3 Obstacles to Living in the Now (and How to Get Blissfully Present Again)

“Never underestimate the desire to bolt.” ~ Pema Chodron

I have been trying this present moment awareness thing for a while now, about two years, and I have to say, it's not going quite like I expected.

Somehow I got it in to my silly little head that after a while I would stop bolting from reality and I would just be present all the time, with complete effortlessness. Wrong.

And if there was any lingering doubt as to the flaw in my plan, I then read a number of accounts by people who have been practitioners of present moment awareness for something like twenty or thirty years, and they said they still run away from the present moment sometimes. Damn.

So clearly my unreasonable expectations have got to be changed.

I also noticed that since I have been doing this for a while now, the why and how I flee the present moment has changed.

I used to flee in overt and rather extreme ways, and still do sometimes, like binge eating and excessive TV watching.

But now that the more extreme behaviors have lessened, bolting from reality happens in much more subtle ways, usually obsessive thought. Here are the three most common ways:

1. Lack of compassion.

People do things that tick me off. It's just a part of life. Anger is a naturally occurring emotion; there’s nothing wrong with that. Where it becomes a problem for me is when I get lost in that mental commentary of “what they did and how awful it was.”

This track of obsessive thoughts can go on for a long, long time. And when I am stuck in that story of “what they did and how awful it was” I am nowhere near the present moment.

I don't have to like everything everyone does. I need to be honest about my anger and feel it. But that story about how stupid and pathetic other people are keeps me in my unhappy mind and not in the present moment.

Solution? When I remember what I struggle with—my flaws that are most embarrassing to me, that I dearly wish would go away—then I can get in touch with the part of me that needs compassion. And I can feel how painful it is for others to stand in judgment of my flaws.

The secret is that the part of me that needs compassion is the same part that can give it to others. Remembering specifically how I'm not perfect helps me have compassion on others, and that works to break the spell of the “Unhappy story of what they did.”

2. Lack of gratitude.

I recently read that the brain, being a problem-solving machine, has a natural negativity bias for the purpose of identifying problems. That's great. What's not great is spending all of your time in your head instead of living in your immediate life experience.

When I am stuck in my head instead of being in my present moment, my whole life becomes a long stream of obsessive thoughts about “my problems.” I focus on what I don't like about a situation, what I don't like about my reaction to that situation—and here is the important part—to the exclusion of everything else.

Solution? Making the conscious choice to find the good stuff—to identify the things that do work out and what I did get right—makes a huge difference in breaking the spell of “everything sucks.” This helps me see my present moment for what it really is: some stuff I don't like, but mostly lots of good stuff.

And there is always good stuff, I promise. Here is a tip: if you cannot think of any good stuff, think of how it could be worse. For example, you could have no limbs or live in a far more dangerous part of the world

3. Panic.

When I realize I have been absent from myself, coming back home to my present moment experience can be a struggle. And it can take a long time, because there is panic in me over the idea that I have “done something wrong,” which creates a striving and straining to “do it right.”

Typically, I over think it, try way too hard, and make it some kind of contest, although I have no idea who I think I am competing with or what exactly is the rush when I tell myself things like, “Hurry up and get back in the present moment!”

Once the competitor in me is activated, I am back on the treadmill of thought about how to “fix this,” and as with all treadmills, no closer to my destination: the present moment.

Solution? Relax. Breathe. Impress it upon my mind again and again that strain does not actually help me accomplish. Good enough is good enough. Perfectionism ruins all good things. There is no contest to win and no race to finish. All this kind of panic does is help me to further elude the present moment.

This process can seem tedious, returning again and again and yet again to the present moment, then doing it all again tomorrow. But as with all things, it's all about perspective. If I can let go of the competitor, the one who is trying to achieve, win, do it right, staying awake gets much closer to effortless.

Making present moment awareness something that is achievement based only serves to keep us bound to shame, and make us feel like failures when we inevitably can't stay present 100 percent of the time.

In the crucial moment when I realize I have left the present moment again, instead of rejoicing that I am once again awake by virtue of that knowing, I often times plunge back in to unconsciousness with thoughts like “You failed again to stay present.”

What a game changer it is, upon coming home to my present moment, instead of hearing “Where have you been?” I say to myself “Welcome back.”

About April Theriot

April Theriot is a 31-year-old single mother of two, in Cincinnati OH, who works full time, is passionate about spirituality, and positively mad about nature.

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  • Life can get so busy that staying in the present becomes so hard, so these tips are great! And they let you give yourself a break too if you cannot hang onto it all the time.

    I left my job to freelance and life got less busy and more present moment. It seems that when I removed the clutter both physically and mentally, it became easier to stay present. When you feel the moment of being present, it feels so good that you wish to achieve it and hold it more often too. Kind of self-reinforcing.

