The Present Moment Is the Most Important Thing In Your Life

Throughout my life I have been very lucky to not suffer from severe anxiety or depression, but I have gone through bouts of despair and periods where I have felt unhappy and a bit anxious. One of things that has helped me during these times is focusing in on the present moment and trying to be fully aware of where I am at right now and what I am doing right now. Zeroing in on the present helps pull my mind out of the story it tells itself about who I am, what I am worth, how successful my past has been, and what I must do in the future to be a great person. In the present moment, the only thing that matters is what we are currently engaged in and what we are doing right now. Besides the immediate present moment, nothing else truly impacts our life.

 

In his book The Miracle of Mindfulness, author Thich Nhat Hanh describes the importance of mindfulness and the value the present moment brings to us when we actually focus on it. Working on our focus and paying attention to the present moment, whatever we are doing, is a form of meditation. I have always thought of meditation as sitting still and quiet,  focusing on my breath or expanding my awareness of all things around me, but Hanh describes a way for us to meditate in any action by focusing on the present moment and being fully immersed with a singular focus on the task, job, or thing in front of us. He writes,

 

“When you are washing the dishes, washing the dishes must be the most important thing in your life. Just as when you’re drinking tea, drinking tea must be the most important thing in your life. … Each act must be carried out in mindfulness. Each act is a rite, a ceremony.”

 

When we focus on the present moment and what is in front of us right now, everything else begins to recede because our mind only has space for one thing. This practice can help reduce our fears, worries, and the stories and pressures we put on our selves. I do not suggest that everyone who suffers from depression or anxiety can fix their problems  by meditation and mindfulness, but in my life, becoming absorbed in the present moment, recognizing that what I am doing right now is all that I truly have and all that truly matters has helped me overcome these challenges. I try my best to recognize that what has happened in the past is gone, and cannot be changed by what I am doing now, so I should focus on my current activity and be entirely present and immersed with what I am doing. Likewise, I cannot control what will happen in the future, but I can know that by doing my best with what I have now, I can prepare myself for what is to come. The present moment takes away the stories we tell about what our actions mean, because we can always fully experience the present and engage with the present, no matter what has happened to us or what will happen to us in the future. This may not solve all problems with anxiety or depression, but techniques of mindfulness have helped me recover from my own low points.

Mindful In All Things

Thich Nhat Hanh’s book The Miracle of Mindfulness helped me think about the value of the present moment and the value of engaging in the present moment. Returning to his book to write about the sections I highlighted when I read it almost a year ago is bringing my attention back to the present moment and helping me reflect on why it is so important in our lives to ground ourselves in the here and now. I often find my mind wandering onto other things, often on things that I don’t want to think about or know that I should not think about, when I have the opportunity to do something productive. The result is that the actual thing that I am doing is lost in a haze as I move about on autopilot barely aware of my surroundings and sensations, and the time I had  that could have been productive is squandered as I accomplish next to nothing in a distracted fog.

 

Sometimes I try to think about my life if I had lost one of my senses. How would I live if I could not see or hear? What would I miss the most about losing one of those major senses? How would the world become less contextual and interesting? These types of questions help me understand why it is so valuable to live in the present and fully examine our surroundings using the senses we have. One day I know that my experiences and sensations of the world will cease, so I should take full advantage of the time I have to sense the world and live in the world.

 

Throughout his book, Hanh encourages the reader to bring mindfulness to each action, and to try our best to avoid thinking beyond or outside of the thing that we are doing in the moment. “You’ve got to practice meditation when you walk, stand, lie down, sit, and work, while washing your hands, washing the dishes, sweeping the floor, drinking tea, talking to friends, or whatever you are doing.”  Each of these things are areas where we can be engaged with something while our mind is completely focused on something else, which I explained frequently happens to me. The banal activities that Hanh suggests we bring mindfulness to are activities where our senses can be alive, and they are areas where we can train our mind to concentrate, rather than allowing our minds to be distracted and to flutter about aimlessly. It is a time where we can truly use our senses and value our ability to experience the world.

 

Returning to this segment a year after reading the book reminds me that there are a lot of aspects of even tedious and boring activities that are rather fascinating. The feel of soap on a smooth metal pan, the textured feeling of plastic on the handle of a pot, and the warm feeling of water while washing dishes are things we would never notice if we watched tv, or thought about what we would rather be doing while washing dishes. But by being mindful, we can fully experience these different sensations and recognize that it is incredible just how sensitive our hands and brains are. Being present helps us appreciate the tiniest details of the moment, because it reminds us that we are alive and we are actors in the world who have the unique privilege of being the only one experiencing our particular sensations at any given moment. What mindfulness in every moment does for me is remind me to be grateful for my life and reminds me to soak up the world around me. Living with our mind in the past or with our mind on future possibilities robs us of actually experiencing  the present moment. Our mind is oblivious to the multitude of sensations that we could focus on if we brought mindfulness to the present moment.

