The first year of mommyhood was a bit of a blur for me. Forget my lofty Pinterest-inspired aspirations—I was in basic survival mode for the better part of my first year with twins. My general recollection of that period is fuzzy at best. But somewhere in that intensely sleep-deprived haze, there are a few indelible moments that still shine so clear and bright. Little beacons of light in a foggy mommy mind. Moments when time stood still...or at least the blurry whizzing abstractions of the everyday-hustle seemed to pause and come into sharp focus.
Interestingly, the most compelling, graphic memories for me aren't the special events or never-ending list of firsts that one might expect on a classic first-year highlight-reel. They're not the moments I recall just because someone snapped a photo that I've seen multiple times since then. Nope. The few clear, specific moments that come readily to mind are mainly just vivid little slices of average everyday stuff. Like this one:
I'm holding one of the babies and I see her look at the window with fascination. The gauzy white curtain is fluttering gently with the breeze. Sunshine is streaming through the folds of fabric and everything looks ethereal. I approach the window so she can touch the soft material for herself and she squeals and laughs with delight. Her face lights up like she's having some kind of revelation.
Contact with the present moment
This high-definition memory stands out in that first year as a moment where I wasn't just a mombie on survival-focussed auto-pilot. Instead, I had the wonderfully contrasting sense that I was fully present in the moment as it was unfolding. In the NOW. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) (see Brent's blog post, The Skinny on ACT) refers to this core aspect of mindfulness (see Natsumi's blog post, Mindfulness: An Introductory Guide) as “contact with the present moment.” Being fully here and now, consciously and flexibly aware of our inner and outer world, as opposed to being lost in our thoughts. For me it felt like I had brushed away some cobwebs and could see clearly again for a time. Like I was taking part in my experience rather than the creeping feeling that I was somehow missing out on my own life. And in those days, I was missing out—I was typically too tired and overwhelmed to notice all of the rich detail that makes everything so interesting.
That's the thing about “contact with the present moment”. It's so easy to miss even though it sounds like a given. Of course we exist here, now. We realize that, cognitively. But experientially, in any given moment, you have the choice between engaging with this one specific “here-now” or getting sucked into the infinite other time points, places, and experiences that your mind can conjure up. One VS. INFINITY, folks! The odds are stacked heavily against the singular present moment, even before we factor in the prevalence of fatigue, ill health, stress, depression, anxiety, and other states that can impact upon our capacity to focus. So instead of experiencing the present moment, understandably, more times than not, our minds take us elsewhere.
Do I need this in my toolbox?
You might be fascinated to observe how often your mind pulls you out of the present moment in your everyday life. Your body might be taking a shower, or driving a car, but your head is off figuring out dinner/tomorrow's meeting/yesterday's fight. At times, escaping the present moment (through daydreams or TV shows, for instance) may be useful or enjoyable. But let's say you spend some time with a loved one while stewing in frustration and anxiety about all the work you need to do. Or you totally miss out on what a friend is saying while thinking about what you'll say next. When our checked-out moments accumulate, we wind up feeling disconnected and missing out on what's right in front of us. You might be especially rusty in terms of contacting the present moment if:
- you're frequently preoccupied with thoughts or feelings related to the past or the future
- you often feel psychologically numb, tuned-out, or like you're on auto-pilot
- you act impulsively or mindlessly
- you feel disconnected in key relationships
Fortunately, you can practice and improve your ability to be here, now. Learning to better contact the present moment can bring about some majorly life-enhancing benefits. Basically, the more you tune-in and get an accurate real-time reading of what's going on in your inner and outer world, the more you can make well-informed choices that move your life in the direction you want to go. Higher quality input yielding higher quality output, all while feeling more engaged, more satisfied and more fulfilled in your life. Nice.
How do I contact the present moment?
Sometimes even zombies get a wake-up call. Months seemed to crawl by yet whiz past. Then suddenly I realized that my babies had grown a lot because they didn't fit in the same clothes anymore. Putting away the tiny onesies, I knew that time was gone—there's no re-do. I became aware of how blurry the memories were, how faraway I felt. I didn't want to miss out on these moments—I wanted to be more present in the present! That turning-point realization got a much needed signal boost when I had more energy and was sleeping relatively well again. I dusted off my inner clinical toolbox and got to work renewing contact with the present moment. I'll share a few simple exercises below.
STEP 1: Make a conscious commitment to be here, now.
STEP 2: Do what you can to maximize your physical and mental energy. If you want to be here, now, I can't overstate the importance of sleep (see Ava's blog post, Getting Back to Bed) or getting treatment for anemia, hypothyroidism, depression, anxiety, and other draining, attention-zapping conditions.
STEP 3: Practice, practice, practice making contact with the present moment, and don't wait to finish Step 2 to do it. Start now. Of course, you can just wait for a moment so special that it will pull you into the present. But YOU can also pull the present moment into you. As we do in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy:
- Really notice what is happening here and now. When you stop and observe with all your senses, you will notice all sorts of internal and external stuff. The Zen concept of “beginner's mind” can be especially useful here. Like an infant, when you explore something with openness and curiosity as though encountering it for the first time, even a white curtain can be fascinating.
- Differentiate between noticing (simple conscious awareness) and thinking (going off on a mental tangent). You can notice thoughts and feelings as though they are floats in a parade, letting them come and go past.
- Pay attention to both your inner and outer world and work on shifting your attention flexibly between the two (like noticing a painful thought or feeling while also noticing what you see and hear around you).
You may have heard of mindful breathing in which you practice bringing your awareness here and now for a period of time by noticing when you breathe in, when you breathe out, and the sensations that accompany each inhalation and exhalation. Experience it for yourself with Professor Mark William's “Three-minute breathing space” guided meditation.
Here's another useful but perhaps lesser known way to practice contacting the present moment:
Notice Five Things (adapted from Harris, 2009, p. 171):
This is a simple exercise to get present and connect with your environment. Practice it throughout the day, especially any time you find yourself getting caught up in your thoughts and feelings. This exercise relies on the senses, so if you have any serious sensory impairments you may want to omit that sense, swap in another (like the sense of smell), or go a bit further in noticing things with the senses you do possess.
- Pause for a moment.
- Look around and notice five things that you can see.
- Listen carefully and notice five things that you can hear.
- Notice five things that you can feel in contact with your body (for example, the shirt on your back, the air on your face, your feet upon the floor).
- Finally, do all of the above simultaneously.
Whether you're totally overwhelmed and the days are a blur, or whether your brain is relatively functional but you're getting caught up in your head, you can choose to practice contacting the present moment. Better engaging with the here and now won't make you less sleep deprived, finish your projects for you, or babysit your children (dang!). But it will add a richness and fullness to your experience. Less zombie. More cowbell! Or more gauzy curtain, as the case may be. So forget Pinterest. These aren't pictures snapped from the outside. This is my lived experience, and when I make contact with the present moment, I feel like I am truly living it.
Maryann Joseph is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogs, podcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.
Forsyth, J. P. & Eifert, G. H. (2007). The mindfulness and acceptance workbook for anxiety: A guide to breaking free from anxiety, phobias, and worry using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications. [This is a great self-help workbook and there are others in the series, e.g., for depression.]
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York: Hyperion.
Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple: An easy to read primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications. [This is an excellent, accessible resource for any clinician.]