Family Counseling & Psychology Center
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The Gifts of the Present Moment

By Melissa Estes, LMFT, LCPC


If I close my eyes and remember a morning I spent collecting seashells while on a family trip years ago, I can vividly recall the faded pink plastic bucket I carried, see the colorful shells scattered like tossed confetti all around me, feel the sensations of cool, wet sand under my feet, and of gravity tugging lightly on my ankles from the angled beach.  I can hear the sound of waves, as rhythmic as breathing, and the impatient cries of gulls.  I can enjoy the contrast of warm sunshine and cool breezes on my skin, and can smell seawater, fish, and sunblock.   When lived, these experiences together produced a feeling of pure contentment and peace.  When recalled, these experiences are muted but still pleasant.  How much more muted would they be if while walking the beach I’d been thinking worriedly about my risk of skin cancer?  What if I’d been dwelling on an argument I’d had with my husband that hadn’t been resolved? My best guess is I would have had less awareness of the details of my experience and feelings of anxiety or melancholy would have obscured the peaceful, sensation-saturated moments shell collecting offered.


In an article on mindfulness, Steve Bradt of the Harvard Gazette, referenced research conducted at Harvard University:  “People spend 46.9% of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing, and this mind-wandering typically makes them unhappy.”   Harvard University psychologists, Matthew Killingworth and Daniel T. Gilbert, who published their research in the journal, Science, collected data on 2,250 people and found “mind wandering was generally the cause and not the consequence of unhappiness.”  Likewise, rumination, a maladaptive form of self-reflection that involves replaying scenes of distressful events or worrisome “what if” scenarios, is closely associated with depression and anxiety.  This quote by Mark Twain aptly describes a habit of rumination: “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them have never happened.”


By contrast, mindfulness is a state of present-moment, non-judgmental awareness.  Unlike rumination, it allows us freedom from past or future concerns. It’s the state I experienced while on my beach walk.  When in a state of mindfulness, the brain is active in regions associated with focus, self-control, purposeful behavior, flexible thinking, enhanced creativity, improved decision-making, and lower states of stress, anxiety, anger, and depression. Mindfulness meditation has been proven by neuroscientists to physically reshape the brain in ways that positively affect stress, worry, depression, inattention, and relationship problems.  Harvard Business Review published an article by Christine Congleton and colleagues, Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain, that details data pooled from more than 20 studies and identifies eight regions of the brain consistently affected by mindfulness meditation.  According to Andy Puddicome of, a mindfulness meditation website, 90% of people with clinical levels of anxiety experienced significant reductions in anxiety after practicing mindfulness meditation regularly.  Mindfulness practice has become a reliable and effective method of relapse prevention in the treatment of depression.


Although meditation is an excellent method of developing the brain structure conducive to good mental health, it isn’t the only way to experience mindfulness.  You are in a state of mindfulness whenever you’re attentive to the present-moment, are observing your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations non-judgmentally and allowing a flowing state of consciousness rather than dwelling on, judging, or identifying with a thought or emotion.  We understand this intuitively.  How often will we describe our inner mental state as “stuck” when we’re feeling stressed, anxious, or depressed?  To further illustrate this difference between mindfulness and “stuckness” consider the following scenario:  Pretend for a minute that you’ve just been locked into the seat of a rollercoaster.   You notice that there is unpleasant pressure on your chest and you’re having anxious thoughts and feelings about becoming claustrophobic and panicked.  When the ride starts, you notice that your feelings shift into exhilaration and the sensation of tightness on your chest now becomes more comfortable due to the sense of security the restraints provide.  Being mindful, you’re not locked into claustrophobic thoughts or feelings.  You hear screaming and sounds of struggle beside you and rightfully deduce that your friend who dismissed your suggestions to learn mindfulness meditation has succumbed to ruminations of amusement park disasters and is now trying irrationally to escape from his seat as the rollercoaster begins the assent up the track.


A simple way to become mindful is to drop into your body by focusing briefly on your breath and on your five senses.  Take a few deep breaths, breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth.  Place your hand on your diaphragm and notice the rise and fall of your abdomen as you breath.  Next, spend 30-45 seconds paying attention to each of your senses. First notice what you can hear:  What are the close up sounds?  What sounds are more distant?  What sounds are pleasant to you or unpleasant? Next, without moving your eyes and keeping a soft focus, what is in your field of vision? In a similar way, notice what sensations come to you through your skin, your sense of touch?  Lastly, what can you smell and taste?


To be mindful of your mental experience use a labeling technique by saying to yourself, “Thought”, when you notice that you’ve been thinking, or “Feeling” when you become aware of an emotion that you’re feeling.  It’s a little like being a sportscaster for your mind, describing the action as it’s happening.


Being fully engaged in the present moment has tremendous benefits for optimal living.  Neuroscience has given us concrete evidence of the effectiveness and healthfulness of practices long advocated by religious and philosophical traditions.  Fortunately, mindfulness meditation is easy to learn and can begin to produce physical changes in as little as eight weeks of daily practice.  Any activity that we do on a daily basis:  having a conversation, showering, driving or riding in a car, doing housework, going for a walk can be done in a mindful state.  Sources for guided meditations include, Youtube, and TED talks.  There are a multitude of books and articles on the subject as well written by famous practitioners and teachers of mindfulness including: Tara Brach, Thich Nhat-Hanh, Pema Chodron, John Kabat-Zinn, and Rick Hanson.


 Melissa Estes, LMFT, LCPC