ACT: Contacting the Present Moment
Contrary to popular belief, mindfulness isn’t about meditating in a dark room with your eyes closed. Another common misconception is to be mindful, one needs to not think about anything! In fact, mindfulness is about being aware of the present moment, without judgement.
It’s a set of skills that involves paying attention with a genuinely curious and open mind to what is happening around us, including how we’re responding to the things around us.
It’s not only about focusing on your physical surroundings, but also about being aware of what’s happening inside of your changes in emotions, body sensations and thoughts in response to the outside world.
Let’s assume that you just encountered an upsetting situation. Notice your breathing, your heart rate, your sweaty palms. Notice the emotional reaction that’s stirring inside of you. Are you noticing anger? Anxiety? These are signals your body gives you when it feels like it’s in danger and being aware of them will not only help you name your emotional reactions, but it’ll help you manage them better.
By practicing mindfulness, we inevitably practice one of ACT’s basic processes – contacting the present moment. While it may sound daunting and abstract, it’s actually quite simple! Like most things, it needs a bit of practice and focused attention.
Contacting the present moment has to do with being fully present and engaged with life and maintaining a focus on what’s important. This in turn develops your psychological flexibility, meaning your ability to keep a grasp on the present moment regardless of any unpleasant thoughts, feelings, or events that may be occurring at the time. With this flexibility, you will become more able to thoughtfully choose your behaviours and responses to the current situation based on values that are near and dear to you – bringing you one step closer to living the life and being the person that you want. Without such flexibility, we tend to react to what happens to or around us and act reactively.
Having this mental flexibility will also leave you better able to connect with both your inner and outer worlds while you’re going through stressful situations. Rather than becoming overwhelmed, you’ll be able to respond productively, in ways that align with your deepest values and help you become the kind of person that you want to be.
For example, let’s assume it’s Friday night and you had made plans to enjoy the evening with a group of friends. Your babysitter calls you last minute and tells you they are not available anymore because they have been exposed to COVID. Imagine that in that moment, you hang up the phone and start breathing. Breathing in, breathing out. Slower and deeper than usual. You do this for about 15 seconds and come to awareness that you feel angry about the situation. You also notice wanting to yell at people around you to let out the frustration, but in your awareness, you recognize that this is probably not the best way to react. Instead, you give yourself a moment to calm down and, as disappointed as you may be, choose to act in a way that is loving and kind towards yourself and others in the given situation. Research tells us that with sustained practice of mindfulness, we are able to become less reactive even in difficult situations.
By becoming focused, engaged, and connected with our surroundings, our ability to notice and pay attention to our thoughts and feelings will increase our self-awareness tenfold. This in turn makes it easier for us to change our behaviour to something less destructive, and this all has to do with maintaining contact with the present moment through mindfulness.