Contacting the present moment means being psychologically present in the here and now, consciously connecting with and engaging in whatever is currently happening. Harris (2009) uses the catch phrase “Be Here Now” to help us remember what it means.
Other terms commonly used to refer to this idea include: being present in the moment; being conscious; awareness; being here and now; being in the now; flexible attention; and being psychologically present.
Most of the time human beings are not fully present in the moment. When we try to sit quietly our minds are usually occupied by many different thoughts about the past or the future. When we have time on our hands most of us prefer to pursue distractions such as talking, listening to music, or playing with technology. When we are actively doing things, instead of being fully conscious we are often on “automatic pilot” or “going through the motions”.
“Contacting the present moment means being in the here and now, fully conscious of our experience, instead of being lost in our thoughts. It involves flexibly paying attention to both the inner psychological world and the outer material world” (Harris, 2009; p156).
Prompting a client to make contact with the present moment can be used repeatedly and frequently throughout our work together and is particularly helpful when clients are acting impulsively, lacking in self awareness, when their behaviour is being driven by strong emotions or when they are overly preoccupied with the past or the future (Harris, 2009; p156). Whenever “our client seems to be experiencing emotional distress, it’s useful to bring him into contact with the present” (p166).
The aims and benefits of contacting the present moment include accurately perceiving what is happening, gathering information about whether to change or persist in what we are doing, and to get more enjoyment and fulfilment from whatever we are doing.
The basic technique or method is very straightforward. It simply involves asking the client to notice what is happening here and now, either in their own mind or body, or in the outer world (Harris, 2009; p156)
The basic formula is “Notice X”. X can be a thought, a feeling, a sensation, or anything that we can see, hear, touch, taste or smell. Other ways of saying ‘Notice’ include observe, focus on, be aware of, or bring your awareness to.
Well before we introduce a client formally to the idea of contacting the present moment, and before we teach formal exercises, we can begin the process by regularly asking the client to notice what is happening in this moment. “Notice what your mind is telling you right now”, “Bring your awareness to your thoughts”, “Notice what’s happening in your body right now”, “What are you feeling?”, “As you make that commitment, what is showing up for you?”, and so on. [see Note H2i]
A core skill in contacting the present moment is flexible attention. This involves the ability to move attention around to different aspects of current experience. This skill is taught when we move to the formal teaching of mindfulness. The wide array of exercises designed to teach awareness and presence in the moment almost all involve practising the skill of focusing, and flexibly moving attention.
Harris (2009) describes a number of exercises that can be used for different situations. Most of these involve a script that can be read out loud to guide the client. These scripts should be read slowly and calmly with plenty of pauses [see Note H2ii].
Mindfulness of breath is a meditation-based exercise and one of the most widely used exercises for teaching and learning contact with the present moment. It involves focusing attention on the flow of breath in and out of the nostrils and all of the sensations affecting other parts of the body as we breathe. When learning the exercise we start with 5 minutes, then build up to 20 minutes over time with independent practice. Harris (2009; p160-161) provides a script for the Mindfulness of breath exercise.
Mindfulness of your hand is an exercise for focusing attention on a physical object. It helps us to learn to be fully present with our senses by reconnecting with our curiosity and refining our observational powers. Harris provides a script for the Mindfulness of your hand exercise including questions for debriefing and exploring how this exercise could be applied to enhancing presence with other aspects of life.
Mindfulness of eating a raisin is an exercise that demonstrates how being more fully present in the moment can lead to increased sensory fulfilment and satisfaction. Any small bite such as a nut or fresh berry could serve instead of a raisin. This exercise is particularly good for clients who are depressed and complain they get no pleasure from things they used to enjoy. Harris (2009; p163-164) provides a script for the Mindfulness of eating a raisin exercise.
Note H2ii These scripts can be audio recorded and given to the client for practice at home. It is a good idea to practice reading them out loud to yourself before trying them with a client for the first time.
Harris also provides some downloadable audio files on his website www.actmadesimple.com but he notes that clients often prefer to listen to the voice of their own therapist.
These notes are based on Harris (2009), Chapters 1 & 9; as well as Hayes and Smith (2005), Chapter 8.