How do you live in the moment?
People are always advising us to: “live in the moment”. This is a beautiful sentiment and sounds like something we should all strive to do when traveling or exploring the outdoors. But what I rarely see included with these statements is advice on how to actually do it! I guess people would say to put away your phones and the cameras, which I think can help you be more focused on your surroundings, but is that all that needs to be done to truly “live in the moment”?
Maybe for some of you, it is easy and obvious. But for me, it was never easy. I certainly have always loved to see something beautiful, to be present, to enjoy myself. But I won’t lie to you – my mind is usually wandering. What will we be eating for dinner, when are we climbing down this mountain, I wonder what’s happening on Facebook, what’s going on with that latest political scandal, do I have new Instagram followers, what are we doing tomorrow… Even if my phone and camera were hidden away, I still didn’t feel like I was truly living in the moment but instead was planning my next move, worrying about something, or just letting random thoughts into my head and thus mentally checking out from the experience.
So how do you truly “live in the moment”?
I’ve actually been working on answering this question over the last few months since being on the road. I have been working at making a conscious effort to live in the moment. I’d like to take a moment to explain some of the methods I have been trying, in case you’d like to try it yourself. Chances are, plenty of you already do these things either consciously or subconsciously, but perhaps some of you don’t and maybe this could help you!
So here is what I do. When I find myself with a moment to pause in a beautiful location like at a sunset or at the summit of a mountain, I make a pointed, conscious, and purposeful effort to think about what all of my senses are experiencing in that moment. I push away thoughts about dinner, social media, photography, politics, and plans for the future and focus on what is happening right here and right now. I usually do this for about 5-10 minutes, depending on the situation and I try to step away from other people briefly so that I can focus.
- To begin with, I pause to look. I make note of not only what is right in front of me, but also ask myself what are all of the details of the scene, what is the source of light and how bright is it, and where are the shadows. I make the effort to look in every direction, taking in what is to my left, right, behind me, below me, and above me.
- Then I pause to listen. What are the loud obvious sounds and what are the quiet subtle noises that you might not notice. This can be tricky when in a popular place surrounded by a lot of people. In these situations, I usually don’t focus much on listening and instead focus on the other senses.
- Then I pause to feel. What is the temperature like? Is there a light breeze or strong wind or is it completely still? Am I on soft ground, jagged rocks, a flat surface? Is it humid or dry? Am I feeling sore, tired, or full of energy?
- Then I pause to smell. Is it earthy, floral, or a salty sea smell? Are there subtle hidden smells, like maybe a hint of a campfire somewhere off in the distance? Is there a sulfur or mineral smell, such as at hot springs?
- If applicable, I pause to taste. I may not have anything to taste, but occasionally if I am sipping coffee in the morning or a beer by the campfire, I make a mental note of those.
Now I know most of us do all of these things all of the time in all degrees of magnitude. But what I’ve been working on, which I guess you might think is pretty corny, is to narrate each of these senses in my head, as if I were narrating an overly descriptive book. And I have to tell you, it has actually been really wonderful. I find that I notice more of my surroundings and feel in tune with the moment and the experience. When I do this, the scene actually becomes more complex and more beautiful. I also find that I remember details of the event much better afterward than previously when I was just looking and taking photographs. This process, like meditation, helps to push away all other worries or thoughts that may be floating around in my head and truly allows me to be present and focused on the current moment.
Below I am going to give two examples of times I have done this and what I experienced. What you are reading is a close replica of what I was narrating in my head in those exact moments. As you can see, I remember a LOT of details about each scene, and I believe this is a direct result of doing this exercise.
Before you continue I just want to offer a disclaimer: I teach math and physics and am a very science-minded person, not a poetic author or writer, so please bear with me!
