Remain in the moment

We are all capable of living in Walter Mitty type worlds, of placing too much importance on what is going on in the mind rather than taking time to experience what is really happening in this moment.

The premise that we live in a constructed “virtual world” of our own making is of fundamental importance in mindfulness based stress reduction. Formal mindfulness techniques (body scan, sitting meditation, Hatha Yoga) are contextualized by statements such “everyone’s experience will be different and unique,” and a de-emphasis on generic goals such as relaxation or insight. Instead, the importance of “just noticing” events in the moment-by-moment flow of experience is emphasized, without trying to make anything in particular happen. Non-judgmental awareness is at the core of mindfulness practice, emphasizing clarity of perception and freedom from cognitive preconceptions.’

James D. Herbert and Evan M. Forman (eds.). Acceptance and Mindfulness in Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Understanding and Applying the New Therapies.

A flexible approach to planning

We can sometimes focus too closely on following a particular plan while a more flexible moment-to-moment approach can be more effective and help to get more done.

A flexible approach to planning
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It wasn’t impossible to see a whole show on this scale, but it was difficult. It took work. You had to be systematic, go aisle by aisle, moving up the hall in a zigzag, giving every stand some time but not so much time that it diminished the time given to others. That used to be my approach, but I found that route planning and time management occupied more of my thoughts that the content of the show itself. I was lost in the game of trying to see every stand, note every new product and expose myself to every scrap of stimuli – the show as a whole left only a shallow track in my memory. In being systematic, I saw only my own system. Completism was blindness; it yielded only a partial view.

So I threw away my diligent systems and timetables and started to truly explore. Today was typical of my current method of not having a method – I would strike out into the centre of the hall, ignoring all pleas and distractions, and from there walk without direction. I would try to drift, to allow myself to be carried by the current and eddies of the hall, thinking only in the moment, watching and following the people around me. Beyond that, I tried to think as little as possible about my aims and as much as possible about what was in front of me at any given time. I would give myself to the experience.

Will Wiles. The Way Inn.

‘Present-moment awareness is the process of bringing flexible and deliberate attention to one’s experience as it happens. Clients are encouraged to maintain attention on experiences in the moment and to dispassionately observe these experiences, rather than falling into content about events of the past or fears and expectations about the future. Through this process, ACT promotes ongoing nonjudgmental contact with both psychological and environmental events as they occur, strengthening more direct and immediate interaction with experience and undermining the effects of language. The goal is for clients to experience the world more directly so that their behavior is more flexible and consistent with the values they hold.

Jill A. Stoddard and Niloofar Afari. The Big Book of ACT Metaphors: A Practitioner’s Guide to Experiential Exercises & Metaphors in Acceptance & Commitment Therapy

Label your thoughts as they drift by

It’s normal that your minds drifts off from time to time. If it does, it can help to recognise the thought and even give it a name as you return to the present moment.

Label your thoughts as they drift by
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Moody returned to the present with a jolt, and saw that Thomas Balfour was still looking at him, with an expression of intrigued expectation upon his face.

‘I beg your pardon,’ Moody said, in confusion. ‘I believe I must have drifted off into my own thoughts—for a moment—’

‘What were you thinking of?’ said Balfour.

What had he been thinking of? Only the cravat, the silver hand, that name, gasped out of the darkness. The scene was like a small world, Moody thought, possessed of its own dimensions. Any amount of ordinary time could pass, when his mind was straying there. There was this large world of rolling time and shifting spaces, and that small, stilled world of horror and unease; they fit inside each other, a sphere within a sphere. How strange, that Balfour had been watching him; that real time had been passing—revolving around him, all the while—

‘I wasn’t thinking of anything in particular,’ he said. ‘I have endured a difficult journey, that is all, and I am very tired.’

Eleanor Catton. The Luminaries.

‘Inevitably, there will be times when you get caught up in your thoughts. You may start daydreaming, or you may get trapped in your psychological pain. You may think about what you had for breakfast, what time the kids are due home from school, what movie you want to watch that night, or an ex-girlfriend you haven’t seen in years. As you know, your mind is extremely adept at creating thought. It’s likely you’ll find when you sit quietly that it seems as if your mind’s already natural talents have been amplified. You may have millions of thoughts flowing through your mind, and it’s likely you’ll get caught in them from time to time.

When this happens, simply notice that it has happened, and try to bring yourself back to the present moment and your observing self. Note that you have been in a thought and then return to the here and now.

One technique that is particularly effective to use while sitting is to label your thoughts. As you watch your thoughts pass before your mind’s eye, you may say, “I am having the thought that I had eggs for breakfast,” or, “I am having the feeling that I am sad.” It is also useful to note when you have drifted off, and even the thought that you have drifted off with: “I have been daydreaming about my ex-girlfriend. I am having the thought that I have been daydreaming.”

