Present Moment Awareness

We act in the moment with all our hearts because we are learning that that is all there is.  We are finding that the only result worth achieving is being here now.  All other positive outcomes are by-products of our present moment awareness.  ~ Rolf Gates

Although staying present may seem like a relatively simple concept, it’s anything but simple in application.  Our minds are constantly thinking, narrating our lives.  Sometimes this can be helpful, but all too often this narration is negative; our minds project themselves into the future, anticipating events turning out badly.  We experience regretful thoughts for past events, and the whole time we’re missing out on the life that’s right in front of us. 

As an experiment, attempt to sit for five minutes and watch your thoughts.  Really pay attention to them and notice what things your brain chooses to think about.  Chances are good that most of your thoughts are about things that aren’t currently happening.  Watch how you will think a particular thought, and your brain circles round and round it, thinking things that aren’t even reality.  This is especially prevalent when we experience suffering.  We tend to torment ourselves mentally, when we were meant to experience the unpleasant circumstance only as it is actually happening. 

Practicing yoga provides us an excellent opportunity to notice how often our minds are somewhere other than the present moment.  Yoga encourages us to focus on our breath and our bodies.  Our bodies are amazing teachers; unlike the mind, the body will not deceive us.  Yoga uses the simple clarity of the body as a means to bring the mind into presence.

What exactly does it mean to be in the present moment?  The Sanskrit word “samadhi” describes the present moment state; we’ve all experienced this at some point in our lives, whether it be when we’re playing with our children and all of a sudden notice we’re having fun, or gazing at a breathtaking sunset over the ocean and we notice our minds have gone blissfully blank. 

Essentially, the present moment is when we aren’t thinking of a memory from the past or anticipating a future event.  It’s when we observe our thoughts and our breath without judgement or expectation. 

It’s when we accept what is and what inevitably will come and understand that both pain and pleasure have their purpose.  When we practice yoga, we attempt to align our breath with our movements, and this focused attention leaves little room for other thoughts. As a result, our thoughts are in the here and now almost by default; over time and with consistent practice, this space will become easier to access during daily life.

Let’s say you run meetings at your job, and during a particular meeting someone makes a rude comment directed at you and you feel hurt and embarrassed.  The rude comment probably lasted three seconds, but your rumination about it can go on endlessly.  This is the way humans torture themselves.  As Eckhart Tolle so eloquently put it, “Our suffering is largely due to our imagined relationship to the past or future.”  You might think about that rude comment days, weeks, even months later and when you do, you experience the same mental and physical reactions you had when the comment was originally made.  

So if negative mind-wandering is the problem and staying in the present moment is the solution, how do we do that?  Science has made great strides in studying the brain, and it’s now generally believed that the Default Mode Network is responsible for self-talk, mind-wandering, and rumination.  The DMN is a group of brain regions that are active when we’re not focused on any particular task; if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice the DMN quiet down as soon as you start to focus on something, like a project or work or parenting.  The key is to reduce activity in the DMN, resulting in mental clarity.  

Meditation, yoga, and dialectal behavioral therapy are all ways we can train our brain to quiet down.  Results come slowly, but they can be lasting and effective.  In meditation, we direct our attention back to our breath whenever we notice our minds have wandered.  This same concept can be used as part of our daily routine; when we notice ourselves feeling anxious, irritable, or just unhappy in general, we can stop and observe our thoughts.  

I’ve found that the best solution is to do with my brain what I do with my toddler when he wants to do something he shouldn’t:  Distraction, distraction, distraction.  If our brains are focused on an activity, we’re less likely to be focused on our “imagined relationship to the past or future”.  It’s much better to do some mundane task and focus on it than to sit in rumination, our thoughts swirling around like a tornado. 

My personal go-to’s are doing things around my house.  I thrive off organization and preparation, so when I notice that my brain has taken me to somewhere that isn’t the present moment, its often helpful to clean the house, do the laundry, or anything else that helps me feel prepared and productive.  If I’m feeling extra motivated, I’ll do things that I know for SURE will help me stay in the present moment, such as yoga or meditation.

There are other things that can keep our DMN quiet while the rest of the brain does its thing, like listening to or playing music, exercise, or reading.  These are all healthy alternatives to getting lost in endless and pointless thought streams that take us away from the here and now.  

The mental clarity that being present brings allows us to see things from a calmer perspective, and therefore make better decisions.  When we’re free from mental distractions, we’re able to sort out what is important and what is not, what we should worry about and what can be left for another day.  Rolf Gate’s quote suggests that seeking present moment awareness is something we should strive for, that it is a result worth achieving, and positive outcomes flow from this awareness. 

At Inspiring Actions Yoga Studio, we have many opportunities to practice being in the present moment.  Join us online or at either of our two studio locations in River Falls and Hudson, Wisconsin for a gentle detox flow, a beginner class, or a calming candlelight flow.  If you are new to yoga, check out how to get a discounted rate for our Yoga 101 Introductory Series. Come back to the present moment with us!

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