How to Accept the Present Moment
You may have been hearing a lot about mindfulness in conjunction with greater physical and mental health in the past few years. In this busy culture, it can be hard to focus on just being here now. Therefore, you may be wondering how to stay present in the moment. Allow me to explain the basic points of mindfulness and simple practices to increase your awareness of the present moment. This way you can reap the benefits of this simple yet powerful approach to wellness.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is defined as being consciously aware of something. It also means being aware of the present moment and everything that is going on in that moment, without placing judgment on what is occurring. The non-judgmental attitude is crucial for improvement of mental well-being. Many of us are aware of what’s going on and still get easily affected by it. But the tricky part is not attaching our own meaning and evaluation of what is happening here and now. The more we train ourselves to experience and encounter what is occurring in the present moment, without judgment, the more we get what’s called “veridical perception.”
Veridical perception means the true perception of things as they are. This is important because many of us, especially when we suffer from depression or anxiety, impose cognitive distortions on reality. This is a fancy way of saying that we put our own negative spin on events in the present, past and future. Some say that it is this imposition of distorted perception on reality that causes suffering. But I know that there are times when bad things just happen, and you can’t change the fact that these occurrences hurt us. Ultimately, we cannot change what happens around us, but we do have control over what happens within us.
How is Mindfulness Beneficial to Mental Health?
Mental illnesses prevent us from being present in the moment in a peaceful, productive way. So often our attention wanders away from the present moment and goes off into the future or the past. For instance, many anxious people I work with have very active imaginations that create horrifying visions in their minds of what the future holds, especially when they engage in catastrophic thinking or fortune-telling (both are cognitive distortions).
People with depression sometimes tend to have a negative perception of the past. They can also become stuck on a loss or transition that was not successfully processed or completed. They may have unresolved grief about a lost loved one, childhood maltreatment, regrets, remorse, or other events that guide their attention to the past.
In people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other conditions related to trauma, their traumatic experiences of the past haunt them through intrusive images, flashbacks, and other re-living of the trauma. They often feel out of control and swing between the intrusion of the past and frantic attempts to avoid things that remind them of the past. In all these conditions, presence is a painful prospect because of the perceptions that the illness brings.
There are three types of empirically validated therapy that help with depression: Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction; Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy; and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Mindfulness has been found in one study to be as effective as antidepressants for treatment of depression. Through awareness of thinking patterns, the participants in the study were able to change to more reasonable thinking patterns and reduce rumination, or repetitive negative thinking about the same thing.
Other Mental Health Conditions that Benefit from Mindfulness
Mindful approaches have also been applied to eating disorders, anxiety, and psychosomatic conditions, as well as physical illnesses like heart disease and pain. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy has been developed to help people with suicidal gestures, self-harm, and Borderline Personality Disorder. I find it helpful with people who have complex PTSD as well. Some research has been done on the effectiveness of yoga to help with chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, mindfulness helps us “stop taking the universe so personally,” which helps us avoid one the three P’s of depression: Personalization, Pervasiveness, and Permanence. Meditation helps change the brain in many positive ways as well. The connections between the brain that are centered on self-awareness (ventromedial prefrontal cortex) and the parts that alert us to danger (amygdala) and our body sensations (insula) start to get weaker the more we meditate. This leads to less assumption that momentary fears or body sensations signal that something is wrong with us.
This is especially important for anxiety. I see many people with Panic Disorder interpret their body sensations in very threatening ways. We are also able to look at body sensations more rationally instead of treating them as threatening, because of strengthened connections with the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex.
Additionally, the lateral prefrontal cortex of the brain is strengthened by meditation and helps us to see what happens around us and within us more rationally and logically. Strengthening this part of the brain also helps us modulate emotional responses better, override automatic behaviors, and reduces our tendency to personalize things. The less we become centered on self-awareness in an unhealthy way and the more we increase dorsomedial prefrontal cortical activity, the more empathy we have for other people. We are better able to infer others’ emotions because of this.
There are many ways to access mindfulness. Any practice that guides your awareness to what you’re doing right now seems to be beneficial and to cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness meditation is the go-to method for most people, but many complain that they can’t empty their minds. They become impatient with the process and think there must be something wrong with them or the process of mindfulness meditation. However, they miss the point of the whole process. As mentioned before, the idea is to observe your thoughts, feelings and internal experiences without judging them, attaching to them, or pushing them away. Regular practice is necessary to build and maintain the benefits of mindfulness.
Mindfulness meditation is the most common way to access mindfulness, but there are also forms of meditation and moving forms of meditation. For example, Tai Chi Ch’uan and Qi Gong are slow, deliberate movements that improve well-being and focus our awareness on our movements. Yoga also helps people remove stress, bring our attention to the present moment, and center ourselves. Having a focal point helps us keep from getting distracted by other thoughts, feelings and body sensations.
Hocus Pocus Focus
Traditionally, being aware of the breath going in and out brings this focus, but it can also be a word, an image, or a phrase. Whatever approach you use, it is helpful to get training from a skilled practitioner until you feel like you can do it on your own. But you can start anywhere, anytime just by taking three mindful breaths. Follow your breath from start to finish with your awareness.
If you want to follow the example set in Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, you can add the thought, “I am breathing in” on the in-breath and “I am exhaling” on the out-breath. You can extend the breath as you get used to breathing from the belly, or abdomen. The deep, slow exhalations have a number of benefits, including improving energy level, reducing stress, aiding digestion, reducing inflammation by making the body more alkaline than acidic, reducing impulsivity, improving the immune system, changing emotional states to more positive, optimistic ones, and detoxifying the body.
If you are struggling to be present in the moment, I encourage you to make a greater effort to be mindful of thoughts, feelings and behaviors in whatever way is healthiest and best for you. Should you need help with this, please call me at 661-233-6771.
 Segal, Z., et al. (2010). Antidepressant Monotherapy vs Sequential Pharmacotherapy and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, or Placebo, for relapse Prophylaxis in Recurrent Depression. Archives of General Psychiatry. December 2010, Vol. 77 (12), 1256-1264  Rhodes, Spinazzola, and van der Kolk (2014). Yoga for Adult Women with Chronic PTSD: A Long-Term Follow-up Study, Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine, 22(3), 189-196