This can be particularly effective while you sit, because it is brief but still allows you to notice your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations as they come and go.’

Steven Hayes and Spencer Smith. Get out of your mind and into your life: the new acceptance and commitment therapy.

Hemingway and mindful attention

Despite his reputation as a rogue, Ernest Hemingway advocated mindful techniques for writing and for living, and he offers good advice on how to be considerate to others.


Hemingway and mindful attention
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When people talk listen completely. Donʼt be thinking what youʼre going to say. Most people never listen. Nor do they observe. You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling. Try that for practice. When youʼre in town stand outside the theatre and see how people differ in the way they get out of taxis or motor cars. There are a thousand ways to practice. And always think of other people.’

Ernest Hemingway. Monologue to the Maestro: A High Seas Letter.


‘With mindful attention, we bring a nonjudging, open attitude to our experience. We also refer to this way of relating to feelings and thoughts as acceptance, defined as opening to up and allowing your experience to be exactly as it is, without trying to avoid it, escape it or change it.’

Jan E. Fleming and Nancy L. Kocovski. The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Social Anxiety and Shyness – Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to Free Yourself from Fear and Reclaim Your Life.

How to get ideas for writing

It’s easy to get an idea for writing, said playwright Lajos Egri. Find inspiration by taking a quiet moment to observe the world around you and within you.

How to get ideas for writing
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To get an idea for any type of writing is the easiest thing. Look around you and be observant. Be observant and you will be forced to admit that the world is an inexhaustible pastry shop and you are permitted to choose from the delicacies the tastiest bits for yourself.

Lajos Egri. The Art of Dramatic Writing

‘The capacity to observe change is severely limited by the fact that much of our time is spent in incessant activity that does not provide a stable reference point. Encouraging “just sitting” is a simple way of quieting the body long enough so that that one’s focus can shift to other objects of consciousness, including the mind. Moving around and doing things requires a certain amount of cognitive processing capacity that tends to narrow the scope of attention to instrumental concerns. Sitting quietly, on the other hand, produces an interesting and somewhat paradoxical state of relaxed awareness, which in turn reduces cognitive demands and frees the resultant capacity for other purposes.

‘Quiet, relaxed awareness provides an ideal vantage point from which to observe change processes that are otherwise typically obscured. Manifestations are everywhere. Observation of the breath reveals phasic change from breathing in to breathing out. Observation of inner states reveals both regular and intermittent interoceptive sensations signifying a myriad of changes in underlying physiological processes. Observation of sights and sounds reveals a constant but often subtle flow of energy states captured by sense organs that are themselves constantly changing.’

Paul G. Salmon, Sandra E. Sephton, and Samuel J. Dreeben. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. In Mindfulness in Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Understanding and Applying the New Therapies.

Learn to surf your urges

Through mindfulness, you can recognise the moment you have a strong urge of any kind, and then ‘surf’ the wave of that urge until it passes.

The Ballad of a Small Player by Lawrence OsborneI wondered what would happen if I stopped at one of the large casinos and made a single bet with HK $1,000. I had not considered doing this because I had resolved to have the day off. But the more I thought about it, the more I found the idea irresistible. Yes, I thought, I could leave off for twenty hours, but then again I could just go in right now and get my fix, and what of it? Just one bet. Just one bet before bed, for after all, life is short and much shorter than you think.’

Lawrence Osborne. The Ballad of a Small Player: A Novel.

‘Mindfulness involves acceptance of the constantly changing experiences of the present moment, whereas addiction is an inability to accept the present moment and a persistent seeking of the next ‘high’ associated with the addiction. The metaphor of ‘urge surfing’ encourages clients to imagine that urges are ocean waves that grow gradually until they crest and subside. The client ‘rides’ the waves without giving in to the urges, thus learning that urges will pass. However, the client also learns that new urges will appear and that these urges cannot easily be eliminated. Instead, urges must be accepted as normal responses to appetitive cues. Mindfulness skills enable the client to observe the urges as they appear, accept them nonjudgmentally, and cope with them in adaptive ways.’

Ruth A. Baer. Mindfulness Training as a Clinical Intervention: A Conceptual and Empirical Review.

Ernest Hemingway in the moment

A writer has to learn to feel the present moment in order to reproduce the sounds, actions and emotions for the reader.

Hemingway on his boat the Pilar
Hemingway on his boat, the Pilar

Watch what happens today. If we get into a fish see exactly what it is that everyone does. If you get a kick out of it while he is jumping remember back until you see exactly what the action was that gave you that emotion. Whether it was the rising of the line from the water and the way it tightened like a fiddle string until drops started from it, or the way he smashed and threw water when he jumped. Remember what the noises were and what was said. Find what gave you the emotion, what the action was that gave you the excitement. Then write it down making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling you had.’

Ernest Hemingway. Monologue to the Maestro: A High Seas Letter.

