Many spiritual and religious traditions talk about the human tendency to spend too much time outside the present moment. According to a Harvard University study, we spend almost fifty percent of the time we are awake, not thinking about what we are doing.
So, what are we thinking about instead? Well, we either ruminate about things that happened in the past or we worry about things that yet have to come. The latter often goes hand in hand with fantasies about negative outcomes. This is not only time consuming; it also evokes emotions that might cause unnecessary pain.
If you find yourself lost in mental chatter, there are ways to get out of this. These are often simple tricks that, however, take discipline to pull off. I’ll start with the first one:
1) Breathing meditation
An easy way to find relief from overthinking is watching the breath and how the body and mind react to it. The Buddhists call this Ānāpānasati, which means mindfulness of breathing. This is not the same as breathing exercises, in which one purposefully controls the rhythm of the breath. Based on the Buddhist tradition, we can do breath meditation in several stages. The first stage is the contemplation of the body, thus, watching the breath and sensations of different body parts. The second stage is the contemplation of feelings, like anger, and how they linger in the mind. The third stage is focusing on thoughts and how they come and go.
2) Feeling the inner body
Most of our bodily processes go completely autopilot. An effective escape from the immersion in all kinds of thinking patterns is focusing on what’s going on inside. You can look at the tightness of the muscles, for example, or focus on the digestive system. When you do this you will find out that the inner body is a very lively place. Keeping your focus on the liveliness keeps you in the now and makes you calmer.
This is basically a part of Buddhist breathing meditation, but it can be used as a standalone practice as well to trick the mind into the present moment immediately. Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle teaches this practice in his book The Power Of Now.
Touch is another way to get rid of the maelstrom of thought. There are different ways to do this. One of them goes simply by sitting on a chair and observe how the buttocks touch the seat.
Another method is holding a small object in your hand like a marble or, perhaps, a piece of food and focus on how this feels to your fingers. Or how about focusing on the simple act of washing your hands and brushing your teeth? We mostly aren’t very mindful of these daily activities because the mind is somewhere else. But they are great opportunities to become present.
4) Reciting mantras
A mantra is a sound, that could be sacred in nature and could also consist of a word or several words. The most basic mantra is ohmm… which they call the source of all mantras in Hinduism. But there are countless other examples of mantras. In Buddhism, it is the recitation of the name of the Buddha. Once I spent a few days in a Hare Krishna monastery, and the monks there recited the same sentence all over again:
Hare Kṛṣṇa Hare Kṛṣṇa
Kṛṣṇa Kṛṣṇa Hare Hare
Hare Rāma Hare Rāma
Rāma Rāma Hare Hare
In Islam they also have a mantra which goes like this:
La ilaha illallah
… which means: there is no God but Allah. Mantras don’t have to be religious, though. And there is no consensus whether a mantra should have meaning or not. But the repetitive nature of engaging in mantras – also called mantra meditation – gives the mind something to focus on that happens in the present moment. This quiets the mind.
5) Waiting for the next thought
The first time I heard of this trick was by Eckhart Tolle, again from his book The Power Of Now. This practice is terribly simple, yet surprisingly effective. The only thing you have to do is to become conscious of your thoughts. Then, ask yourself: what will my next thought be? If you really focus on the anticipation of the next thought, something special will happen. Try it yourself and you will see what I mean.
6) Awareness of silence
If you listen very closely you’ll discover that the world is never truly silent. There might be sounds of traffic in the distance, sounds of birds or maybe the wind. Even if you spend time in an anechoic chamber you will not experience complete silence as long as you’re breathing and your body is alive which, obviously, produces sound. What will happen however is that you become aware of the more sophisticated sounds of the environment? The mind becomes very curious about what’s happening in the distance and will focus all its attention on discovering silence in subtlety.
7) Listening closely to words
This practice works for social anxiety as well. In fact, dr. Jordan Peterson proposes this practice to overcome the fear of talking to people. By listening closely to what people have to say, you basically shift your attention from your thoughts to the person speaking. Having dealt with social anxiety myself, I can say the following. When I’m socially anxious or shy, I´m entangled in thoughts like:
- What do I have to say now?
- What can I say to impress this person or…
- Why the hell did I have to say this?
The nature of these questions is that they relate to the past and the future. Thus, when someone is speaking to me I rather focus on what I said earlier or what I am going to say, instead of truly listening. The secret is: when I fully focus on what the other person is saying, my own words often come naturally and without hesitation.
8) Focusing on movement
Every day we make a series of movements that are basically on auto-pilot. This could be cleaning, doing the dishes, walking from home to the bus station, sitting down, standing up, going to the bathroom or shaking hands with people. Because such movements are of frequent occurrence, we often don’t pay any attention to them. Instead, we think, plot, ruminate, worry, et cetera. Now, instead of spending time in our minds, we can also focus on these ordinary movements. This seems kind of pointless, but it surely takes our focus away from excessive thinking and directs it to what’s happening right now.
So, that’s it! I hope these methods help you to be more present. They sure help me and believe me, I’ve always been a chronic overthinker.