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Five ways to wellbeing, part 3: Take notice

Written by Koen Smets (4 Dec 2014)

Right now a moment of time is passing by! We must become that moment. — Paul Cezanne

One of the reasons why we sometimes find ourselves struggling mentally is that our thoughts drift off to bad memories or things we regret (not) doing from the past, or to their uncertainties and fears about the future. Mindfulness has become a trendy term for an approach to help you keep your thoughts in the present.

There are plenty of sources of simple mindfulness exercises, some no more than a few minutes long - freemindfulness.org is one. But being mindful of the present does not need to be limited to specific exercises: when you are fully aware of what you see, hear, taste, smell or feel, the present automatically comes to the fore and fills your consciousness. I am not so good at remembering exercises, and I sometimes find them a bit artificial.

So I tried a different tack. I started choosing a few trigger moments at the beginning of the day, for instance the moment I would first sit down at my workstation, when I would drink a cup of water, when I would go out to grab some lunch, or when I’d be waiting for the underground train home in the evening – a bit like remembering to buy eggs when going to the grocer’s.

When a trigger moment arrives, I take a mental step back, and I allow my attention to focus on my senses. "How does this chair feel? What if I move a little?" "Strange how the water surface vibrates when I speak!" "I hadn’t noticed before how many tints of grey you can see in a cloudy sky…" "That scent of oil and steel - that really is the smell of the Tube."

I found that the sense of the present, the now is overwhelming when I do this kind of thing. The past and the future do exist, but they’re out of the way, and are not affecting my thoughts. Strangely, since I started doing this, I have found I am now taking notice more and more without the need for a trigger. I am driving down the motorway on a cold winter morning, and I spot how beautiful the frosty fields and trees look in the early sunlight – and the anxiety about the presentation I need to give to some important clients this afternoon dissolves in the background. The radio is playing a tune that I don’t know, but the unusual bass line catches my attention: its sound penetrates my thoughts and as I try to follow it, it seems to push away the unpleasant memory of the argument I had with my children this morning.

The present is always here, ready to help us displace bad thoughts to do with the past or the future. Trigger moments can help us sharpen our ability to pay attention to our senses and get in touch with the present so we are able to put future anxieties and negative memories into perspective.