Present Moment Awareness
The best investment you can make in your overall wellnessBy Jeff Shannon | Jul 2, 2015
We make investments in our health and happiness all the time. Every one of these investments comes at a cost and offers a reward. We believe we’ll be happier if we buy a newer home or spend a few weeks in Tahiti. We’ll be healthier if we get a calorie-counting phone app or sign up for a new class at the gym. The cost-reward ratio is in play for all of these decisions. We ask ourselves, “Is it worth it?” “How much money and time do I need to put into this, and what will I get from it?”
Of course short-term benefit often comes with long-term costs, and that’s where these decisions get tricky. But there’s one investment in your health and happiness that, as far as I can tell, has no cost.
The single best investment we can make into our health and happiness is developing present moment awareness (PMA). That’s because the only cost to you is five minutes out of your day. Yet, the benefits of developing PMA include (but are not limited to) less anxiety/depression, better concentration, increased immune functioning, better sleep, better pain tolerance and more feelings of calm and serenity.
It also makes us better cops because those with a high degree of PMA tend to be experts at responding versus reacting to difficult people. When we start reacting to the fellow in front of us, we lose control of ourself and the situation we’ve found ourself in.
What It Is
OK—so what’s this PMA stuff?
An example of present moment awareness is when you get home late at night from work super hungry, and you find your favorite meal waiting for you. Alone at the dinner table, all your thoughts and bodily sensations turn to this amazing food in front of you. You savor every bite. You’re completely present in the moment with your food.
Unfortunately, we humans spend much of our time thinking about bad things that have already happened and/or bad things that we’re convinced are going to happen. Stewing about the past or fretting about the future can make us sick, miserable people. When we lay in bed at night worrying about our property taxes, we release the same stress hormones that other animals reserve only for fighting or fleeing for their lives. Chronically high levels of cortisol in our blood equal an alphabet soup of disease and disorder. So, what we need is to get out of the past and future. PMA offers us a glorious vacation from our own crazy-making thoughts.
With just a little practice, we can be in the present moment throughout much of our day. In the beginning, however, we need to set aside time to be in the present moment. This practice time gives us a sense of what it feels like, and starts training our brain.
How to practice PMA for five minutes a day.
- Find a physical space reasonably free of distractions (e.g., computers, phones, televisions, people). A quiet office with the door shut is a good example.
- Sit on a chair or on the ground in such a position that your spine is fairly straight. Your feet should be flat on the floor, with your hands in your lap or resting on your thighs. If you have back issues, lying on the floor is fine too.
- Whip out your smartphone and set an alarm for five minutes.
- Hit “START.”
- Begin breathing with your belly (i.e., diaphragm). If you can see your belly moving in and out, you’ve got it. Just don’t breathe with your upper chest.
- Begin directing your attention to your breath. To ground your thoughts in the present moment, on the in breath, say to yourself, “In,” and on the out breath, “Out.” (Alternatively, some folks use inspirational words such as “peace,” “love,” or “quiet.” You can also invoke your word on only the in or only the out breath, instead of both.)
It sounds easy but getting to this point is really the hardest part—making the time and the space and the commitment to be there. Great work!
Once your seated in that quiet place, what will inevitably happen is that you will find your mind leaving the present moment and darting toward the only thing it really knows: past or future thoughts. You may find you’ve spent several seconds or minutes working out a problem in your mind before realizing you stopped focusing on your breath. When this happens, simply notice it and then go back to your breath.
Noticing is different than getting upset with your self. A lot of people give up, saying, “I can’t do this!” The process of noticing extraneous thoughts and refocusing on your breath is the work. It’s your brain being trained and it’s a beautiful thing.
- Occasionally, take in a slightly larger amount of air of in into your belly; hold it for just a second, and then release. Feel the tension in your body melt away.
- When your alarm sounds, you’re done.
- Rinse and repeat every day.
As you can see, this stuff is pretty straightforward. This simple practice has a ton of science to support its many benefits. Your investment is five minutes a day. That’s about the same amount of time it takes to work yourself up into a rage about something you have absolutely no control over (forced overtime or a citizen contact that got under your skin).
Some investments come with a lot of risk. Very rarely, we get a good tip on some easy money. Committing yourself to developing present moment awareness is easy money, so what are you waiting for?