By Toni Bernhard J.D.
Bringing your attention to the present moment offers relief from your troubles.
Mindfulness refers to paying attention to your present moment experience. The beauty of this practice is that it grounds you in the present moment, and this provides welcome relief from ruminating about the past and worrying about the future. (I’m not referring to constructive reflection or planning, but to those obsessive and troublesome thoughts that just won’t go away.)
You can bring your attention out of your stressful stories and into your present moment experience whether or not you’re meditating. I’ll describe the way I practice this outside of meditation, and then give a concrete example from a recent trip I took to the doctor.
Three steps for bringing your attention to the present moment
When I become aware that I’m lost in stressful thoughts, I start by silently—and gently—saying “not now.” Those simple words can break the spell that these unconstructive thoughts have over me.
Second, I immediately focus my attention on three in- and out-breaths. Paying attention in this way to the physical sensation of the breath grounds me in my body, which is always in the present moment. As I exhale on that third breath, a sense of calm comes over me, sometimes strong, sometimes slight—I’ll take either one!
Third, I consciously notice what’s going on around me right now—perhaps silently describing my sensory experience: “seeing the dog on the bed; hearing another dog barking in the distance; feeling tightness in my shoulders.”
Having changed the focus of my attention, I’m no longer stuck in stressful thinking patterns. This is why I think of this practice as taking refuge in the present moment. Even if it’s not a pleasant moment—I might be feeling particularly sick or in pain—when I go through these three steps, at least I’m present for what’s happening instead of being lost in stressful stories that only make me feel worse, stories such as: “I want my old life back” or What if this pain never goes away?” That type of ruminating about the past and worrying about the future intensifies my mental suffering.
Taking refuge in the present moment on a freeway trip to the doctor
A few months ago, I had to do something unusual for me: drive myself from Davis to Sacramento and back again. I had a doctor’s appointment in Sacramento, and my husband (who usually drives me) was out of town.
The appointment was with my surgical oncologist to discuss the results of a breast MRI I’d had a few days before. This was my first MRI since the surgery I’d had a year before to remove a cancerous lump in my breast.
There I was, driving 65 mph on a freeway packed with cars, but my mind was elsewhere, worrying about the test results. I was busy mocking up one worse-case scenario after another. I like to call this “being off in la la land,” meaning I’m not paying attention to what’s going on right around me.
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