London: The Guildford Press.

Wilson, K. G., & DuFrene, T. (2009). Mindfulness for Two: An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Approach to Mindfulness in Psychotherapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.