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Are You Living in the Moment?

Realize the future is unknown, and take time to notice everything happening around you right now

By Gary M. Stern

Given the inevitability of death, and knowing that it could strike at any time, there's one antidote that prevails for many people: living in the moment. That's all you're guaranteed — the present. Looking too far ahead and spending time contemplating the future is presumptuous, and living in the past freezes you and doesn't get you anywhere.

A grandchild kissing her grandmother on the cheek. Next Avenue, living in the moment
Credit: Getty

But why is it so difficult to live in the moment? 

It seems as if it would be natural. Living for the present, taking things one day at a time, not getting too far ahead of yourself, seems reflexive, but it's not. Too many distractions get in the way to throw us off course.

"What folks don't realize is that making the choice to value being present in our lives not only helps us enjoy them more, but helps us achieve more with less stress."

Billie Jean King, the great tennis champ, has said if you're not living in the moment in tennis, you will lose the point, game and match. If you're winning 5 to 1 in the first set and your mind starts drifting about your strategy for the next set, you will lose your edge and the opening set. Staying in the moment at all times on the tennis court is critical to victory, and it's a metaphor for living.

"Living in the moment isn't easy because we're not rewarded in our culture for staying in the present moment. We're rewarded for accomplishments and overworking," explains Haley Neidich, a psychotherapist based in Tampa, Fla.

Being in the moment can be threatening for many people. Some don't have the tools to manage their painful feelings. "What folks don't realize is that making the choice to value being present in our lives not only helps us enjoy [life] more, but helps us achieve more with less stress," Neidich says.

What can a person do to stay in the moment, live life to the fullest, appreciate each second and not get distracted?

Technology Can Distract

Technology, which helps us accomplish innumerable things, often obstructs living spontaneously when most people are multi-tasking with their ear buds in place.

"The constant use of cell phones, alerts, group messaging apps and the general expectation that [we] must be available at all times" makes it nearly impossible to feel and experience the present, Neidich says. "Being plugged in leads to numbing out emotionally and disconnecting from our bodies, which shuts off access to our experience of being in the moment."

Neidich recommends setting boundaries with cell phones to regain an appreciation of life. 

Her advice: 1) mute your e-mail when the work day ends; 2) tap app-blocking features to set boundaries and 3) leave your cell phone far away from your bed at night.

If people are "willing to commit to taking daily actions and sticking to them," they can regain mindfulness, Neidich says. 

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Neidich also urges people to unplug even for a few minutes a day. "Stepping outside and taking ten deep breaths without your phone in hand can make a big difference to your energy level and life satisfaction," she says.

How to Enjoy the Here and Now

Living in the moment means you'll immediately reap benefits such as enabling your nervous system to calm down and enter a rest and relaxation state required to manage stress. This can protect people from lapsing into mental health conditions (such as anxiety, depression and insomnia) and even physical pain, Neidich explains.

Living in the moment and ruling out distractions re-energizes your feelings about life, too. 

"We tend to walk around numb to our existence as we're plugged in and hyper-focused on achievement," Neidich notes. "Focusing on a task they love or socializing with trusted friends allow people to enjoy the here and now."

Ellen Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, has become one of the country's reigning experts on mindfulness, having written books such as "Mindfulness" and "The Power of Mindful Learning."

Living in the moment, she says, requires "adapting an understanding of uncertainty. Assume you don't know, and you start paying attention, and actively notice new things."

It's all about noticing, seeing things clearly and not thinking you know everything.

"Simply put: People who live in the present moment are happier."

But what underlies her point is that life is in flux, all the time, and always changing and never static. The dioramas at the Museum of Natural History in New York City that Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger's classic novel "Catcher in the Rye" found mesmerizing may be stuck in time, but life keeps moving on.

Notice What's Around You

Start by noticing (there's that word again) three new things in your room, suggests Langer. Look at the objects in the room as if you've never seen them before. Ponder them with fresh eyes. You will find the experience, she says, "enlivening," as if you've never paid attention before. 

Doing this creates the essence of engagement. "Why do these people who are engaged live longer? Because their neurons are firing and their system isn't turned off; the mindless mind has been slowly turned off," Langer explains.

Though many experts encourage meditation, Langer doesn't.

"Meditation isn't about mindfulness. It's about active noticing. Once you see that everything has changed, it puts you in the present and achieving the essence of engagement," she says.

Why did Claude Monet draw so many paintings of water lilies? Because Monet saw the water lilies differently and freshly in each painting, as if new, Langer suggests.

Most people look at a tree and all they see is the color green. But look closely at the tree, and you'll see 20 gradations of green, each different.

"The leaves turn colors from the sun, and some leaves are turning brown," Langer points out. Once you look at that tree closely and see every nuance and shading, and not just the absolute green, you're beginning to live in the moment and becoming more engaged with life.

The key is to give up certainty and absolute knowing. "When you know something, you don't pay attention to it," Langer says.

"Certainty," she adds, "is the bane of everyone's existence."

Living in the present is like a child being at play. Everything is spontaneous, and nothing is preconceived.

"You're noticing new things. That's what you do at play. You don't do a crossword puzzle if you know the answers ahead of time," Langer says.

Neidich adds, "Folks who are able to live in the moment are more likely to report a general sense of satisfaction in their life and will have a greater ability to navigate life's stressors with ease. Simply put: People who live in the present moment are happier."

Gary M. Stern is a New York-based freelance writer who has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fortune.com, CNN/Money and Reuters.  He collaborated on Minority Rules: Turn Your Ethnicity into a Competitive Edge (Harper Collins), a how-to guide for minorities and women to climb the corporate ladder. Read More
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