The 5 keys to a good life are meditation, Memento Mori, gratitude, minimalism, and flow.
These five grounding techniques — backed by science and ancient philosophy — help me worry less and enjoy life more. Here is how I make each one a habit.
“We are fundamentally alone, and there is nothing anywhere to hold on to. Moreover, this is not a problem. In fact, it allows us to finally discover a completely unfabricated state of being.” — Pema Chödrön
I’m a worrier. While I enjoy the little spontaneities of everyday life, on bad days, uncertainty gets the best of me. To not know which calamities await me further down the road and what I can do to prevent them can drive me into a hell ride of worry and anxiety.
As Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki Roshi put it, after all:
“Life is like getting into a boat that’s just about to sail out to sea and sink.”
Let that sink in (pun intended!). Paradoxically, I find much comfort in Pema Chödrön’s and Shunryu Suzuki’s statements, even though they sound unsettling at first.
Deep down, we know that someday we will die and that we are alone in many of our experiences. Not alone, as in without friends or close bonds, but alone, as in ultimately, it will be just you who has to go through your darkest, saddest hours.
We cannot make these facts go away. However, we can allow them to help us experience every moment as special. We can allow them to help us worry less, and enjoy life more, in the present moment, where life ultimately takes place.
The Benefits of Life in the Present Moment
While admittedly, life in the present moment sounds like some wishy-washy woo-woo concept, it’s a legit mindset and approach to everyday life recognized by psychologists who gladly recommend it to clients who struggle with worry and anxiety.
First, a disclaimer
Nevertheless, I want to clarify I’m not a monk who mastered life in the present. I still worry, get anxious, and lose my sh*t often enough.
Also, I’m not diagnosed with any mental health disease or disorder. However, I suffer from emotional dysregulation I also tackled in therapy.
I tell you this to specify my preconditions so you know how you can relate to me.
I know living with severe mental health issues can make life in the present moment extremely challenging (a lot more so than for healthy people) and the efforts of your mind to escape the present moment can also be a result of trauma and your mind’s way to shield you.
If this is your case (and even if it’s not), don’t force your way through the tips below. You know yourself best, you do you, and you do what feels good for you.
This is my experience, and even though a scientific background and/or ancient philosophy backs it, it doesn’t mean it will work the same way for everyone.
What does it mean to live in the present moment?
The easiest way to explain the awareness of the present moment is to show what it means to not be present.
When you’re not present you’re either in the past or the future.
When you’re in the past, you dwell on memories (good or bad), ruminate on past events, and have a hard time letting go of previous injustices, rejections, discussions, regrets, etc.
When you’re in the future you might be worried, excited, stressed, or hopeful. Either way, you live in anticipation of what comes next and, based on this, try to maximize enjoyment and minimize pain.
No matter if your thoughts tend to circulate the past, future, or both, in the end, you miss out on the here and now — on the things (good and bad) that happen in the here and now.
Hence, life in the present means to direct your senses to what’s right in front of you, free from thoughts about the past or the future.
Why living in the present moment is good for our mental health
Numerous studies point out the negative effects of a constantly wandering mind.
This study of psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert, for example, found we spend roughly 47% of our waking hours on what isn’t going on and it makes us typically unhappy.
In their study, they used an iPhone Web app to gather 250,000 data points on people’s thoughts, feelings, and actions as they went about their days.
In his TEDx talk, Killingsworth elaborates on what they found and highlights the following main takeaways:
- All in all, people are substantially less happy when their mind wanders than when it doesn’t.
- * This is true also when they’re engaged in an unfavorable activity;
- * and even when they’re thinking of something pleasant (although only slightly).
However, he emphasizes how most of our thoughts tend to be negative, which might be the biggest reason why people tend to be significantly unhappier when they stray away from the present moment.
It’s not only 21st-century studies like these which suggest we’re overall happier in the present. The whole ancient philosophy of Buddhism is based on the argument the only way to true bliss is to learn to accept what is even if it causes us pain.
Chasing pleasantness by avoiding pain, on the other hand, is a surefire way to become stuck in a suffering-laden cycle of wandering.
The benefits I experienced personally
By nature, I’m a person whose thoughts run in circles. While I’m not too concerned about the past, the future with all its dangers and possibilities makes for both great agitation and anxiety.
For most of my life, I didn’t consciously know I had the option to live in the moment and take things as they come.
I realized life in the present moment is a skill I can cultivate when I first started to read about the ancient philosophies of Buddhism and Stoicism about three years ago. Since then, my outlook on life has transformed. Previously, my fears and frustrations were abysmal at times. A bad event could send me into the abyss for days straight.
