Sounds complex, but meditation is like peripheral vision: Focusing not on what’s before you, but what’s alongside your daily activity.
It’s a practice that’s embedded in cultures from India, to Indigenous America. It’s integral to devout practitioners of Buddhism, most religions, yoga, and martial arts worldwide and has been for thousands of years.
As technology fast-tracks communication, actions, and reactions into warp speed, those in the mental health space and the greater public are resurfacing the need to pause, slow things down, and do what technology can’t do: return to the senses as a source of grounding and recalibration. This includes the practice of present moment awareness.
Present moment awareness is simply a stillness in thought, and external stimuli, to fully observe the here and now.
Tasks, emotions, and ruminations are all not invited to this party of one. It’s a skill of shifting your focus from the to-dos and all the feels to lesser used senses of what you see before you or touch for utilitarian purposes.
The authors observed that to enhance the benefit for the brain, emotions, stress, and health — getting closer to the monitored experience and accepting it — steers people away from negative emotional responses to stimuli.
During a recent Healthline Media Town Hall event, several celebrities explained their approaches to mindfulness and to meditation as a tool for it. Singer-songwriter, producer, actress, author, and poet Jewel prefers to refer to it as “conscious presence.”
What it’s not
It’s not flighty.
Living in “the NOW” as it’s called in Eckhart Tolle’s famed book “The Power of NOW: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment,” is not impulsivity (acting on the moment).
It’s not entirely self-serving, in an external sense.
And it’s not hedonism (acting on whatever feels pleasurable or brings happiness). Present moment awareness isn’t something you do or don’t do. Rather, it’s how you observe your inner self at any given moment in time.
Tolle explains in his book that when you’re focusing on “the NOW” you have peace because in that split second, if you’re thinking, you’re breathing. If you’re breathing, you’re alive and therefore have one thing to be grateful for. Even if you face financial crises or relationship hardships, each moment you inhale and exhale is proof that your immediate need is being met.
It’s not willfully ignorant.
Tolle elaborates that focusing on the present is not “throwing caution to the wind” or ignoring everyday responsibilities. It’s taking purposeful moments to leave the past where it is and give no thought to the future until it’s in front of you. Part of mindfulness is recognizing an emotion and where it is on a timeline.
Present moment awareness in this sense is sitting with calm. Devoting each moment to your senses, giving them your full attention.
|Emotion||The past||The present||The future|
What are the benefits
- Reduces stress and anxiety.
- Enhances coping to stressful events both in the same day and in subsequent days.
- Improves blood pressure and overall cardiovascular health.
relationship conflict resolution.
- Improves awareness in students with learning disabilities, including ADHD. In one study, students reported a reduction in hyperactivity and inattention symptoms.
- Can be a
help-meet in treatment for bipolar disorder symptomsand with other mental health disorders.
- Can help mitigate the negative effects of traumatic events and upcoming triggers.
Is it the same as mindfulness meditation?
Present moment awareness and mindfulness are both defined similarly: a state of awareness that surfaces when paying attention intentionally, objectively, and presently.
You can practice mindfulness while you work, play with your kids, or be intimate with a partner. Present moment awareness is a focal point within mindfulness meditation, you could say.
Mindfulness meditation is more an exercise doubling down on the state of being present.
To delve even deeper, a relaxation response (RR) is a physiological state of turning off the fast-paced, reactive, fight-or-flight response most of us live in, and engaging the body’s parasympathetic nervous system. While mindfulness accepts the present moment’s internal activity, folks can
Mindfulness meditation can be introduced in your day, for example, to better transition to relaxation strategies to help you get to sleep, or soothe nerves in a panic attack or traumatic event.
In the Healthline Town hall, many of the celebrities who spoke on mindfulness agreed that the aim of present moment awareness is to set aside “the noise”: your feelings, your triggers, your mercurial thoughts. The objective is being aware of your senses as a point of grounding.
Thoughts will come and go. But becoming “The Observer,” as Tolle says, and watching those thoughts come and go, is what takes you out of the rat race of being driven by external stimuli and internal turmoil.
Begin by finding a quiet space, free from familiar loved ones or acquaintances, where you can tune out. You don’t have to be on a yoga mat, and it doesn’t have to be indoors.
Sit or recline in a position that is comfortable and promotes relaxation. For some, the yogi so-called Easy Pose (Sukhasana) is not easy at all, and its modified version, Seated Staff Pose (Dandasana), might also have you feeling restricted! Other neutral positions include:
- Sitting in a chair with your feet flat.
- Sitting on the floor in a criss-cross-applesauce position from your elementary years.
- The modified inversion of lying down with your back flat on the floor, in the ole’ Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose, (Viparita Karani) takes minimal effort and has added health benefits.
- Lying completely flat in what yogis call Corpse Pose (Shavasana).
As far as the ambience, whatever relaxed means for you, go ahead and set it up. For some, that might be an essential oil diffuser. For others, dim or natural light only, instead of the energy-efficient fluorescents in the office or at home works well.
Motivational speaker, business coach, and TV personality Bershan Shaw describes how her mindfulness routine includes candles. She describes how in her world full of stimuli and extending herself to others, this is her daily hour to get still and “do the work” of introspection.
Shifting from thinking to sensing
Allow your eyes to close and begin to dial in to ambient sounds, sensations like your heartbeat, your breathing, or the breeze of a fan on your skin. This might be the opportune time to do a body scan — take your present moment awareness to any pain or tension in your body and take your inhale to that area.
You can conceptualize awareness as turning from an active participant to a casual observer. Think of the outer-body moments in the movie, where the character is looking down on their own body. Yeah, that’s not it, but awareness does involve observing your sensations and movements without passing judgment.
There are several types of deep breathing you can choose from to maintain this calm state as you zero in on the present.
In his book “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art,” James Nestor includes five breathing variations that calm, activate the parasympathetic nervous system, and trigger relaxation (among other techniques which serve different purposes).
Helpful breathing techniques for meditation include:
- Ujjayi breathing
- the calming version of Tummo
- yogic breathing
- box breathing
- 4-7-8 breathing
We’re human. Free will and thought are what differentiates us from other primates. It’s only natural that you’ll have thoughts float to the surface that, if given attention, can take you out of the present moment.
Dan Harris, co-anchor of “ABC News Nightline” and the weekend editions of “Good Morning America” learned to meditate along with other grounding techniques, after having a panic attack on live television years ago. Harris, the author of “10% Happier,” says that awareness of things that might try to steal your focus is an indicator you’re meditating correctly.
Study authors conclude that perhaps finding a space with a more positive social connection may ease your practice of present moment awareness.
You have the clinically researched methods, plus personal strategies of celebs who are managing mental health just like you are. All that’s left to do is, as chefs would say, “season to taste.”
Customizing your meditation with candles like Bershan or practicing a method of breathing that works for you, as Nestor explains, are both ways you can tailor meditation to fit you.
You might want to scope out what spaces in your home might be prime for some quiet time. It could be your bedroom, garage, car, bathroom, or closet depending on your place and the ability to briefly get respite from people you may live with.
The important thing is that you establish a routine for grounding yourself and returning to breath. Try not to worry about tomorrow; each day has enough of its own.
No matter the surrounding drama, or the mental health condition you might manage, you can get back to your senses and your peace at a moment’s notice, with a deep inhale and a shuttering close of the eyelids.