By Jenn Sturiale
"Oh -- I'm sorry, what did you say?"
It happens to the best of us while engaged in a conversation (even an interesting one): We suddenly snap back to the present, then realize we have no idea what was just said. Our mind wandered away and went... where? Most likely it skipped off to the past or the future. It doesn't just happen during conversations. While watching a movie, we'll start compiling a mental grocery list. Or while walking the dog, we'll replay a conversation we had with our boss.
During a recent talk with a friend, I actually caught my mind at the moment it started to wander. It was fascinating! I watched it ramble around: from the breakfast meeting I had just come from to the multiple phone calls that needed returning. Then, without my friend even noticing I had left, my mind snapped back to our conversation. Why is it so hard to stay in the now?
"Neuroscience is showing that our minds wander 46.7 percent of the time," says Allan Goldstein, managing director at the University of California, San Diego Center for Mindfulness. "That's the default mode our minds go to, and rightly so: Part of being able to survive is being on the lookout."
"For example, if you're walking through the jungle and you pass a rock, you have to look behind the rock to see if there's a tiger there," Goldstein explains. "If you walk past that rock a thousand times, you have to look a thousand times -- because the one time you don't, you might end up being lunch."
Evolution aside, if you think modern technology is making it even more difficult to stay present, you might be right. "My opinion is we're training ourselves to live in this state of continuous partial attention," says Goldstein. "We're constantly moving from one focus to another, as a result of our technology these days. We're constantly on the lookout for the vibration of our cellphone or the notification of a new email."
But there's hope for even the most scattered among us: By training ourselves to become mindful of the present moment, we can learn to stay aware of what's happening. Mindfulness (or "mindfulness meditation"), involves bringing ourselves, with awareness, into the present moment -- in every moment. Though mindfulness has roots in Buddhist philosophies, it's often approached in a secular way. Research suggests that mindfulness practices are useful in the treatment of pain, stress, anxiety, depressive relapse, disordered eating and addiction, and have many other health and wellness benefits.
Is it easy? Nope.
"This stuff is hard," says Goldstein. "As a matter of fact, it might be the hardest work on the planet, according to mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn. So how do you develop the ability to do any of this? That comes out of mindfulness meditation practice."
Not totally convinced about the benefits of trying to be in the now? Maybe some of these excuses will sound familiar:
But... there are so many distractions! It's true, there really are. However, when we learn to be more mindful, the distractions become fewer. This doesn't mean we'll become less busy, but we will become more focused and productive.
But... I have absolutely no idea how to actually stay in the present moment. No problem! Most of us don't. "You can always use your breath as an anchor," Goldstein suggests. "When you notice you've wandered away, come back to the breath as a focus of intention; this is precisely what we use in [mindfulness-based] meditation."
But... how do I stay in the present and plan for the future? As Goldstein points out, "If you find yourself doing the dishes, and at that point you're not focusing on the soap bubbles or the water hitting your hand and your mind is wandering off to your next vacation, you're not effectively planning the vacation or doing the dishes." In other words, engaging mindfully with a future task keeps us rooted in the present.
But... I'm swamped with tests and papers (or reports and evaluations), and preparing for them means being in the past and future. Interestingly, mindfulness training significantly improves test-taking performance and working memory capacity, according to a study from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
But... I don't have time to attend a meditation class or go on a retreat to learn mindfulness. Good news! You don't need to go anywhere to start becoming more mindful -- there are many good audio guides, videos and online courses out there that will help you learn. For even more options, check out these informational links: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Vipassana Meditation, Insight Meditation and Transcendental Meditation.
But... the present is so uncertain! "People believe themselves to be dependent on what happens for their happiness," writes Eckhart Tolle in his book "Oneness with All Life." "They don't realize that what happens is the most unstable thing in the universe. It changes constantly.... They look upon the present moment as either marred by something that has happened and shouldn't have or as deficient because of something that has not happened but should have. Accept the present moment and find the perfection that is untouched by time."