When I use the word transform I don’t mean I never get anxious, worried, or furious — I do. It’s not that my personality or my thoughts as such changed. It’s rather the fact this feeling of groundlessness disappeared.
I still get worried but I rarely feel hopeless. The future can still scare me but thoughts about it rarely send me into a downward spiral of anxiety.
A specific example of how I benefitted from the philosophies and exercises below is with insomnia I’ve struggled with since I was a child. Sleepless nights used to drive me into fits of rage and total despair during the night and complete hopelessness during the day.
While a more conscious life in the present moment didn’t cure my insomnia, it helped me deal with it: I now know a few sleepless nights don’t mean I won’t ever sleep again. I know phases of bad sleep are followed by phases of good sleep and none of them are permanent. I know I can take it one day at a time and my current reality isn’t my final destination.
Why Life in the Present Moment Is So Hard
The thing is, if it were easy to experience the present moment as it is, everyone would do it and be at peace. Our ancient minds, however, are wired to fight off future dangers that could be around the corner, like a saber-toothed tiger for example.
In other words, our brains are stuck in the stone age. According to Glenn Geher, professor of evolutionary psychology at the State University of New York, New Paltz,
“Our brains are wired for certain conditions, but our surroundings no longer match those conditions.”
We call this evolutionary mismatch and it’s a root cause of chronic psychological stress.
While this sounds hopeless, I found it’s also a relief: it’s not your fault and there’s nothing wrong with you for having the fears you have.
While our brain is stuck in the stone age, the good news is, to a certain degree, we still have a choice. We have the power to question the thoughts our brain produces and decide to not believe them.
We can still have a wonderful, albeit evolutionary mismatched life.
5 Grounding Techniques to Help You Stay in the Present Moment
In the following section, I’ll walk you through five techniques that all helped me live more in the present, free myself from unnecessary anxiety, and enjoy life more.
I practice all of these regularly, can attest to them, and will note the scientific or philosophical background for each.
Prerequisite: Understand the roots of worry and why you have trouble to live in the present moment
While I hinted at evolutionary mismatch before which explains a large chunk of our present worries, understanding this is a prerequisite to living a more present, conscious life.
James Clear explains this well in his article about the evolution of anxiety. In short, we live in a delayed return environment while our brains were originally wired for immediate returns. This makes sense if you compare our hunter-gatherer ancestors to contemporary humans. The former lived from day to day and didn’t own more than they could carry while the latter (ie. you and me) are told to provide for the distant future and prepare for the right career decades before these things will actually play out.
As Robert Wright writes in Why Buddhism is True,
“[I]f you ask the question ‘What kinds of perceptions and thoughts and feelings guide us through life each day?’ the answer, at the most basic level isn’t ‘The kinds of thoughts and feelings and perceptions that give us an accurate picture of reality.’ No, at the most basic level the answer is ‘The kinds of thoughts and feelings and perceptions that helped our ancestors get genes into the next generation.’”
It helped me tremendously to become aware I’m not in the environment my brain was originally destined for and, therefore, my thoughts and feelings don’t paint an accurate picture of reality. It made me a lot more compassionate towards myself.
It made me further aware of why life in the present moment is the ultimate goal: It’s the only way to shift my focus from distant paralyzing worries to life as it plays out right in front of me.
Technique #1: Meditation
Meditation is the holy mother of mindfulness. If you’re still not sure how your mind will do everything to keep you from the present moment, sit down for ten minutes and try to focus on your breath.
As Eckhart Tolle wrote in A New Earth,
“Being aware of your breathing takes attention away from thinking and creates space. […] Being aware of your breath forces you into the present moment […]. Whenever you are conscious of the breath, you are absolutely present. You may also notice that you cannot think and be aware of your breathing.”
The point of meditation, however, isn’t to stop to think — the goal is to become aware of thoughts and be present despite them. As Pema Chödrön points out in her life-changing book When Things Fall Apart,
“In any case, the point is not to try to get rid of thoughts, but rather to see their true nature. Thoughts will run us around in circles if we buy into them, but really they are like dream images. They are like an illusion — not really all that solid.”
She also writes,
“[…] That is why it’s so good to meditate every single day and continue to make friends with our hopes and fears again and again. This sows the seeds that enable us to be more awake in the midst of everyday chaos. […] We don’t sit in meditation to become good meditators. We sit in meditation so that we’ll become more awake in our lives.”
