Yesterday, I was listening to an audiobook by Pema Chodron, Getting Unstuck, in which she talks about how important it is to “just stay” with the present experience. She also points out how difficult and unnatural that is for human beings. It a skill we have to develop, just like playing tennis or learning how to bake. So many things prevent us from staying with the present moment.
Today, I finished watching an amazing sunrise over Crater Lake in Oregon. It was breathtaking. As I was watching pinks turn to oranges and yellows, I noted that it is not too difficult to focus my attention when it is on something beautiful. It’s a different story when the present moment contains pain or even something neutral. In fact, sometimes even during pleasant moments, we are trying to figure out how we can hang on to it for longer, or analyzing why we don’t have this feeling more often.
So what are the things that get in our way of staying with the present? First of all, our brains often act like little kids, hopping from one thing to another, just because that’s what they do. The brain doesn’t like to be still; its constant hum of activity is never far from the surface. Much of the time, we are caught up in the current of the content of our thoughts.
How many times have you been driving to a familiar location and suddenly blinked, realizing that you had no idea where you were? At those moments, you realize you’ve been driving at 65 miles per hour for 30 minutes completely on autopilot—totally NOT present. You hope that your body knew what it was doing and that you aren’t lost. Fortunately, our bodies usually do somehow know what to do, or we’d all be in big trouble.
As an experiment, try sitting comfortably and following your breath for about ten minutes. You can close your eyes, if that makes it easier.
Take a moment to do this now.
What did you notice? Did your mind wander? How many times did you have to bring it back? Was it difficult to stay focused on the breath the entire time? Was it easy for you? For most people, this exercise will make it fairly clear how active our minds are. Like I said, it isn’t a bad thing. It just is.
Opportunities like you’ve just given yourself give us the chance to observe things that are really going on with us instead of being caught up mindlessly in our thoughts. Why is this a good thing? The most important reason is that being mindful allows us to truly be present in and enjoy the beautiful moments in life. It also helps us develop confidence in our ability to handle the not-so-pleasant ones. Through being present, we are able to turn off the autopilot, get out of our heads, and participate in what is going on around us. Granted, we may still spend lots of our time lost in thought, but practicing mindfulness can give us the choice to be aware when we are lost and to come back if we choose to.
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