Think about the last time you rode a roller coaster.
You felt the air whipping past your ears, the lurch of your stomach as it bounced along and those few moments of complete exhilaration. Or maybe it was terror?
The point is for those few moments you couldn't help but be present. The thrill of the ride and the full engagement it demanded from your body and all your senses forced you to be perfectly situated in the moment.
"What do you mean?" the little voice in your head says. "I'm always in the present moment."
But that's just it. Any time you start having an internal dialogue with that little voice, you've immediately gone somewhere else. It's similar to the way you're not living in the present when you harp on past events, or project into the future.
That's because being fully present in the moment, while the richest way to engage in life and your surroundings, is not something we're hardwired to do.
"Being present occurs when your senses are activated, when you're aware of them," says psychotherapist Suzanne LaCombe, who also writes extensively on the subject. "It's that quality of experiencing yourself as you are in your environment . . . being attuned to the here and now."
Unfortunately, that presence of mind is difficult to attain. Most of us have a tendency to physically arrive at our various destinations, but forget to bring our brains along. For instance, when we sit down with a friend for lunch and then spend the majority of the meal planning our grocery list for the week.
But don't worry. It doesn't make you a bad person. "It's not that the person is doing anything wrong," says LaCombe, "it's that the brain is predisposed to do this, to go into these patterned, routinized behaviours."
Part of the problem has to do with the over-stimulation of everyday life. From the dozens of emails that pop into our mailboxes each day, to the endless procession of domestic responsibilities, it's no wonder we have trouble stilling our minds and focusing.
"One of the reasons it's hard for us to be present is that our activation levels are too high, we are too buzzed from the inside," says LaCombe. "If you're buzzed from the inside, it sends a message to our brain to be on alert. And when we're on alert we are anticipating danger and we're more easily triggered into past tense because the past will tell us about the future. So we're in the past and we're the future but were not in the present."
While there's nothing inherently wrong with this mode of behaviour, the real danger is waking up one day and wondering where the last decade has gone.
"The experience of time comes from within us," LaCombe says. "When we're younger, our activation is high. I compare it to a car that's revving and just continues to rev. But if we are more chilled out on the inside, we can be more present. And if I'm not present, I'm not living my life. So you can get to a ripe old age and look back and it can all seem like a blur."
That sense of being present allows us to marvel at a beautiful sunset, revel in a favourite song, or lose ourselves in a soft serve ice cream cone.
If we're constantly thinking of something else, we miss the joys inherent in these small, but integral things and start seeking out excitement, or the next "fix" to compensate.
In the same way, we also jeopardize our relationships. Do you have a tendency to come home from work, throw a perfunctory hello at your partner, and then run off to do your own thing?
Failure to engage in a meaningful, present way is one of the surest ways to erode relationships.
The good news is there are ways to slow down and rewire your brain into being present. While LaCombe says psychotherapy can play a crucial role in this process, you can also try small steps on your own, like physically engaging your body.
Try yoga, or an activity that engages the core, like tai chi or kettlebells. By activating the muscles, you trigger the right brain, which taps into the senses and pulls you automatically into the present.
Also try setting aside time each day to really engage with your partner. Even if it's mundane, try to focus on what she's saying, or the details of his day. Start with 15 minutes and try to build from there. No grocery lists.
Of course, each person is different, and will respond to different triggers. The key is committing to the intention of being present, and seeking out what you need to get there. And while you'll never stop thinking past and future thoughts, the idea is to learn how exist more often in the present.
Perhaps most importantly, don't forget to have fun. Adding a little playfulness to your day will do more than help you focus on the present. It will keep you young at heart to enjoy it for decades to come.