To give you a scientific background as well on meditation, according to the Greater Good Science Center of the UC Berkeley, meditation sharpens your attention, can increase your resiliency to stress and your capacity for compassion, can have a positive impact on your relationships, and improve your physical health, among other benefits.
This study further demonstrates the efficacy of meditation in reducing anxiety.
I could go on forever about how to meditate and the positive effects meditation had on my life, but this article isn’t about that. Meditation is only one — albeit powerful — tool to help you see the present moment clearer and hence worry less.
Technique #2: The stoic practice of Memento Mori
The ancient philosophy of Stoicism is, as
Bryan Ye put it, a tool for handling pain.
To help you understand why it’s so helpful for life in the present moment, I’ll let its Wiki-description speak:
“According to its teachings, as social beings, the path to [happiness] is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself, by not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or fear of pain, by using one’s mind to understand the world and to do one’s part in nature’s plan, and by working together and treating others fairly and justly.”
While I’m lightyears away from being a stoic, there’s one part of stoicism I found particularly helpful when it comes to the reduction of my future-anxiety.
It’s called Memento Mori and translates to Remember you’ll die. The stoics use this reminder to accept death and, more importantly, appreciate what you have now.
This is easier said than done, so here’s my personal take on this:
I regularly confront myself with my biggest fear and virtually connect with people who had to face this exact fear.
To be more precise, my biggest fear ever since I lost my mum to breast cancer is to become terminally ill with a slowly deteriorating condition. The mere thought of frequent hospital visits and bodily constraints makes me miserable.
Therefore, every few days I consciously look for young people my age who have to deal with what I’m so scared of. I search for them on Instagram, read their stories, look at their pictures, and try to send them love and compassion.
This helps me to remember how lucky I am to be healthy and able-bodied and how I must never take ordinary things for granted. At the same time, in these moments, I’m hyperconscious about how this can indeed happen to me. Not necessarily, not in all probability, but it still can.
These aren’t happy thoughts and don’t go well with the excessive positivity the self-improvement industry often preaches. Nevertheless, to face my fears this way, to remember I’ll die, to remember I might die slowly and painfully, and how others are doing it right now helps me to smell those roses, stop complaining about trivial stuff, and concentrate on the beauty of my present.
Do you fear death?
Is there a way you can face it in a similar, controlled setting?
If what I do is too much for you, try to approach the question via journalling: Here are three prompts:
- How would a terminal illness or anything that would foreshadow the end of your life change how you live today?
- * Write down your present worries. How would they change in the face of a tragedy? Would you still worry about them at all?
- * What are the things you take for granted which could be taken away from you with a grave illness?
Technique #3: Gratitude practice
Despite the danger of excessive/toxic positivity I mentioned before, I’m a big advocate of a healthy gratitude practice when it comes to grounding myself in the present moment.
What’s a gratitude practice?
Simply put, practicing conscious gratitude means to recall a few things (usually 3 — 5) you have reason to be grateful for. These can be bigger things, but more importantly, the practice is here to remind us there’s lots of small stuff in our everyday lives we can be happy and grateful about.
There are lots of gratitude journals out there and many self-improvement guides suggest to start or end each day with gratitude.
This can have adverse effects, however — a healthy amount is key. Experts advise less is more when it comes to the conscious practice of gratitude. Science director of the Greater Good Science Center, Emiliana Simon-Thomas for example recommends three weekly “doses.” The reason for this, she says, is:
“For most of the so-called happiness practices there’s always the possibility of diminishing return with forced or obligatory over-repetition, like: ‘Uh, let’s see, I am grateful for Post-it notes … for being lots of colors.’ Either it gets shallow or it makes us feel overextended. Think of it like exercise — if a person exerts themselves continuously in the same kind of motion, they risk getting hurt.”
Nevertheless, a healthy amount of conscious gratitude practice can help you tremendously to stay in and appreciate the present moment:
Due to evolution, we all suffer from a negativity bias. This means
“When of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature (e.g. unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or social interactions; harmful/traumatic events) have a greater effect on one’s psychological state and processes than neutral or positive things.”
When we consciously think of what goes well in our life and which good things have happened to us we make an effort to counteract this bias.
Furthermore, this study found the practice of gratitude boosts positive affectivity, which describes how much you experience positive sensations, emotions, and sentiments.
Technique #4: Practice minimalism
While today considered an American movement, the ideas and philosophy behind minimalism are ancient and have been practiced by Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns for centuries.
Unfortunately, we mostly associate minimalism with compulsively getting rid of stuff and owning the bare essentials only, it’s so much more (and less) than that.
