By Dr. Mark Minear, Psychologist at the Des Moines Pastoral Counseling Center
“We never keep to the present… We anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think of the only one that does; so vain that we dream of times that are not and blindly flee the only one that is.” (Blaise Pascal, Pensees, 1659)
I know that it may sound simplistic, even trite, to suggest the importance of living in the present moment—but it is true. The regrets of the past and the fears of the future are the primary culprits that take us from the gift of the present. And—if you will allow me a little oversimplification, regrets and living in the past fuel depression and fears and living in the future fuel anxiety. So… it does make intuitive sense that inhabiting the present moment is of great value to our wellbeing. The challenge, which most of us don’t readily appreciate, is that if you want to improve your ability to attend to the here and now—then you will need to practice!
Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests that “mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” You can understand, then, how meditation is simply an optimal way to practice—paying attention with intention and lovingkindness to one’s breath, one’s thoughts, one’s body, sounds in the environment, a candle or a sunset, the taste of blueberries, the aroma of fresh baked bread, etc.… you get the idea.
It would be wise to take some time each day in a formal way—five to ten minutes is a good start (research has shown that consistency is more effective than lengthy times if they are sporadic); however, you can then augment your practice when you have a few minutes waiting for someone, two to three minutes at work for a mini-break, turning off the television and staying in your chair, etc…. you get the idea.
When you practice, you are more likely to know when you are not in the present moment so that you can gently return to the present moment—even under stressful conditions (when we are conditioned to return to the past or tempted to reach for the future). So… in closing, here are a few nuggets to consider:
- Be gentle with yourself: nonjudgmental = self-compassion.
- When you catch yourself straining, know that you are not on the path of mindfulness.
- Accept the things you cannot control, including your thoughts—but remember you can make choices (including the observation of and the response to your thoughts).
- Explore the resources on mindfulness—great books, websites, YouTube, etc.
- Experiment with your practice—investigate with curiosity for what is beneficial.
- Integrate mindfulness meditation into your current spiritual practices.
- Be grateful—always a way to be “in the moment”; consider developing a daily gratitude journal.
Two closing quotations:
“The best spiritual advice is the simplest—pay attention.” (Alexander Green)
“You must live in the present, launch yourself on very wave, find your eternity in each moment.” (Thoreau)
In 2016 Dr. Mark Minear walked across the state of Iowa to raise awareness for men’s mental health. View his photo gallery and read his travel blog here.