Inhabit the Present
We continue our series on The Art of Now, from a 2008 article by Jay Dixit in Psychology Today. Today we’ll focus on one simple step that any of us can take at any moment throughout the day that can not only help us release stress and focus on the Now, but could also as a critical exercise in helping to save your relationship(s) with others.
If you want a future with your significant other,
inhabit the present (breathe).
Living consciously with alert interest has a powerful effect on interpersonal life. Mindfulness actually inoculates people against aggressive impulses, say Whitney Heppner and Michael Kernis of the University of Georgia. In a study they conducted, each subject was told that other subjects were forming a group—and taking a vote on whether she could join. Five minutes later, the experimenter announced the results—either the subject had gotten the least number of votes and been rejected or she’d been accepted. Beforehand, half the subjects had undergone a mindfulness exercise in which each slowly ate a raisin, savoring its taste and texture and focusing on each sensation.
Later, in what they thought was a separate experiment, subjects had the opportunity to deliver a painful blast of noise to another person. Among subjects who hadn’t eaten the raisin, those who were told they’d been rejected by the group became aggressive, inflicting long and painful sonic blasts without provocation. Stung by social rejection, they took it out on other people.
But among those who’d eaten the raisin first, it didn’t matter whether they’d been ostracized or embraced. Either way, they were serene and unwilling to inflict pain on others—exactly like those who were given word of social acceptance.
How does being in the moment make you less aggressive? “Mindfulness decreases ego involvement,” explains Kernis. “So people are less likely to link their self-esteem to events and more likely to take things at face value.” Mindfulness also makes people feel more connected to other people—that empathic feeling of being “at one with the universe.”
Mindfulness boosts your awareness of how you interpret and react to what’s happening in your mind. It increases the gap between emotional impulse and action, allowing you to do what Buddhists call recognizing the spark before the flame. Focusing on the present reboots your mind so you can respond thoughtfully rather than automatically. Instead of lashing out in anger, backing down in fear, or mindlessly indulging a passing craving, you get the opportunity to say to yourself, “This is the emotion I’m feeling. How should I respond?”
Mindfulness increases self-control; since you’re not getting thrown by threats to your self-esteem, you’re better able to regulate your behavior. That’s the other irony: Inhabiting your own mind more fully has a powerful effect on your interactions with others.
Of course, during a flare-up with your significant other it’s rarely practical to duck out and savor a raisin. But there’s a simple exercise you can do anywhere, anytime to induce mindfulness: Breathe. As it turns out, the advice my friend got in the desert was spot-on. There’s no better way to bring yourself into the present moment than to focus on your breathing. Because you’re placing your awareness on what’s happening right now, you propel yourself powerfully into the present moment. For many, focusing on the breath is the preferred method of orienting themselves to the now—not because the breath has some magical property, but because it’s always there with you.
Now . . . stop everything you’re doing and take a moment to . . . just . . . breathe.
Isn’t that better?