‘To allow ourselves to be truly in touch with where we already are, no matter where that is, we have got to pause in our experience long enough to let the present moment sink in; long enough to actually feel the present moment, to see it in its fullness, to hold it in awareness and thereby come to know and understand it better. Only then can we accept the truth of this moment of our life, learn from it, and move on.’

Jon Kabat-Zinn. Wherever You Go, There You Are

Let your panic attack pass by

When a panic attack strikes, it can be better to give it the space and air it needs, just as the sky gives space to a storm until it passes.

Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty‘So in total, you’ve been working in or visiting the Borough of Westminster for, what, around twelve years? Longer?’

‘Longer probably,’ I say, and the moment starts building then, there, a profound sense of unease located somewhere inside me, identifiable as a slight clutching of my solar plexus. I diagnose it in myself even as I am baffled by it.

‘So,’ she says, and her voice becomes slow, gentle. ‘It would be fair to say that with all that commuting and walking from the Tube and lunch hours and so on, that you are very familiar with the area?’

It is building. My breath begins to deepen. I can feel that my chest is rising and falling, imperceptibly at first, but the more I try to control myself, the more obvious it becomes. The atmosphere inside the court tightens, everyone can sense it. The judge is staring at me. Am I imagining it, or has the jury member in the pink shirt on the periphery of my vision sat up a little straighter, leaned forward in his seat? All at once, I dare not look at the directly. I dare not look at you, sitting in the dock.

I nod, suddenly unable to speak. I know that in a few seconds, I will start to hyperventilate. I know this even though I have never done it before.
The barrister’s voice is low and sinuous, ‘You’re familiar with the shops, the cafés…’ Sweat prickles the nape of my neck. My scalp is shrinking. She pauses. She has noted my distress and wants me to know that I have guessed correctly: I know where she is going with this line of questioning, and she knows I know. ‘The small side streets…’ She pauses again. ‘The back alleyways…’

And that is the moment. That is the moment when it all comes crashing down.

I am hyperventilating openly now, breathing in great deep gulps. My defence barrister – poor Robert – is staring at me, puzzled and alarmed.

Louise Doughty. Apple Tree Yard

‘The mind is home to our thought processes, and with its perceptions we create our world. When panic occupies and consumes our thoughts, it can take over and hold us hostage. Panicky thoughts race and swirl about, and the common result is feeling overwhelmed by a sense of impending doom. These thoughts may send us to the emergency room believing that we’re having a heart attack.

These thoughts can paralyze us so much that we are unable to get out of the house. These thoughts can make us break out in a cold sweat and begin to hyperventilate just before we give a speech.

As a way to work with panic, perhaps this metaphor will be helpful: As you learn to sit back and just experience the coming and going of your mind states, you can be like the sky giving space to a storm. It is the virtue of the sky, which is made of air, to give as much space as a storm needs—and in the end, as a result of having that space, the storm eventually dissipates. In the same vein, as you give space to the storms of panic, acknowledging what’s present in the body and mind and letting it be, it too will gradually dissipate, recede, or fade away.

Stormy mind states are here for a while and then they leave. Where they came from and where they go is often difficult to comprehend, but what’s most important is to know that they are here and that they are governed by the laws of change.’

Bob Stahl and Wendy Millstine. Calming the Rush of Panic: A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Guide to Freeing Yourself from Panic Attacks and Living a Vital

Stay calm, don’t anticipate problems

Jules Verne (died this day 1905) knew that it doesn’t help to anticipate problems or dangers. It is much better to remain in the moment, stay calm, and only deal with the problem if it actually arises.

Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas by Jules VerneMeanwhile, Ned Land gave free vent to his indignation.

‘Confound it!’ cried he, ‘here are people who come up to the Scotch for hospitality. They only just miss being cannibals. I should not be surprised at it, but I declare that they shall not eat me without my protesting.’

‘Calm yourself, friend Ned, calm yourself,’ replied Conseil, quietly. ‘Do not cry out before you are hurt. We are not quite done for yet.’

‘Not quite,’ sharply replied the Canadian, ‘but pretty near, at all events. Things look black. Happily, my bowie-knife I have still, and I can always see well enough to use it. The first of these pirates who lays a hand on me – ‘

‘Do not excite yourself, Ned,’ I said to the harpooner, ‘and do not compromise us by useless violence. Who knows that they will not listen to us? Let us rather try to find out where we are.’

Jules Verne. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas.

‘If you find yourself anticipating distress, calculating your escape … your anxious thoughts will intensify. When this happens, try to stay in the now, and your panicky thoughts will settle down. Do what you can to return your focus to your immediate surroundings and your breath. You may notice people having a conversation nearby, or the texture of the carpet, or the colors in a poster.’

Bob Stahl and Wendy Millstine. Calming the Rush of Panic: A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Guide to Freeing Yourself from Panic Attacks and Living a Vital.