section/mind/05-here-and-now section/mind/05-here-and-now

6 Here and now

Is there anything you can do to become more aware of the present moment? Of what’s going on right now, right here, right in front of you? And if not all the time, then at least more frequently, throughout your daily life? Can you, in fact, become more engaged with life itself, as it unfolds, rather than being a mere passenger on the train of thoughts that’s rushing through your mind all the time?

Of course, establishing a formal meditation practice helps a lot in this regard. As we already discussed, regularly exercising your ability to recognize what’s going on in the mind, and then to refocus your attention, has lots and lots of benefits. But that’s by far not everything: Because on the one hand, being “mindful” during formal meditation sessions is even kind of besides the point. As we said last time, what you’d actually want is to be “mindful” in real life, where it “matters.” And on the other hand, if you limit mindfulness training only to those short periods of time when you’re sitting in formal meditation practice, you’re also missing out on many interesting opportunities to deepen you practice.

So in this chapter, I’ll share with you my personal favorites of practical tips and tricks for creating small “moments of mindfulness,” throughout the day, which, hopefully, can fit into even the most busy schedule.

To me, this sense of being “in the here and now” for one single moment already makes a world of a difference. And mindful breathing, that is, just paying attention to the sensation of the breath, doesn’t take a lot of time and effort at all. I therefore suggest that you start with one small activity to use as a trigger to remind you to take one or two mindful breaths. For example, every time you open the door to your office: Just become aware of the next in-breath and the subsequent out-breath. Or every time you take a seat in your car. Or at your desk. Or whenever you walk by a certain building on your way to work. You don’t have to make a big deal out of this at all. In fact, nobody else ever needs to know that you’re doing it. But it can be your little mindfulness ritual that you silently practice many times a day.

Of course, this idea can easily be expanded to cover longer stretches of time and to include other activities besides breathing: Every morning, for example, while my first cup of coffee is brewing on the stove, I know I have about a minute-long “intermission.” Instead of checking my phone or daydreaming, I use that one minute to deliberately close my eyes, take a few breaths, and slowly become aware of how the rich smell of the coffee permeates the air around me. I’m sure you can identify many such moments in your life: While you’re waiting for the bus. When you’re standing in the elevator. While waiting for the traffic light to change. When standing in line at the supermarket check-out. Opportunities abound, you only have to look out for them!

And this brings me to the next tip: Because quite often, and particularly during that intermission while my coffee is brewing in the morning, something unexpected will happen: A car will honk its horn. A dog will bark. A bird will chirp. But instead of viewing these momentary disturbances as obstacles to your concentration, take them as reminders to come back to the present moment. Most of the time, you will have been lost in your own thoughts anyway. Remember the exercise with the bell, which we practiced in one of our previous chapters? Consider the birdsong, the car, or the dog’s barking in just the same way: As an impartial signal to take stock of where your attention currently is. And, maybe, as a chance to bring it back to the here and now.

You can also pick a single, short activity that you do regularly or often, and make a vow to yourself to give this one activity your fullest attention every time you do it. I, for one, frequently found myself walking out of my front door in the morning, when, after a couple of steps, a doubtful thought would arise in my mind: Had I, actually, shut the bathroom window after taking a shower? And was I sure of that? And, was I really, really sure, or should I go back and check? Well, as it turns out, I went back and checked quite a few times. But I had never once not shut that window. I had, however, always done this simple act in such a distracted state of mind that I had simply failed to acknowledge it. Therefore, I choose to perform this one little deed every morning with full attention: Grabbing the handle, pushing the window shut, and turning the handle, with complete and utter mindfulness. Not only can I now rest assured that the window will, in fact, have been closed afterwards. I’m also fully in the present moment during the act itself: I know whether the handle feels warm or cold to the touch, I’m aware of the sound that the sash and the window frame make as they connect, the presence or absence of a few drops of moisture on the glass… You get the point.

And once you have established one such mindful habit, there’s no reason not to extend this approach to other, more prolonged activities: For instance, why not make a commitment to a particular flight of stairs, one that you use frequently, to, from now on, always walk up or down those few steps in mindfulness? Tuning your awareness, just for a couple of moments, in to the raw sensations of walking: Lifting your leg, settling it down on the next step, feeling the grip of the sole of your shoe against the firm surface underneath, the tightening of the muscles in your thigh, the straightening of the knee, … etc.

If you already have a physical exercise routine, why not make that your mindfulness practice as well? For example, to counterbalance my long-distance running efforts, at one point I picked up the habit of doing a version of the immensely popular 7-Minute Workout almost every day. After a while, once the individual exercises had become familiar, I thought it smart to make “better use of that time” and listen to podcasts or audiobooks while training. But it turned out that these external distractions subverted my awareness, so that I would only halfheartedly perform the actual exercises! I then made a promise to myself that if I wanted to workout, then I’d better do it properly, giving every push-up, every squat, each and every contraction of every muscle, all the tiny movements, my fullest attention. That way, I actually do the exercises in a much more effective way. And I’m also practicing mindfulness—at the same time!

Of course, you don’t have to limit this idea to just physical movements. Quite the contrary: Try to experiment with paying mindful attention to more complex sensations. It can be a wonderful experience, for instance, to eat with complete mindfulness. How often do we just wolf down much of our food while doing other things, or thinking of other things, and not paying any attention to the complex tastes and smells, the shifting consistencies and textures, the emotions and feelings that arise in the mind as the taste buds process various flavors, …? And, as is an increasing problem for many people these days, thus stumbling mindlessly into unhealthy eating patterns? Conversely, try to eat one small thing, say, an apple, or a piece of chocolate, and giving it your full attention. You’ll notice that there’s a world of a difference between this, and mindless gorging. Again, you can establish a helpful habit here: Why not always eating your desert, or drinking the first sip of coffee in the morning, mindfully? Finally, if you want to dig deeper into this topic, I highly suggest the book “Savor every bite” by the psychologist Lynn Rossy, which explores the world of mindful eating in much more detail.

But let me close for today with a word of caution: Keep in mind, that the most important thing is not to “getting it right” all of the time. Being “in the here and now” all the time is, simply, impossible. Therefore, don’t become frustrated if you feel like you’re getting distracted too often, or that you’re not diligent enough. The most important thing, be that during formal meditation sessions or in real life, is to try, again and again, to come back to the present moment. And to not judge—or even scold—yourself for having become lost in thought.