An exercise I’ve found helpful to practice living in the present moment is to go for what I call a presence walk. This is just something I made up, but I doubt the idea is original. Here’s how it works:
1. Go for a walk alone — anywhere you like, as long as you want.
2. As you walk keep your conscious attention focused fully and completely on the present moment. Do not allow any thoughts of past or future to enter your mind. Do not imagine anything. Do not subvocalize any of your thoughts (i.e. don’t think in words). Focus your complete attention on perceiving the present moment as fully as possible. See what you see. Hear what you hear. Smell what you smell. Feel what you feel.
That’s it. It sounds simple, but it’s very difficult to master.
The first time I went for a presence walk was around 1997. I was living in Marina del Rey at the time, and I used to go for long walks along the beach and the docks. I noticed that my mind was always churning during my walks, and one time I wondered what it would be like to stop thinking for a while and just focus all my attention on my perceptions.
It was an amazing experience. I felt like I’d entered a new dimension. Everything became more vivid and alive. I was so accustomed to living in the future, preoccupied with the events of the next day, week, or month. I noticed the feel of my feet on the ground, felt the breath enter and exit my lungs, and smelled the salty ocean air. I remember looking at a tree and thinking that I was finally seeing it for the first time as it really was.
At the time I had a lot of external stressors in my life, but in the present moment those problems ceased to exist. This was a big lesson in learning to use my consciousness.
Over the next several months, I began taking these presence walks more frequently, and since then it’s been an ongoing practice for me. I even do them on the Las Vegas Strip on occasion, although sometimes the energy can be a bit overwhelming. I suppose this can be considered a form of meditation, but it’s different than any other meditation I’ve done because the scenery (sights, sounds, smells) change along the way.
In the beginning it was a real challenge to keep my attention focused on the present. Invariably I’d catch myself thinking about the past or future. I started challenging myself to see how long I could stay in the present moment. At first I could only go a couple minutes, but I gradually improved. This practice helped me develop my ability to quiet and refocus my mind whenever my thoughts became too chaotic.
If you’re preoccupied with unpleasant or racing thoughts, you can successfully turn them off by putting your attention onto something else. In meditation you might do this by focusing on your breathing or a koan, but I often found that my mind is too strong for those simple methods to keep it quiet. A presence walk gives my mind plenty of sensory input to process, so I find it easier to keep my consciousness focused on the present moment without the onset of mental chatter.
Try going for a presence walk today, and see how long you can keep your attention focused fully on the present moment. I think you’ll find it an enlightening and enjoyable experience. You can also practice being fully in the present moment while sitting, eating, driving, and doing other daily activities. In the long run, I believe this practice helps improve concentration and emotional stability, and it certainly promotes feelings of inner peace and well-being.