Before you even start reading this, take a minute.
Assuming that you’re in a safe location – I hope you’re not trying to drive while you’re reading this – start by looking around. If you’re inside, have a look at the room around you. Notice all of the objects that might be nearby. Maybe there is a table. Maybe there is a plate of food, or a television, or a window. If you’re outside, maybe you can see a tree, or a pond, or a busy street. Wherever you are, take a few moments to really see the things around you. Don’t just look and catalogue. If you’re looking at the tree, really spend some attention on it. Look at the the shape, the size of the trunk. If there are leaves, look at their color and notice how many different shades there might be. If it is winter and the tree is bare, look at the way the branches bend and twist and point in different directions.
See if you can do it for three minutes. If you feel like you’ve noticed just about every detail of the tree, then find something else to focus on. But try to get all the way through three minutes.
One last instruction. If you find that your mind is racing and it’s hard to focus, take a deep breath, notice that your thoughts are coming fairly quickly, and see if you can push that thought aside to focus on the exercise. Don’t worry. You don’t fail or have to start over if you get distracted.
Are you back? How do you feel? What was it like to spend just a few minutes just noticing the things around you? Did you notice a few or a lot of thoughts vying for your attention? How easy was it to let those thoughts go and focus your attention again?
What you’ve just done is an exercise in being present. You focused your attention on the things around you, and make a conscious effort to stay focused even as other thoughts started to race through your head.
“What’s the big deal?” you might ask.
We live our lives at such a pace that staying present is difficult for us. We get distracted by cell phone dings and notifications while we are sitting around the dinner table with the loved ones we haven’t seen all day. We get caught up in trying to figure out how get that stain out of our favorite shirt while our kids are wanting to play. We stand in line at the coffee shop with our head buried in our phone and fail to notice that the sun just came out!
As it turns out, the practice of being present helps people with their emotional health. If you are able to simply be in a given moment, there is less chance for your brain to worry about the future or to regret experiences from the past. On an even deeper level, we know that a regular practice of being present (for example, doing an exercise like we described above once a day) contributes to a healthy brain. Parts of your brain that specialize in self-control and resiliency to difficult situations are strengthened and you’re better able to deal with stress when it arises.
Many religious traditions have known this for years – well before we had the science to back it up. Have you ever met a stressed-out monk?!? Their faith practice includes a regular practice of meditation; simply, being present. While being present doesn’t require any sort of faith to be effective, people of faith can look to their own traditions for ways to practice this for themselves.
There are many ways to practice being present. In the therapy world, we often use the word mindfulness as a synonym for that idea. If you search the web for “mindfulness practices” you’ll find an endless list of things you can try.
What would it look like to incorporate a practice like this into your own life? Try it, even just for a week, and let us know how it helps you!