Being Present – The Art of Paying Attention

For many of us, the phrase “pay attention” conjures up memories of parents, teachers, and maybe even bosses who would scold us for not being focused on what they felt we “should” be focused on. But paying attention has a much deeper and fundamental meaning. Paying attention is the equivalent of being present.

We’ve all had intense moments of presence. For example, someone driving in front of you brakes really hard and you almost hit them. You feel present then, don’t you? But it’s also possible to be present on a more regular basis. Before I explain how, let’s first discuss the rationale for being present.

Consider the alternatives. Living predominantly in the past is tragic. What kind of life is it to always dwell on what we used to have, what we could have or should have done, never forgiving others for the ways they’ve “wronged” us, and regretting missed opportunities or poor choices? Nothing can be done about the past, nothing can be changed.

Living in the future also has its problems, though it’s arguably a step forward (no pun intended) because future-thinking implies growth. The problem with living in the future is that the future only exists in your mind. Whereas the past is a story, the future is dream.

Clearly there’s a time to reflect on the past: to learn from past mistakes, to boost our confidence by remembering successes, to strengthen our relationships by reminiscing about shared experiences. And a time to visualize the future: to set goals, to avoid obstacles, to plan for growth, to anticipate new experiences. But to do so at the cost of the present moment is to miss the point.

The only thing that is real is the present moment. Life, as I like to say, is in the present tense.

Try this exercise, right now. You might be in a passive reading mode and telling yourself you’ll do it later, but please take this opportunity to do it now.

  1. Sit quietly with your eyes closed and notice what you are experiencing. Don’t judge it. Just for a moment, let go of the feeling of wanting a different experience, and pay attention to the Now.
  2. Focus your attention inward and notice what you’re feeling. What mood are you in? Resist the urge to judge your mood or change it. Is there a particular emotion you’re feeling that you might not have been aware of a moment ago? Is there another emotion below that one, maybe subtler but still affecting how you feel?
  3. Now focus your attention outward. What sounds and smells do you notice that you weren’t aware of a moment ago? What sensations can you feel in your body that your mind has been filtering out until now? Focus on your big toe on your left foot or how it feels to sit in your chair. Now focus on the temperature of the air that you’re breathing, the feeling in your chest as it expands and contracts, and the sound your breath makes.

Don’t you feel more alive when you are present? Are you surprised by all of the things you noticed—inside and out—that you hadn’t noticed before? These sensations were there all the time, only you weren’t paying attention to them.

What you just did was a meditation. What I love most about this kind of meditation is that it can make the mundane feel magical. Try it the next time you brush your teeth. Notice the sounds of the brush against your teeth and the water against the sink. Notice the smell of the toothpaste, the feeling in your gums, and the temperature of the water. Or try it the next time you’re bored. You can use this technique to bring more life into any situation.

As the saying goes, this moment right now is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present. You are an artist and the world is your canvas. And you can create great masterpieces just by paying attention.

©2006 Curtis G. Schmitt

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