On any given day, social media is full of suggestions for self-care, with images of twisty yoga poses, perfectly charred vegetables and the ever-present advice—in colorful calligraphy, no less—to “just be in the moment.”
What does it even mean to be present or “in the moment,” and why should we aspire to live this way? Neuroscience may have an answer. Stanford research shows that we have evolved to allow our minds to wander—to plan for the future or to learn from the past—because it provides insights that can prove advantageous for survival. But despite the occasional rewards of letting our thoughts go where they may, constantly flitting from activity to activity (or from task to worry) can also lead to stress and exhaustion.
Emma Seppälä, science director at Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, expresses two of our desires: “We seek to balance the frenzy of our current pace of life with the complete opposite: sitting still. We need to fulfill an unmet need for more calmness, quietude and peace of mind.”
It turns out that if we foster that sense of calm, it’s not just our happiness that may increase—our focus can, too. Stanford lecturer Jonah Willihnganz is a co-founder of the LifeWorks Program for Integrative Learning at Stanford. LifeWorks offers courses that give students tools from mindfulness traditions and the fields of psychology and education in order to foster a sense of meaning and balance in their lives. Willihnganz draws his advice from those areas as well as from his training in Buddhism. “After you’ve withdrawn your attention from the past and future and brought yourself into the physical, mental, emotional awareness of where you are, then you use the present moment to focus on something,” he says. We asked him how to do that.
Have a regular time to notice where your mind is.
Before you can begin to draw yourself into the present, you have to be able to recognize when your mind has wandered to the future or the past. That can mean different things to different people, says Willihnganz: “It absolutely depends—your age, your gender can make a difference, not to mention your cultural background. And [people's] nervous systems are so different.”
Still, some common physical indicators can point to where our minds are. “One thing I’ve been trained to do is, when I walk through a doorway, to reinitiate and be in the present moment. I’m just walking into the room. That’s it,” he says. “And then I watch to see: Am I holding my shoulders up? Is my waist relaxed? How’s my breathing? I scan myself physically. Am I feeling anxious? Is that necessary?”
This provides a simple opportunity to reset. “Most of us don’t even think when we walk into a room what our purpose is; we’re just going through our day,” Willihnganz says. So he asks himself how he can engage in that moment and in that room.
Use physical markers to remind yourself to return to the present.
Bringing attention to your physical state while crossing a threshold is just one way of reminding yourself to be focus on what’s happening right now. “Most wisdom traditions in the world have devices, markers, tricks—whatever you want to call them—for balancing yourself, because just having an ‘always be present’ conviction doesn’t always work,” says Willihnganz. For example, he says, Christianity uses prayer; Buddhist traditions use bells.
Anything you do regularly, you can turn into a cue, Willihnganz says. “Remind yourself to bring yourself into the present moment without beating yourself up if you don’t.” If the doorway reminder isn’t for you, you can take a moment to set your mind to the present when you pick up your phone. “Some students I have now, the minute they pull it out to look at it, that’s the flag,” he says. “The act of looking at your phone should tell you turn it over, take a breath, withdraw yourself from the past and future, scan yourself, then ask yourself if there’s a purpose to the moment you’re in now.”
Try out different types of meditation.
Meditation isn’t the be-all and end-all of being present—in fact, Willihnganz says, there are many ways of finding calm. “For some people, the way to be present is to be active—for them to be in motion and have their energy circulating is a way for them to be calm, actually. And then for other people, like me, calm comes from having less stimuli going on around us.”
If you’ve already tried one type of meditation and think it doesn’t work for you, Willihnganz suggests considering the wide range of options out there.
Metta meditation is wishing good things for yourself, for those close to you and for those you don’t even know. “So you’re wishing, you’re extending compassion and beneficence for all sentient beings, but you’re starting with yourself, which can be very emotional, because most of us are in subtle ways attacking ourselves all the time,” Willihnganz says.
Mara meditation is identifying the bully inside yourself and then letting go of what it says. “Give it a personality, give it a cartoon character, like make it look like something,” Willihnganz says. “You’re not trying to suppress it, and it’ll get to have its say, and you can say ‘OK, tell me all the things you think—[and] now you’re done.’”
And meditation isn’t just a specific time to be in the moment. Practicing that state of mind can help you more easily access it at other times throughout your day.
Practice with others.
Finding others who are also working on being present more often can make it easier to commit to a practice—be it meditating or simply agreeing to all “reset” as you sit down to dinner. It can also create a more conducive space for centering the mind, since you’re all trying to do the same thing.
For those in the Stanford area, Willihnganz recommends Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, which offers a number of informal gatherings and meditation sessions. “It’s worth going and sitting with groups of people and seeing what that feels like,” he says. “For some people, it can be very powerful, like any event that makes you feel centered.”
Melina Walling, ’20, is an intern for Stanford.