Moment #1: Sunset in San Elijo, California
- I pause to look. The colors are beautiful. I can see every shade of red, purple, pink, magenta, maroon, fuschia, orange, yellow. Just as I get a sense of the scene in front of me, I realize that the view is constantly changing as the sun slowly sinks and then drips below the horizon like a droplet of water falling out of a faucet. The clouds are moving and shifting in a smooth but very slow manner, continuously changing size and shape creating a new and unique scene every few seconds. The waves roll toward the shore in irregular intervals. Some are smooth rolling bumps, carrying energy from the depths of the ocean to the sandy beaches. Others build, fold over, and crash, creating a small explosion of ocean spray and mist. Looking left, right, and behind me I see puffy pink clouds like cotton candy floating on a darkening greyish-blue background. There are tall, thin palm trees swaying in the breeze. I see people gazing at the sunset, petting their dogs, holding hands with their children and loved ones. A group of pelicans flies across the kaleidoscope sky in formation and couple of lizards skitter among the rocks in a garden behind me.
- I pause to listen. The most obvious sound is the waves crashing and the undertow noisily pulling water back out to sea. I hear the wind rustling leaves in the bushes nearby and the palm trees above. I hear a child giggle, footsteps of joggers on the sidewalk, murmurs of quiet conversation. I try to listen for the footsteps of the lizards of the flapping of birds’ wings, but the crashing waves are too loud and drown out these tiny noises.
- I pause to feel. The warmth from the spring day lingers in the humid air but there is a cool breeze blowing from the ocean. My loose locks of hair are blowing in the wind and occasionally tickle my neck and face. The beach is soft under my feet and grains of sand feel rough on my sandal-covered toes.
- I pause to smell. There is a salty, and mildly fishy smell in the air. It is a familiar smell that brings waves of nostalgia from past trips to the beach and childhood family vacations to the coast.
- I pause to taste. There is nothing to taste at the moment, but there is the anticipation of the pizza we will eat once the sun has finally set and the skies turn dark and gray.
Moment #2: Campfire in Kaibab National Forest (photo by @walasavagephoto)
- I pause to look. There is a brilliant fire before me. The embers are glowing and sparkling with a deep hue of orange. The flames are a dazzling yellow with a pale blue edges where the fire meets the charred logs. The fire is constantly moving, growing and shrinking, and changing directions as the wind shifts. I move my gaze upward to see the tall pines reaching up toward the night sky, which is speckled with millions of stars. I stop to remember that while the sky looks two dimensional, it is really three dimensional. Those stars are huge, burning, glowing objects nowhere near us and nowhere near each other. This begins to overwhelm my mind to think about so I look back down and around me. In all directions I see more and more trees of varying heights and widths spread throughout the forest around me. I peek at our van behind me, with the bouncing flames of the campfire reflecting off of its shiny silver paint.
- I pause to listen. We are deep in the forest so silence around us is heavy. The fire crackles and occasionally sputters as it burns through log after log. Every so often there is a small crack of a twig somewhere off in the forest or a skittering sound of some small animal making moves in the night.
- I pause to feel. The night has grown chilly and I am bundled up in my favorite fleece blanket. The fire is warm on my face and hot on my hands as I poke and prod the flames with a stick. When the wind changes directions, the smoke burns and stings my eyes a bit, as I wait for the breeze to blow the flames in another direction.
- I pause to smell. The smell of campfires is one of my favorite scents. I don’t quite know how to describe it except that it is a deep, heavy, smokey smell. I am reminded how each place I visit has its own unique campfire smell due to the native trees. In this case, we are smelling the sweet scents of Juniper and Ponderosa Pine.
- I pause to taste. I take a sip of hot cocoa and taste the delicious and rich chocolatey flavor as it warms my tongue, mouth, and throat.
Hopefully it is clear how doing this exercise helps me to feel, experience, and live in the moment. It is almost like a meditation. Each time I do this, I expose the complexity of beauty and wonder that exist in a single moment in space and time. I don’t do this exercise every day or every time there is a beautiful scene. But I will say that each time I have done this has enhanced the beauty of the experience and helped me remember it crisply and clearly in the days and weeks after. I look at the photo and and transported back to the moment, and can remember the experience vividly. I advise you to give this exercise a try next time you are somewhere incredible and you want to “live in the moment”. It’s not just about simply putting the electronics away, but is about experiencing something fully and purposefully.
So now I will ask you. How do you “live in the moment”? How do you fully immerse yourself in an experience? Are you someone who does all of the things I have written here automatically? Do you have other methods or strategies? I would love to hear them and try them out! Let me know by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or on Instagram (@carrieoutdoors).