Sometimes it feels like my own life is passing me by. I get so caught up in my To-Do List and anxiety about getting things done, that I forget to focus on actually living. To paraphrase Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, when you die, your inbox won’t be empty, and your To-Do List won’t be done. There will still be dirty dishes and unfinished laundry.
Buddhist monks often meditate on death. I admit that's not one of my favorite meditations to do. But the reason they do it is as a reminder of the importance of the present. If I'm spending my time trying to avoid or minimize anxiety, I'm really missing the life in front of me. Instead, we want to learn to focus on whatever is important or meaningful, right here, right now.
How do you live in the present?
You’ve probably heard of “mindfulness,” but what exactly is it? There are a number of definitions, but I like this one: intentionally engaging in the life that’s happening around you in a meaningful way. Mindfulness is a practice of purposefully connecting to the present… over and over again. In order to connect to the present, you can use your five senses or whatever is meaningful about what is happening right now.
How is meditation different from mindfulness?
Meditation is how you train your brain to focus on the present. “Formal meditation” refers to sitting somewhere quiet with your eyes closed for several minutes. In formal meditation, you choose an anchor to the present. The anchor might be your breath, one of your 5 senses, or a mantra that represents something meaningful to you. Every time your mind wanders, which it will over and over again, your job is to simply notice the mind has wandered, let go of the thought, and return your attention to your anchor. Formal meditation is practice in becoming the observer of your thoughts, letting go of those thoughts, and reconnecting with the present, over and over and over again. With practice in formal meditation, it becomes easier to come out of your mind and focus on the present in everyday life, no matter what you’re doing.
Informal Meditation: How to practice mindfulness in everyday life
“Informal meditation” is the same practice as formal meditation, except it can be done any time, anywhere as you go about your day. I suggest you try formal meditation first here “Letting Go of Thoughts” and then give Informal Meditation a try using the following steps:
Choose an anchor to the present, for example:
Your breath. The breath is a common anchor because it’s always here, and it’s always available to you as a connection to the present moment.
Your 5 senses. You can focus on what you can see around you, sounds you can hear, the feel of the air on your skin, etc. I like to use sounds as an anchor. (For practice, try my sounds meditation here.)
Whatever is important or meaningful to you about what is happening now. What do you want this time to be about? For example, at work you may choose to focus on how you can benefit others. At home, you may choose to focus on enjoying time with friends or loved ones.
Once you have chosen your anchor, your job is just to come back to it over and over again. Whenever you notice yourself lost in thought, simply acknowledge, “This is a just a thought. I don’t have to keep following this thought like I normally would,” and return your attention to your anchor (e.g. your breath, sounds, sights, or what is meaningful to you right now).
Repeat the process of intentionally focusing on your anchor, noticing when your mind has wandered, and coming back to your anchor, over and over and over again. As you practice paying attention to the present and what is happening around you, try intentionally bringing an attitude of curiosity, openness, and compassion toward yourself and others.
Practice Living in the Present Today
You can start by practicing for just 5 minutes a day. It’s normal for it to feel frustrating at first. The more you practice, the easier it becomes to be more present in your own life. Below are some suggestions for trying Informal Meditation. Each activity has a suggested anchor to the present for you to practice with.
Going for a walk outside: Focus on sounds, what you can see, the air on your skin, the feel of your feet hitting the ground.
Doing the dishes: Focus on the smell, the feel of warm water on your hands.
Eating or drinking: Notice the look, smell, taste, texture of the food and appreciate each bite.
Standing in line or waiting: rather than automatically pulling out your phone, notice the time you have to just breathe. Try using compassion as an anchor. Compassion is a wish for someone else to be happy. Silently send compassion to those around you, “May you be happy. May you be free from suffering.”
Working: Notice what is meaningful to you about answering those work emails. Appreciate how you can benefit others in small tasks.
Spending time with friends or family: Set an intention to be present and enjoy your time together.
Practice my Intention Meditation for living with purpose.