How to shift your mind from presents to presence this holiday season

by Melanie Hilborn

It's something we hear in every Yoga class, "Be present". Sure, it sounds great to be clear-headed without worrying about the future or dwelling on the past, but is that realistic most of the time? If so, how do we do it? Though keeping the mind in the moment can sometimes be challenging, the more you practice, the easier it becomes. 

First things First: What does 'being present' really mean?

When we say "be present", we simply mean give your mind a break from thinking about the past and/or future by guiding your awareness to what is happening right now.  A wandering mind can be exhausting and often extremely unhelpful. When we think too much about the future or the past, the mind can spiral out of control into unhelpful places as it starts to play out all of the 'What if?' scenarios. As Echkart Tolle says, “Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry - all forms of fear - are caused by too much future and not enough presence. Guilt, regret, resentment, sadness, bitterness and all forms of non-forgiveness are caused by too much past and not enough presence.” We can't change the past and we can't do anything in the future, the only moment you truly have to live in and take action is now. Knowing that, can we bring our awareness more to what we are doing in this moment?

How do I stop my mind from wandering?

Rather than trying to halt your mind mid-thought, see if you can direct your mind to something happening now. Seth Godin, recommends a practice of actively trying to notice new things by focusing on our senses.  Rather than going through the motions with your brain on autopilot, can you really notice what’s going on around you. Shift from thinking to feeling. In your practice this might involve feeling the most prominent sensations in your body, hearing the sound of your ujayii breath, smelling the incense in the room, or feeling the air on your skin. The possibilities are endless when you begin looking deeper.

Being 'present' isn’t something only reserved for practicing in a Yoga class, although it is a great place to start. Where else do you catch yourself on 'autopilot?' Have you ever driven somewhere and realised upon arrival that you had been lost in thought and don’t even remember the drive? Ever been ‘listening’ to someone and realise as they stop speaking you haven’t heard a word they said? What new things can you notice in your day to day life to bring you into the present? Try noticing five new things on your journey to work, five new things about your partner as they talk to you, five new things about your favourite meal. Though the mind will inevitably wander from time to time, each time you catch it, you have instantly become present again. You have the opportunity to direct the mind to something happening now. However mundane the present moment might seem, can we approach it with a childlike sense of inquiry and try to notice all the amazing things happening around us? After all, what we're all really searching for - true happiness - can ONLY be found in the present moment.

What we all want to say: "Sure it sounds great not having to worry about the future, but I have plans to make!"
Trust me, I hear you! Of course, it's positive and important in life to make plans. Plans and goal setting are excellent ways to check in with where we want to grow. But, can we do this planning from a place of presence rather than in the midst of worry or regret? It is not helpful to stare at your to-do list and stress about all the things you might need to do in the future. As you plan, can you begin to focus on one thing you can do in this moment to move you closer to your goal and away from anything you'd rather leave in the past?

Being present isn’t always easy, but Yoga is called a ‘practice’ for a reason.  You come in to class, set your intention, and practice working towards that goal. If your intention is to be present, dedicate the full hour to it. Staying in the moment is often easy when things are going our way, but can we practice staying present during the challenging moments as well? Observe where the mind wanders in the challenges of your practice. Does it get stuck in the past thinking of the things that didn’t go well? Does it get drawn into the future worrying about what is to come? Do you ever hear those thoughts of "man, I am going to be sore tomorrow" or "I can't believe I fell out of that balance!" Let the thoughts come up, then come back to what is true in this moment. 

You can’t change the past, you can’t do anything in the future, you only have the present moment to take action.  Each time you catch the mind running, don’t judge yourself. Remember it is a PRACTICE, continuing to bring the mind back to the present. As your body and mind learn how to better cope with these challenges in your practice, you will be able to bring these tools with you off the mat and into your life. 

Happy practicing!