In the end, as Christine Platt, also known as the Afrominimalist, formulated it in her TEDx Talk, minimalism is more about the purpose than the number of the stuff you own.
“Honestly, I don’t even know how many things I own because I’ve never counted. But what I do know is that everything I have is intentional and serves a purpose because, for me, minimalism is less about the aesthetic and more about the practice.”
How can minimalism help you stay in the present moment?
In the end, a minimalist lifestyle helps you own only the stuff you need and use in the present. It can help you question sentimental items as well as just-in-case possessions.
The thing is sentimental items we associate with the past inherently come with a boatload of emotions — for better or worse. For me, owning a lot of them also carried a lot of weight.
Just-in-case items on the other hand make me worry about future outcomes. They remind me of what can go wrong and how I always need a backup plan.
I don’t say we shouldn’t keep any of these, but I found it liberating to get rid of most of them.
Minimalism is a lifestyle entire books have been written about but in the end, you do you — there’s no one right or wrong way to practice it. To go deep into the possibilities of the minimalism practice goes beyond the scope of this article, but I explore the topic in-depth here.
Technique #5: Aim for the flow-state
By definition, nothing will anchor you better in the present than a proper flow-experience.
You’re in a flow state when your mind is completely immersed in an activity and your actions and thoughts are in sync.
Positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi described it this way in his interview with Wired:
“Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
How can you deliberately achieve a flow state?
How can you become so immersed in an activity it occupies all your thoughts?
In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience Csíkszentmihályi suggests for achieving a state of flow it helps if:
- You immerse in an activity you feel passionate about;
- * There is an element of a challenge;
- * You can stretch your current skill level;
- * You have a specific goal and plan of action.
This means each flow state is highly individual as it depends largely on your personal preferences and skills. According to Csíkszentmihályi, a flow state can occur in various areas of life, including education, sports, and work.
To give you an example, here’s my go-to state of flow:
I do indoor bouldering every second or third day. It’s my biggest passion and the greatest thing you can do with your body, in my humble opinion
(1). Each route is like a riddle you have to solve with your body and due to their numbering which indicates the difficulty, I’m constantly challenged to climb more and more difficult routes
(2). The maximum height you climb is 4.5 meters and if you fall you land on a big mattress so the possibility for injury is relatively low. This means I can safely experiment with difficult routes
(3). My goal is to routinely climb boulders of degree 7 and I recently signed up for an advanced techniques course to achieve it
(4). Whenever I’m at the boulder hall, climbing is the only thing I think about and the outside world including my problems vanishes. To know I have this activity which I can turn to every few days has been a game-changer for my mental health.
I had my flow-experiences here and there before but I didn’t have them as deliberately and purposefully before I started bouldering.
Consequently, I highly recommend you find a flow-activity you can regularly turn to. I stumbled upon mine serendipitously. In the end, all I do is pursue a hobby I’m passionate about and make it a priority every week. Therefore, I have no magical three-step action plan to find yours besides one thing: do more of what you love.
How to Integrate the Above Techniques Into Your Everyday Life
On paper, you now have an idea about how you can ground yourself in the present.
Apart from learning about these techniques, I found it challenging to integrate them into my life sustainably. We often read something, think Oh, great! and then never manage to apply it. That’s why, in this section, I’d like to help you to make use of what you just learned and integrate the five techniques into your everyday life.
Numerous grounding techniques are floating out there. The reason I stuck with these is they give me an overarching approach to becoming mindful, as they cover my biggest fears and take care of multiple areas of my life:
Meditation is the most direct way to practice mindfulness. It’s the only technique from the above in which you deliberately focus on the present moment.
Memento Mori tackles worry —usually, the number one thing that keeps us from being present.
Gratitude eliminates our inherent negativity bias and helps us to focus on what’s good in the here and now.
Minimalism is more about our surroundings than our thoughts. It helps us to consistently create a grounding environment.
Finally, the Flow state is the result of getting lost in what we love to do. The thrive for it is a reminder we deserve to play for play’s sake.
Obviously, you cannot (and shouldn’t!) practice all of these daily. Here’s how I integrated each of them.
Currently, meditation is my only consistent daily practice. I consider it the foundation of handling my often overwhelming thoughts and feelings.
Note it bears no immediate results (e.g. 15 minutes of meditation don’t equal two hours of inner peace afterward). I see it rather as a “background activity” that compounds and consistently improves my life.
Currently, I meditate every morning for 15 minutes right after I wake up. Rest assured, I gradually grew into the practice and I change it when necessary. If you never meditated before, I suggest you start with short (five minutes) guided meditations from an app (I used Headspace) and go from there.
