“The Present is the point at which time touches eternity.” — C.S. Lewis
For many or us, a silent mind seems nearly impossible. A constant stream of thoughts flows through our mind. The good news is that the mind can be trained to reduce the volume of thoughts that race through it every minute.
A useful tool for understanding this idea is to imagine that your consciousness is a subway station. Your thoughts are the trains, and all the topics you think about all have their own train. There are trains to all sorts of places. There are trains leading to your job, trains to where you were last night, and trains to where you are going for your next vacation. There are trains that lead to projects you are working on, things you have to do, even conversations you have had, or might have. In this bazaar station, there are train routes to different times as well – some go to the past while others speed off to the future. There are even trains leading to total fantasies of wonderful or terrible things that will mostly likely never happen.
We spend most of our life riding these trains in our mind, and we usually aren’t doing it consciously. Let’s say you have a thought about your job on your day off. Using our subway example, the arrival of the thought is parallel to the arrival of the “job” train. Now let’s say that you don’t consciously notice that you are thinking about work. In that case, that first thought will lead to several other thoughts about work, and before you know it, your mind has actually gone to work! Instead of enjoying your day off, you have taken the “job” train to work. While your mind is at work, you are not connected to the present moment. For that period of time when you are thinking about your job, it is almost as if you are really there. You have split your consciousness away from your present reality. Your body is in one place while your mind is in another.
When we divide our reality in such a way where our consciousness is not connected to the present moment, our quality of life suffers. Ekhart Tolle writes in depth about the consequences of habitually “splitting” ourselves in his book The Power of Now.
Lucky for us, if we do get on a thought train by accident, we can wake up back where we really are. Furthermore, we can train our mind to stay in the present more. This process takes some constant vigilance, but the reward is priceless.
Begin by noticing all the trains that arrive at the station. You’ll most likely start off by catching yourself when you happen to get on one. Every single time you catch yourself thinking about something that is past, future, or simply not your present reality, bring yourself back. Notice how much time passed since you were last present. Draw your attention fully back into what you are doing at the present moment. Notice any sounds you can hear, or the temperature of the air around you. Notice how your body feels and what position you are in. Try not to think too much about all the things you are noticing, simply experience them with your awareness. Practice bringing your awareness back to the present moment every single time you catch your thoughts wandering off unconsciously.
The more you practice getting off the thought trains, the sooner you will start to notice the moment they arrive – the very first thought that starts the daydream. When you notice the very first thought, you can then consciously choose not to get on that train at all. You can simply let the though go while you stay present instead.
Our minds are very adaptable and efficient. Like any properly managed subway station, the service will adapt to the demands of its users. After a while, if there is no one riding certain trains, the service will decrease. The work train might start showing up only in the morning when it is time to go there, instead of in the evening during your dinner. The trains to imaginary futures might be cancelled due to lack of interest. The memory train for a past relationship might decrease to once-a-year service. Over time, the entire station, that is your mind, becomes calmer and far less hectic.
Tips for Staying in the Present Moment:
1. Use Your Thoughts as Reminders to Stay Present
Notice if there are any recurring topics that pass though your mind regularly and try to take you away from the present moment. Our thoughts are often not very original, and it is quite likely that the same topics cycle through our consciousness repeatedly. Take note of your most habitual daydreams, because these can be transformed into a trigger for staying present.
Keep a small notebook handy this week and jot down some of the though trains that you found yourself on. Chances are, they are not all positive or productive. Choose a couple that are most negative or useless, and decide to transform these into triggers for staying present. The next time you catch yourself thinking about one of these topics, immediately think of something positive to transform it to. For example, let’s say you find yourself worrying about money frequently when you are not actually doing anything about it at that moment. (It is fine to think about money if you are balancing your checkbook, but not if you are playing tennis.) The next time you notice you are worrying about money, immediately replace the “worry” with an image of abundance – perhaps bills falling from the sky all around you like autumn leaves. Then once you have taken a moment to see your positive “counter-thought”, just let that image go as well and bring your awareness back to the present moment. Do this every time you catch yourself thinking about money, and use the same visual to transform the negative thought into a positive one.
The brain rewires itself as we learn things and do them repeatedly. After a while, when you think about the recurring thought, you will naturally catch yourself quicker, and the positive thought will automatically come to mind. Eventually, the recurring thought will become a trigger to remind you to stay present. Furthermore, because you no longer give the thought as much “air time” it will also come less frequently.
2. Use Daily Tasks as Practice for Staying Present
The next time you do a simple, mundane task, such as washing a dish, stay fully present during it. Feel the water run over your hands, noticing its wetness and temperature. Feel the weight of the dish, and the way your hands move as your clean it. Give all your attention to the process of washing this dish. If you do this, you will be more likely to remember to stay present the next time you are washing a dish. The brain will learn to associate washing a dish with staying present. The more you remember to stay present during a specific task, the stronger this connection becomes until the performing the task becomes an automatic trigger for awakening to the present moment. The more tasks you do this with, the easier it becomes to stay present throughout the day.
Routine tasks make excellent triggers because there are so many of them and we do them so frequently. We are far more likely to wander off somewhere else in our minds while doing things we do everyday. Actions such as brushing your teeth, watering the garden, driving, walking, and having a cup of coffee or tea are all excellent candidates for training your mind to stay present.
3. Seek New Experiences to Help Change Old Thought Habits
When we do something we have never done before, it is natural to stay focused and pay attention. This is why doing something new is a good way to keep our minds fresh and connected to the present moment. This may be why traveling is so rejuvenating for many people. It is easier to pay attention to the present moment when we are somewhere new, interesting, or pleasant.
4. Notice that Staying Present Creates Vivid Memories
Experiences such as traveling also tend to create strong memories. This is connected to the fact that we are more likely to remember an experience if we were fully present during it. If you remember something vividly, it is quite likely that you were paying full attention to what was happening at that moment. What is interesting is that ordinary days and ordinary actions can become equally memorable if you give them your full attention. As you learn to stay present more and more, you may find that your memory for small things improves, such as where you put your keys!