Our Breath During Meditation

Any time I have worked on meditation, I have felt incredibly connected with the world. I have only ever done focus meditation, zeroing in on my breath and trying to keep my mind solely on the experience of air moving into and out of my body. Something about this focus on the air we breath has a natural feel that takes me away from the city in which I live (Reno, Nevada – its not too big and urbanized so imagining that I am in nature is not too hard to do) and helps me feel more natural.

 

This connection to nature seems apparent in how other people talk about meditation as well. Thich Nhat Hanh describes the way we should breath during meditation in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness by writing “Your breath should be light, even, and flowing, like a thin stream of water running through the sand.” The connection to nature always feels calming for me. When I think about relaxation I often picture a vast water front, perhaps a beach along an ocean or a beautiful lake. When I think about calmness and pacificity, I often imagine solitary expanses of nature, open fields where I have gone running either in the mountains or in open valleys where I am not surrounded by other people and the hustle of every day life. Hanh equates our breath to a vision of calm nature, reinforcing the idea that meditation is something that should take away the complex, the urban, and the stressful in our lives and bring us to a simpler state of being that is more defined by the forces of nature that are non-human and beyond our control.

 

My descriptions above are my own experiences of meditation and how I have experienced the benefits of meditation. I don’t suspect that my experiences are universal or would be the best fit for everyone, but the connection to nature is something I have often seen in the way people speak about meditation. Focusing on our breath and remembering to keep our breath smooth and stable has physiological impacts on our body, relieving tension possibly reducing our blood pressure, and if we are taking full deep breaths hopefully helping improve the oxygen levels in our body. In a sense, this mastery of our breath is just an observation of a natural process that humans go through, and I think that is why metaphors and connections with idillic nature scenes are so strong.

Mindfulness Enables us to Live

Thich Nhat Hanh wrote the book The Miracle of Mindfulness to share his thoughts, experiences, and lessons learned from a life of practicing mindfulness. He details the benefits of living a more mindful life, describes techniques to bring mindfulness into our lives, and presents our daily consciousness in varying perspective to highlight the importance of mindfulness as we move through the world. For Hanh, mindfulness helps with living an intentional life and gives one the ability to be more calm and collected and less reactive to the world and all of its stressors.

 

“Mindfulness is at the same time a means and an end,” Hanh writes as he describes what mindfulness should really mean to us. Mindfulness is a tool that helps us think more deeply and clearly about our life and the decisions that we make. A practice of mindfulness helps us recognize when we are working toward our goals and when we are distracted from them, and hopefully helps us identify ways to get back on track. Mindfulness also is a state where we are more productive, thoughtful, and peaceful with ourselves, a goal that we all share as we work to be happy and fulfilled. In this way, mindfulness is an end state that we desire, but also a tool to help us improve our lives and reach our goals.

 

Hanh goes further and describes mindfulness as more than a goal to work toward or even a tool to help us increase our self-awareness and perception. Mindfulness, Hanh describes, is in some ways our real lives. He writes, “But mindfulness itself is the life of awareness: the presence of mindfulness means the presence of life … Mindfulness frees us of forgetfulness and dispersion and makes it possible to live fully each minute of life. Mindfulness enables us to live.”

 

In the past I have written about routines and habits, examining my personal conflict of living effectively with a routine that aids me in health and productivity while simultaneously making me feel as though my life is on autopilot, slipping past me beyond my control. Mindfulness is a way to bridge the conflict that I experience. Becoming a mindful person means that you practice self-awareness and work toward building self-control in your actions and habits. Rather than setting yourself to autopilot, mindfulness brings you to the present moment and helps you focus on what truly matters and how you are using every moment. When you fully experience the present, because you are self-aware and are thinking of what you are doing now, Hanh argues, life will not fly past you in a rush that you cannot remember. Instead, you will be able to take steps to be intentional with how you live, and you will develop the capacity to be cognizant of how you travel through each moment in space and time.

How to Practice Mindfulness

“Keep your attention focused on the work, be alert and ready to handle ably and intelligently any situation which may arise – this is mindfulness.”

 

The sentence above is how Thich Nhat Hanh describes mindfulness. Anything that we do, can be done either absentmindedly, or with mindfulness. We can drink coffee, wash dishes, walk to the mailbox, and write reports at work with full intention and focus, or we can do them on autopilot, never truly focusing on what we are doing. Bringing mindfulness to whatever it is we are doing, whether it is something small and boring like drinking coffee or whether it is something important and nuanced, like open heart surgery, helps us be our best in that moment and helps us truly experience our lives. When the world seems to be going by to quickly, when we are anxious and nervous about what may come in the future, and when we are worked up over news and events from across the world, we lose a sense of who we are and what it means to be us in our own lives. Mindfulness, a focus on the moment and a complete alertness with regard to the task or action in front of us, helps us be more peaceful and more grounded in the present moment.