  • Liz

    I have suffered from the “itis” of feeling like if I am not always grateful, in the now, happy, breathing right, thinking of my mantra, doing a yoga pose or whatever it is that makes me centered, everything will fall apart!
    I made myself crazy in the last few months beating myself up for all the things I did “wrong” instead of appreciating the ones I did right.
    So, instead of berating myself, I have started applying the patience, compassion, love and empathy I usually saved for everyone else!
    SO freeing and amazing! Thanks for the great article, it just reinforces I am on the right path! 🙂

  • Danielle Xcept No SubstituteBr

    I LOVE THIS POST! I love Pema and can hear her teaching and my own struggle herein. Thanks, so sharing this!

  • Debbie

    Wow … I’m just now trying to grasp this whole concept. I can see I’ve got a LOOOONG road ahead of me … but look forward to the day I can, like you, say “Welcome back!” Thanks for sharing … I learned ALOT from you!!! Be well!

  • Advice Over Pie

    YES!! The Panic! So very true for me. I’m very hard on myself. Thank you for this. It all makes me feel not so alone with it.

  • guest

    Why is it bad to have no limbs or live in Somalia? Plenty of people do one or both of those things, and still have worthwhile lives. That line is offensive, a shame as the rest of the article is good.

  • Tim

    I especially liked the idea at the end: welcome back. I am sure to try that, as I have a problem running away from the present moment. I am introverted, but my career forces me to come out of my shell. I will try some of the ideas you shared in your article. thank you.

  • K-Man

    “Somehow I got it in to my silly little head that after a while I would stop bolting from reality”. That was your first mistake. The NOW is reality the past and the future are just mind stuff and are not real. 🙂

  • me

    I had that thought too. Everyone’s on a path to consciousness though, so go easy on this author going out on a limb… (Sorry. I’m a sucker for a horrible pun.)

  • Andi

    I needed this for this morning. I was stuck in a part of my past and this helped me find the compassion I needed to live in the now. Now I can enjoy this beautiful morning!

  • Author

    Yes this is April and I would like to clarify that what I was meant was, I have First World Problems. There are so many people in this world who have much bigger challenges and still are happy. It’s a good reality check for me.

  • April

    (cont) One of my greatest sources of inspiration has actually been Nick Vujicic who, as you may know, was born with no limbs, and has to be the most positive and amazing person I have ever heard speak. If his life can be full and rich and happy, then I feel I have no excuse for feeling sorry for myself.

  • growthguided

    When we are consumed by thoughts we neglect to measure our internal conflict, and how much panic is residing within. Then suddenly we are blasted with a huge wave of it and think “where did it come from”, when really if we had just taken a couple minutes here and there we could have avoided the whole catastrophe! Mindfulness solutions through breathing! Remembering that no solution of any magnitude resides from a state of fear!

    thank you for for the great post April!

  • I am very quick to anger, although I have gotten incredibly efficient at hiding it and bottling it up over the years. When people are consistently insufferable, for example blatantly racist or always hypocritical, I find it hard to let it slide and give them a hug or tell them that they are fine the way they are. The only solution for me is to keep communication with these kinds of people to a bare minimum. For people that I like and respect, when they make mistakes, I have gotten better at letting it slide… and not trying to interpret some kind of messed up master plan with intent into it.

    As far as the gratitude goes, personally I actually find that to be counterproductive at times. It’s like sure I’m grateful for this, and that, and my opportunities, and my friends and family, but what am I doing with the opportunity I have been given? I’m a bit lost at the moment, trying to figure out which path in life to wander down, so maybe that’s why. But it always ends with that question for me.. maybe it’s even because I’m new to this and sort of a lifelong pessimist(but trying to change).

    Making the choice to relax was a real surprise to me. It helped me regain confidence, focus, composure.. and it’s a minute choice. One of the small things that helps me believe that I can change.

  • b

    What a game changer it is, upon coming home to my present moment, instead of hearing “Where have you been?” I say to myself “Welcome back… I actually shot my fist up in the air and cheered with joy when i heard this, awesomeness! Thanks

  • DS

    Yes! I felt the same way when I read that part!

  • “Making present moment awareness something that is achievement based only serves to keep us bound to shame” – ha! I can definitely empathize with. I can imagine people from the Occident rolling their eyes when their philosophy gets mixed with Western-based achievement. (This is not a put-down – I get into this mindset too and found it amusing that someone else verbalized it.)

    There’s this one parenting book I read from an author I really like who coined the term “Progress, not Perfection.” That kind of takes the pressure away from being perfect.

  • lv2terp

    Great post, and reminders! Being compassionate is key I agree! Thank you for sharing your insight! 🙂

  • Eddie

    There are several points on this article that I can relate to directly. Life is quite hard when your someone who has a million things in your head that your constantly trying to sort out. Worse again, when your not able to accomplish and get rid of the problem or come up with a solution. I will try some of your tips, and I hope they help.