How can I stop living in the past, but live in the present? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.
There's a specific mental discipline that trains you to do this. It's called Mindfulness Meditation. It's an ancient tradition, but it's recently been the subject of many scientific studies. (See
It won't completely stop you from dwelling on the past (or worrying about the future), but it can train your brain to dwell less often and to recover from dwelling more quickly when it happens.
The downside is that it's not a fast or easy process. It's training and you have to stick with it (every day!) if you want to improve, and, when you do it every day, your improvement will probably be gradual. For me, it took four months to notice any change at all, and, though I'm making steady progress, it's slow and steady. There's never a dramatic day when I make a great leap of progress.
While it's hard to master, the steps are very simple:
- Set a timer for five or ten minutes. (Gradually, over many weeks, increase the time. I now meditate for 20 minutes a day.)
- Sit comfortably with your back upright but not overly tense.
- Close your eyes.
- Focus on your breathing*.
- When you notice your mind has wandered, gently return your focus to your breathing.
That's it. That's the entire technique.
Why focus on the breath? Because it's present. It's something that is undeniably going on right now. It's not a memory; it's not something you're imagining; it's not a worry, hope, or question about the future.
When you first start meditating, you may find that your mind wanders away from your breath constantly--every couple of seconds. That's normal. It may take you a few months to be able to focus on your breathing for longer. Which can be frustrating.
Its important to remember that frustration is just another thing that's not your breathing. When you realize you're frustrated, acknowledge it, and then gently return your focus to your breathing.
For those of us raised on games, grades, and competitions, it's hard to avoid thinking that the goal of meditation is to focus on our breathing for as long as possible. We feel like we lose points each time our mind wanders. We feel successful if we can focus on our breathing for a long time. Achievement unlocked!
But that's not the goal. The goal of meditation is to notice when your mind has wandered and steer it back, and you can't notice if it doesn't happen. Wandering is good.
It's those points of transition, when you notice the wandering, when you really learn. If you somehow have an entire session without your mind ever wandering, you won't learn anything from it. A meditation session like that is like doing a weightlifting set with no resistance. No resistance equals no muscle building.
Meditation won't necessarily feel calming. Sometimes, for me, it's quite a workout. The process of focusing for so long--and the process of continually refocusing after the mind has wandered--can be exhausting. Meditation is a discipline. Disciplines are never easy.
It's much easier to learn to meditate when you have a coach. In most cities, you can find various classes. (Look for ones specifically on Mindfulness Meditation: there are lots of different types of meditation, not all of which will meet your needs.) There are also great apps**, such as 10% Happier (my favorite) and Headspace (the most popular one). And there are lots of books, articles, and blog posts.
I urge you to use multiple sources. A tricky thing about teaching meditation is that you're trying to describe something mental--something that can't be accurately put into words. So you're forced to use metaphors. And metaphors that might make sense to one person will be confusing to another.
Here's an example: coaches kept telling me that when I realized I was having a thought, I should "let it go." That made no sense to me. I didn't understand what "letting a thought go" entailed. I still don't.
Obviously, it's a metaphor. Thoughts aren't physical objects like chickens. They can't literally be released. My coaches were trying to convey an idea that they hoped I'd be able to map onto an abstract process. But I couldn't.
Then one coach used slightly different wording: "When you have a thought, acknowledge it and move your focus back to your breathing." That made sense to me. That I could do. It's just as much a metaphor. You can't literally move focus. It's not an object that can be pushed. But the metaphor works for me. For someone else, "let it go" will work better.
It's useful to hear explanations from multiple people, because, here and there, individual coaches will use words that click in your brain.
* Focus on whatever aspect of your breathing is easiest for you to feel. Some people use the feeling of air passing in and out of their nostrils. I have trouble feeling that, so I use my stomach moving up and down.
I count on each exhale. And ... one ... and ... two ... and ... three ... and ... four ... The "ands" are inhales. When I get to ten, I start over at one. Some people don't like counting. That's fine. You can also just notice your breathing.
Make sure your'e actually focusing on your breath--on the physical feeling of the air entering and leaving your body. Or the physical feeling of your stomach or chest rising and falling. Sometimes I realize that instead of doing that, I've been focusing on counting or the word "breath ... breath ... breath ..." That's not the same thing. Words and counting are ideas. They're not things that are happening in the present.
It's okay when that happens. It's just another form of the mind wandering. When I realize I've been doing it, I gently re-focus my attention on the physical sensation.
Some people don't like (or have trouble) focusing on their breathing. There are alternatives, such as touch points: locate three areas where parts of your body are making contact with other body parts or with objects.
For instance, you could use your feet touching the floor, your back touching the chair, and your hands clasped together--touching each other. Cycle your focus between these three things: feet ... back ... hands ... feet ... back ... hands.
** I also use a (free) app called Insight Timer. When I used to use a kitchen timer, I'd get anxious that it was somehow broken and wouldn't ever ring. I worried I'd be sitting there with my eyes closed, forever, and that made want to cheat, open my eyes, and check the clock.
Insight Timer lets you set an alarm and to also hear quiet chimes at regular intervals--I have mine set to chime every four minutes--so you know it's still running.
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