 

In my own life it is has been easy to be caught up in national politics, fearful of missing out on fun and exciting opportunities, and depressed by the tedious and repetitive nature of my daily routine. I have often been caught up in the story I tell myself about who I am, about what everything around me means, and about what I need to do in order to be successful and well respected. These pressures, stories, and the battle for my attention leaves me in a place where any individual action seems meaningless and where days and weeks rush past me in a blur that I barely remember.

 

Practicing mindfulness is a way to combat these problems. Mindfulness itself does not slow the world down or make what I am doing at any given moment more meaningful or important. What it does, is help me understand where my conscious thought is spending its time. Am I truly focused on where I am right now, or am I letting my mind run in a million directions a million miles away from this place? For me, mindfulness has never been a complete control over my mind, but a recognition of what my mind is doing at any given moment, so that I can take actions to help move my mind back to more meaningful places.

 

Hanh continues, “A calm heart and self-control are necessary if one is to obtain good results. … If we are not in control of our selves but instead let our impatience or anger interfere, then our work is no longer of any value.” We may not have full control over our mind, but mindfulness does help us be more cognizant of our thinking and patterns of thought so that we can begin to shape new habits of thinking to be more intentional and direct with how we use the only thing we have, our mind in the present moment.

Avoid Machine Thought

Recently I have become more aware of how often I have automatic “machine” like thoughts about the world. When I hear someone sneeze I automatically reply “bless you” with no thought as to why I am saying what I am saying. A thousand times a day I have some type of response to someone that is not really a response but rather just a trite saying that I have not thought closely about. In every day we fall back on these automatic machine phrases that we utter without using much brain power. These thoughts sort of think themselves, and we just go along with them.

 

In his book The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to get away from these routine and automatic thoughts by becoming more aware of our actions, habits, and thoughts themselves. In his book he writes, “Whether it’s sunny or rainy, whether the path is dry or wet, you keep that one thought, but not just repeating it like a machine over and over again. Machine thinking is the opposite of mindfulness. If we’re really engaged in mindfulness while walking along the path … then we will consider the act of each step we take as an infinite wonder, and a joy will open our hearts … enabling us to enter the world of reality.”

 

Rote thinking saves brain space. It allows us to go through the motions of a conversation, a walk, a drive, or a life without having to consciously consider the wold around us as we go. It is automatic, habitual, and has no real meaning or purpose. The machine-like thinking referenced by Hanh serves no purpose other than filler for our days. True mindfulness reveals just how frequently we operate by machine thought. Becoming more aware of our rote habits helps us to uncover what is really taking place versus what we are doing just because it is habit or commonplace in our society. Mindfulness takes away the filler and helps us see the world without the stories we tell about the world, allowing us to recognize judgements, desires, fears, and concrete facts of our life in a more clear way. One of the biggest benefits I have found from my imperfect mindfulness is the pulling away of the narrative that I have attached to so much of my life. Without the stories that I make up and without the filler of machine thought, I have had a better approach to the world that is less driven by fear and stress, and more driven by a conscious choice of what is important to me and my life.

Our Very First Thought

During a typical workweek, when I get into a flow from day to day and wake-up early to read, write, and exercise, the first thought that I usually have, after turning off my alarm, is “x more days until the weekend and I can sleep in.” I really dislike the first moments of waking up. I get up much earlier than my wife, and I am always afraid that my alarm is going to wake her up, so I try to roll over, find my phone, and turn off my alarm as quick as I can. After that, as I groggily pull myself out of bed, I usually think about getting an extra hour or two of sleep in the morning on Saturday and Sunday.

 

In The Miracle of Mindfulness, author Thich Nhat Hanh describes a Buddhist monk named Doc that he once met. Hanh briefly writes about Doc’s daily routine and how he incorporated mindfulness into his day from the very beginning. “When he woke up in the morning,” Hanh writes, “his first thought was, ‘Just awakened, I hope that every person will attain great awareness and see in complete clarity.'”

 

The monk was building awareness and mindfulness into his day from the very beginning of each day. I rarely think beyond the initial moment and my desire to continue sleeping when I wake up. I could certainly allow myself to be a little slower with turning off my phone and I could make an effort to be more aware and mindful in my first moments. Running this thought through our minds at the outset of the day helps us be present and recognize that we are in the process of awakening and that nothing terrible has happened to us yet (even waking up as early as I do is not a terrible torture). This helps to set us up for a productive and self-aware day, something that is often missing when we go through the world complaining about each given moment. Doc’s thought is powerful because it aligns our thoughts to be productive, and opens us to compassion toward others as we are recognizing the mental challenges and struggles that others will face as soon as we wake up, rather than thinking about our own misfortune.