It seems as though a wave of interest in mindfulness and meditation has swept over the U.S. and other Western countries in recent years. Yoga remains a wildly popular form of exercise, with the number of practitioners growing by the millions in the past four years, and roughly 18 million Americans regularly practice meditation. Certainly not a new concept, these ideas have their roots in Eastern practices that have been around for over two thousand years. So why is there a sudden interest to live in the moment?
"The U.S. has been historically more closed off to Eastern ideas and perspectives on things like meditation and mindfulness," explains Kelly Campbell, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at California State University, San Bernardino. Only recently has the National Institute of Health begun researching the benefits of these philosophies, finding that physical and mental health can be improved through mindfulness meditation practices, Campbell points out.
These exercises are the stepping stones of living in the moment and feel more important now than ever before due to rising rates of depression and anxiety, which Campbell suggests could explain the growing need for alternative practices. So what does it take to truly live in the moment and reap these benefits? Campbell offers her tips for incorporating this healthy habit into your daily life.
"People learn meditation and living in the present is good, but they also learn that the goal is to not have thoughts," says Campbell, explaining a common misconception about what it means to be mindful. It's not about eliminating thoughts but acknowledging them and letting go.
Before you can embark on a journey toward living in the moment, you must understand what this really means and rid yourself of expectations. "We're human and it's human nature to have thoughts. The goal is to observe your thoughts, and if it's something that's negative or judgmental—to even acknowledge the fact that you had that negative or judgmental thought—just the observation of it is the goal. And then you let it go," Campbell explains.
This practice is ideal for anyone dealing with stress, anxiety, and even physical pain. "One of the biggest contributors to poor health—both physical and mental—is stress, so living in the present moment and practicing mindfulness helps reduce stress [and] helps reduce the feelings of pain," says Campbell.
Beyond the mental and physical benefits, this practice has an effect on the emotional side as well. "You tend to have better relationships when you're living in the moment," she says. You can work on this by paying attention and engaging in active listening when talking with a friend or S.O. instead of tuning out and thinking about a checklist of what you need to do later or something that happened earlier that day. "It helps you feel more vibrant, more alive—it helps the relationship be more caring and loving."
"Everyday, as often as possible, focus on taking deep breaths in and then deep breaths out," says Campbell. As you breathe in, visualize that you're breathing in cleansing energy and positivity. As you breathe out, visualize breathing out toxins and negativity from the body. According to Campbell, it's ideal to practice this kind of breathing for 15 to 20 minutes a day, but whenever you remember to do it, this mindful breathing can be beneficial and help bring you back into the present moment. "It's kind of like a reset," she says.
Campbell explains a concept called flow theory. "Basically, everyone has different things that get them in the flow, so you need to learn what yours is," she says. You're in the flow when you lose track of time, you're not self-conscious, and you forget about self-awareness. Everyone can experience this through different activities. For some, it's going to the gym or being at work, for others, it could be something as mundane as cleaning the house, Campbell explains. It's whatever immerses you in the present moment. "You're not focused on yourself and how you look or how you feel."
In order to live in the moment, you have to put away your smartphone, according to Campbell. To make her point, she referenced a scientific study that examined the number of people who check their phones during sex (spoiler: One study found that one in 10 people admitted to checking their phone during sex). Clearly, none of them were living in the moment. "[Your smartphone] needs to be put away when you're interacting with others," she says. "It takes you out of the present moment."
Additionally, Campbell suggests that technology causes people to live for their social media profile, instead of for the moment. One example of this is when the crowd at a concert is dotted with bright phone screens. "Rather than being fully immersed in that moment and enjoying what they're hearing and paying attention to their senses, they're paying attention to what their smartphone is capturing and how that's gonna play out on social media—how many likes will they get or what image will it help create for them," Campbell says.
Campbell suggests retraining your brain as a practice of living in the moment. She believes that it's important to identify moments when you have negative thought patterns, like if you find yourself dwelling on something from the past. Once you recognize this, disrupt your negative thoughts instead of reinforcing them. "The more you reinforce the negative in your brain in those thought patterns, then the more difficult it will be to break," Campbell explains. "Start recognizing what you're ruminating about, disrupt them, and replace it with something." Campbell's go-to thought is having coffee on the beach in Miami because she is always happy when she's there in that moment. Pick a memory like this to disrupt negative thoughts with more enjoyable ones.