We often come across articles or passages in books that remind us that peace and tranquility is to be found by being “present”—by being mindful and staying in the moment—but rarely are we given techniques about how exactly to do that. Let’s explore a few different methods of doing so.
One great way of staying in the present moment is to focus on your breath. When all of your attention is centered on your breathing, it’s less likely that your mind will wander off into worry-land.
There are a few different ways to focus on your breathing, but we’re going to delve into the ones that combine both physical and mental awareness, as it’s the best way for novices to get into the habit.
1. Diaphragmatic breathing. Known as dirga pranayama in yogic circles, this is a 3-part breathing technique that draws breath deep into your lungs and creates a tranquil state of being. The best way to do this is to place one hand on your belly, and one hand on your upper chest. When you inhale, do so by drawing air into your belly, allowing it to rise out against the hand you’ve placed upon it. As you continue to draw breath, pull it into your diaphragm and let it expand, and finally inhale deep into your chest, letting your upper ribs float into the hand you have placed on them. When you exhale, you’ll reverse the process: release breathe from your chest first, then the diaphragm, and then your belly.
This practice is a great one for focusing on your breath, since your attention is wholly involved in the movement of air through your body: there’s no room for errant thoughts to slide in.
2. Alternate nostril breathing. Known as nadi sodhana or anuloma viloma, this is another pranayama technique that works wonders for grounding and calming you, and for alleviating stress or anxiety. The best part about this one is that it’s a very quick mindfulness technique that you can do just about anywhere: a couple of minutes are all that’s needed to put it into practice, so if you disappear into the restroom at work or close your office door for a quick breather (literally), no-one’s going to miss you.
To do alternate breathing, block off your right nostril and take a slow, deep breath in through your left nostril to the count of 4. Plug your nose and hold your breath to the count of 16, and then exhale solely through your right nostril to the count of 8. Then reverse: inhale with your right nostril to the count of 4, hold breath for 16, exhale with the left nostril to the count of 8. This may sound ridiculously simple, but once again, all of your attention is focused on the one thing you’re currently doing: you’re being present, and mindful.
5 Senses Awareness
If you find that your mind is very restless and is causing you a fair bit of grief, take a moment to just be still, and to focus on what you can be aware of with each of your senses. Find a quiet place where you can sit in stillness for a few minutes, close your eyes, and take a couple of deep, calming breaths.
Touch: Focus on the things that you can feel physically at the moment. Keep your eyes closed. What is the texture of the floor like beneath your feet? Is there a breeze against your skin? If your hands are on your lap, what does the fabric of your clothing feel like? Are your hands on a cool, smooth tabletop, or on the leathery arms of an old chair? Immerse yourself in physical sensation and really be aware of what everything feels like.
Scent: Can you smell anything right now? With your eyes still closed, bring your awareness to any scents that may be lingering in the air. If you’re at the office, can you smell coffee from the lunchroom or a co-worker’s desk? Did someone microwave popcorn today? What about your own perfume or cologne? Can you smell the shampoo in your hair? If you’re at home or outside, try to pinpoint a few scents that you can recognise.
Hearing: Take a moment to really listen to the world around you. Most of us acclimatize to our living conditions so much that we tune out most of what we hear over the course of the day, so keep your eyes closed and listen—don’t just hear. Can you tune into the bubbles fizzing in your drink? The ticking of a clock in another room? Maybe you can hear your pet snoring, or the subtle shifting noises that your house makes over the course of the day. Do you hear traffic? Raindrops? Birds?
Taste: This one can be a bit more difficult if you haven’t eaten anything recently, so if you don’t have any lingering crumbs around your mouth, it can help to take a sip of your drink or a bite of a snack to aid this one along. When you take a bite or sip of something, give the food your entire attention: notice the textures, the different flavours. Pay attention to the movement your tongue and throat make as you eat, and see if you can focus on the item you’ve swallowed as it makes its way down to your stomach.
Sight: Yes, this one requires you to open your eyes. It’s best to do it last, so you’re already in a relaxed state after focusing on the previous senses. Let your eyes rest on an item near you, and really look at it, even if it’s something that’s in your peripheral vision every day. Is it a plant that you can look at and analyze in detail? Or a favourite teacup? Are there scratches on the cup that you’d never noticed before? What’s written on the bottom, if anything? Take the time to see something in its entirety instead of just observing it without thought.
A Grounding Item
Some people find that the best way for them to return to the present moment is by carrying a “grounding” item with them. This is something that can be kept in a pocket or worn as jewellery, so when anxieties rise or the outside world gets a bit too harried and distracting, touching and focusing on that item brings them back to the present moment.
This item can be anything at all, as long as it has meaning to you. It could be a stone or crystal that’s kept in your pocket, a mala bracelet, pendant, rosary/prayer beads, or even a ring that’s worn daily—if it’s something that can bring you peace and help to center/ground you when you’re flailing emotionally, it’s perfect.
To ground yourself with your item, just take a couple of minutes to sit with it and be wholly absorbed in the experience of touching it. If it’s a stone, feel the cool smoothness of it in your hands, and allow yourself to draw strength from it: that stone is likely a million years old. If it’s a crystal that hums with energy, allow it to hum in your hands and imagine yourself filled with light the same colour of the item you’re holding. If you’re using prayer beads, run them through your fingers and draw comfort from their solidity. Let the outside world slip away as you focus your entire being on what you’re holding in your hands, and how it makes you feel.
Staying in the present moment takes practice, but a few minutes each day are all that’s needed to establish your mindfulness practice. Before long, you’ll notice that you’re much more aware and appreciative of things around you, as well as experiences you have and tastes/textures you enjoy. Anxieties about the past or future slip away when you find peace in the now.