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Get back to the present

A wandering mind might lead to less contentment.

Get back to the present

How many of you would like to be able to travel through time as a superpower? We can’t yet do it physically, but we are quite proficient at it mentally.

We spend many of our daytime hours in a half-awake daydream state where our mind wanders away from the present moment. Instead of fully attending to the matter at hand, we spend a significant portion of our waking hours dwelling on or replaying the past, or projecting into the future, trying to anticipate the unknown.

And now, science is starting to tell us exactly how distracted we actually are. In one study, a pair of Harvard psychologists, Matthew Killingsworth, Ph.D., and Daniel Gilbert, Ph.D., developed an iPhone app that enabled study participants to self-report their mental states when prompted by random nudges. The nudges encouraged participants to visit an online survey to report how happy they were feeling, what activity they were engaging in at the moment, and whether they were thinking about that activity or about something else that was pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.

The study participants reported that they were thinking about other things about 47 percent of the time. What’s more, the mind wandering was universal throughout the day and across all types of activities (other than making love).

So, as Killingsworth and Gilbert confirm, we are definitely time travelers!

Distraction Breeds Negativity

While some of it is useful or even enjoyable, our time travel can be a significant source of stress. External pressures and demands get translated into internal stress as we ruminate on things, thinking over and over about past or potential future events while attaching negative emotions to them. This results in chronically elevated levels of adrenaline and cortisol and is a source of anxiety and fear-based responses.

In the Killingsworth and Gilbert study, the participants’ responses showed that they were unhappier when their thoughts were elsewhere. In addition, the study found that the participants’ mind wandering earlier in the day correlated with less reported happiness later in the day, but not vice versa, suggesting that their wandering minds may have been leading them to less contentment as the day progressed.

The solution? We need to go back to the present.

Learn to Breathe Properly

What you’ve probably heard before is certainly worth repeating: “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That’s why we call it the present.”

A great way to transition from time-travel mode to being present is to focus on your breathing. You also can practice noticing and naming your emotions. Just be with yourself, your inner chatter and your emotions in a way that is compassionate, curious and without judgment.

Being fully present is what Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl was talking about in this famous quote: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.”

How can you be more aware of that “space” in order to gain a different perspective, find new possibilities and see opportunities you never expected? It’s in the present moment where all of those things are possible and where we develop a greater capacity for flexibility and resilience.

Mindfulness Meditation

So, how do we go about getting back to the present?

In his book “Search Inside Yourself,” Chade-Meng Tan suggests that becoming more present starts with cultivating self-awareness, the key domain of emotional intelligence. Self-awareness depends on being able to see ourselves objectively, and that requires the ability to examine our thoughts and emotions from a third-person perspective, not getting swept up in the emotion, not identifying with it, but just seeing it clearly and objectively. This requires a stable and clear, nonjudging attention.

An effective way to train this quality of attention is something known as mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is defined by biologist Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., as “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” The calmness and clarity that results from mindfulness meditation increases the “space” that Frankl refers to in the quote above.

We use mindfulness to train a quality of attention that is strong both in clarity and stability. We then direct this power-charged attention to the physiological aspects of emotion so we can perceive emotion with high vividness and resolution. The ability to perceive emotional experience at a high level of clarity and resolution, nonjudgmentally and in the present moment, builds the foundation for emotional intelligence. And we live happily ever after — or at least a lot happier ever after.

Other Nagging Issues

One area where science is focusing on the benefits of going back to the present is addiction research. Judson Brewer, M.D., Ph.D., for example, is an addiction psychiatrist at Yale University whose lab has been teaching mindfulness as a tool to help people quit smoking.

For all of us, the challenge and opportunity is to stop dropping into the same patterns of either getting caught up in or resisting repetitive thoughts and feelings — usually caught up in the past or resisting some feared aspect in the future. For smokers, their narrower challenge is to avoid getting caught up in, or resisting, their cravings for a cigarette.

In Dr. Brewer’s lab, smokers receive training on how to deploy mindfulness in the context of their cravings. In other words, how to just be with those cravings as an interested but impartial observer rather than getting caught up in or resisting the craving sensations.

The good news: Mindfulness works. In a randomized controlled trial, they found that mindfulness was twice as effective as compared to the prior gold standard for quitting smoking.

A Mindfulness Appetizer

If you are interested in experiencing a taste of mindfulness, Tan suggests two exercises whose potential impact are matched by their simplicity. In less than five minutes, you can try these exercises for yourself:

  1. Simply bring gentle and consistent attention to your breath for two minutes. Pay attention to the process of breathing, and every time your attention wanders, bring it back very gently to your breath.
  2. Sit without an agenda for two minutes. Shift from “doing” to “being,” whatever that means to you, for just two minutes. Just be. Nothing else.

We encourage you to take a few minutes and try these exercises so you can open your window into the world of mindfulness and flow. As Killingsworth concluded, “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” so please join us, fellow time traveler, in coming back to the present.

Go With the Flow co-columnist Dr. Jeff Thoren is vice president of VetPartners and founder of Gifted Leaders, a Phoenix company offering leadership and coaching services. Co-columnist Trey Cutler is a veterinary transaction attorney.

Online video

This article was inspired, in part, by a TED video by Dr. Judson Brewer. Check out “You’re Already Awesome. Just Get Out of Your Own Way!” at http://bit.ly/2wyZ50U.