A Five-Minute Exercise to Ground Yourself in the Present
“The past is gone, the future is not yet here, and if we do not go back to ourselves in the present moment, we cannot be in touch with life.” -Thich Nhat Hanh
I love sharing the exercises I come across in my coaching and training. This one is very simple, but also an incredibly powerful way that I use to ground myself in the present moment.
Any time that I feel like I need to settle into the here and now, any time I feel pulled and distracted by life, I can try this. It only takes a couple of minutes.
First, I make sure that I have a few minutes of quiet, uninterrupted time, in a space where I can stand and move around a bit. Since I already have a routine for meditation or prayer, I sometimes add this to my morning habit.
The first step is finding two objects. Any two objects can do — a pen, a phone, a wallet, a picture. One of these objects will represent the past, and one of these objects will represent the future. Then, looking at each one, I ask: what do I notice about the ideas of past and future in each object?
Now, I stand up and find a bit of clear floorspace. Standing with my feet shoulder-width apart, I place the object that represents the past near my left foot and the object that represents the future near my right foot.
I close my eyes and take a few big, deep breaths. Letting my mind wander a bit. Relaxing.
Finding your balance in “now”
Now the exercise begins. I…
Lean left as far as I can without losing my balance or lifting my other foot. I imagine what my life was like one year ago, really searching for detail. On this same day one year ago, where was I? What was I feeling and thinking? What was I struggling with and what was I celebrating? Who was I as a person? I stay here for a few breaths.
Lean right as far as I can without losing my balance. I imagine what my life will be like one year from now, letting myself be vividly imaginative. On this same day one year from now, where will I be? What will I be feeling and thinking? What will I be struggling with and what will I be celebrating? Who will I be as a person? I stay here for a few more breaths.
Lean left again. I imagine my life on this day last month, digging for the detail of exactly where I was, physically and emotionally. What was I doing at the same time of day? What was it like to be in that life a month ago? Stay here.
Lean right again. I imagine my life on this day next month, unlocking my dreaming brain and search for what life can be like. What will I be doing at the same time of day? What will it be like to be in this life a month from now? Stay here.
Lean left. What was my life like last week? Really exploring. Staying with the memories for a bit.
Lean right. What will my life be like next week? Sinking into the imagination and letting myself live there for a while.
Lean left. Remember my life yesterday, at this hour, at this minute. Lean right. Imagine my life tomorrow, at this hour, at this minute.
Lean left, life an hour ago. Lean right, life an hour from now. Lean left, a minute ago. Lean right, a minute from now.
Lean left and right to the timing of a ticking clock. I take myself into the impossibly small window of time one second ago and one second from now, tracking as the future second becomes the past second, rocking left and right. Stay with it.
Stop. Zoom all the way in, to this exact moment. Be in this present moment. I feel my feet planted solidly on the ground, balanced between the past on my left and the future on my right. What’s here now? What is it like to be on the razor’s edge of time at this present moment? What do I notice? What do I feel?
When I’m ready, I open my eyes.
Questions for reflection
At the end of this exercise, I often want to explore a little further with a question. Here are some ideas, but I only choose one and just let it drop into my awareness, like a stone dropping into a lake. I’m trying not to focus on the answer so much that I lose sight of the question. I just let it drop in and see what ripples out.
What is it like to be in this moment?What do you notice?What do you feel?What new information is here for you now?What do you want for yourself?What really matters to you?What are you trying to build?
I find that this is more powerful if I use the second-person “you” or even my name versus “I” when asking myself these questions. “Jason, what do you notice?” feels less analytical than asking “What do I notice?”
Why being in the present matters
“The great science to live happily is to live in the present.” -Pythagoras
Being grounded in the present is a basis for a lot of meditation, mindfulness, and awareness principles. But why does it matter?
One reason is because it allows us to take stock and practice gratitude. Staying in the present means accepting and appreciating where you are, right now. It also allows us to focus on what matters and make better choices, choices more aligned with what we truly want and need.
Practically, it can also be good for us. The practice of staying in the present means that we are staying in a place where you can actually affect change and make decisions. The past is gone and the future is unwritten. But right here, right now, we are the captains of our destiny.
As an example, one research study out of the University of Washington showed that a mindfulness-based approach of living in the present moment significantly helped patients reduce incidence of addiction relapse and substance abuse, more so than cognitive behavior therapy or a twelve-step program. Staying in the present allowed patients to “monitor and skillfully cope with discomfort associated with craving or negative affect.”
Presence is not always about sitting with the happy thoughts. Pain and discomfort can push us out of the now and distract us from feeling bad. But often this is only a short-term solution.
A friend of mine and trained mindfulness coach recently shared with me that, in the face of all of the anxieties and worries of life, the most peace he’s consistently found for himself is coming back to the present. Not to overcome these feelings, but to accept them.
“Eternity belongs to those who live in the present.” -Ludwig Wittgenstein
Try this today, while it’s fresh in your mind. Experiment with it, adapt it, and make it your own. But more than anything, just try it.
This is an amazing exercise to do individually, but it’s also an awesome way to kick off a workshop. What a great way to bring people back from their distractions and into the here and now!
What would it be like if you were brave enough to start a meeting this way? How different would that meeting be than your typical meetings? What would it be like to do this with a partner, or children?
I’m excited for you to take a few minutes and explore the present moment. As always, let me know how it goes.
Originally published in Be Yourself