Also, try to avoid the all-or-nothing mentality.
There’s nothing wrong with you if you skip a day or two — just get back the next day. Aim for a consistent, steady practice instead of random bursts. Make daily your goal but don’t turn this goal into aggression towards yourself.
If you need resources, here are a few to put you on track:
- Meditation apps, like Calm, Headspace, or Insight Timer, are wonderful resources if you prefer guided meditations. If you’re new to meditation, this is what I recommend.
- * Psychologist Tara Brach’s RAIN method (recognize, allow, investigate, nurture) is what helped me bring structure into my mindfulness practice.
- * “Meditation Tips for a Lifetime of Practice”: The best guide and introduction to several types of meditation I’ve come across is this one by Tasshin Fogleman.
- * Here’s my guide to a two-day custom meditation retreat in the comfort of your home.
This is a tough one and when I tell people about it they often criticize me for manifesting negative things into my life.
While I don’t believe in any kind of manifestation this isn’t a practice I want to do every day or week.
Unlike for meditation, I don’t have a plan for when I’ll practice it. I rather use it as a remedy for when I’m feeling low with my life and face anxiety, stress, and fear.
You sure know those times when many things come together and you feel like you’re slowly sinking under the problems of life — when worry and emotional overwhelm overtake. That’s when I pull out this stoic technique. It’s cliché but it reminds me of how it could be so much worse and helps me reframe my thoughts.
While gratitude is a regular practice rather than a band-aid, doing it daily has diminishing returns — as mentioned above, psychologists recommend to do it three times weekly.
Personally, I currently practice gratitude once per week, on Sundays, as I found this to be both realistic and a good way to recall the last seven days and end the week on a positive note.
However, when I first learned about the practice I did it daily for ~2 months. Indeed, I experienced diminishing returns and even got annoyed by the whole thing.
Then, I went with the scientific recommendation of three times per week and afterward arrived at my current frequency of once per week.
My suggestion here is to experiment and do whatever floats your boat. Here, too, aim for useful regularity (3x per week at most) rather than sudden bursts and long lists of gratitude.
Unlike the other techniques, minimalism is a whole lifestyle you can explore. Thus, it has no beginning or end-point.
Unfortunately, many people are overwhelmed by minimalism and are afraid they’ll have to forcefully get rid of everything they love.
In my elaborate guide on minimalism, I suggest easing into the practice by tackling the single biggest thing that bothers you in the first place.
If you look around and think of everything you own — what are those possessions that make it hard for you to let go of something? Do you own things that constantly distract you? How can you change that if getting rid of them isn’t an option?
For example, how can you change your relationship with technology, should you realize your unhealthy phone usage causes you anxiety and keeps you from being present?
Once you found your biggest “distractor,” go from there. What’s your second biggest? How else could you tweak your surroundings so they serve your peace and presence of mind?
You cannot just switch into the flow state. As I wrote before, the flow state happens due to certain types of activities you thoroughly enjoy.
I told you above about ideas to find an activity that can consistently get you into a flow state. It’s up to you to make room for this activity.
As someone self-employed, I’m currently privileged when it comes to my free time and I make it a priority to practice my passion 3 — 4 times a week.
However, I remember just as well those times in which I almost had no free time at all and found it excruciatingly difficult to switch off from work. At those times, I did my best to do active rest once per week.
My suggestion is this: sometimes, we have to arrange our rest forcefully. In those situations, it helped me to remember that what I do is ultimately good and beneficial. Even though it may feel like there’s no room for it, the time I take will ultimately pay off multiple times.
I hope the above background and techniques give you a great overview of the importance of more presence in your everyday life.
Keep in mind these are the techniques I personally prefer. Try them but don’t force them and feel free to do your own research, add further techniques to the mix and omit what doesn’t work for you.
If you’re not sure where to start or you’re overwhelmed by all the mindfulness options, I suggest you start with meditation first.
Consistent meditation practice is something you can apply in almost every life situation, even when you’re not meditating. You can use it to anchor yourself through your breath and remind yourself how the race of your worrying thoughts isn’t necessarily true.
No matter which technique you try, investing time into deliberate mindfulness will pay off. It’s not a quick win and there’s no “hack,” but it will be worth the effort.
“A vital question to ask yourself frequently is: what is my relationship with the present moment? Then become alert to find out the answer.
Since the present moment is all you ever have, since Life is inseparable from the Now, what the question really means is: What is my relationship with life?”
— Eckhart Tolle