While hiking, Buddhist practitioner Leslie Davis suddenly found her mind miles ahead of her body. She offers three questions you can ask yourself to reel your running mind back to the present moment.
On a recent personal retreat, I hiked into Horn Canyon in the east end of Ojai, California. Due to the severe drought, it had been years since water had flowed alongside the trail there, but now I was delighted to cross the creek a few times, jumping from rock to rock.
My mind was clear and focused, taking in the sounds and smells of the trail — glistening poison oak, fragrant sage, infinite wildflowers… With the warm sun on my back, I felt fully alive in the present moment. Such a wonderful gift to be alive! To be awake!
On the way back through the canyon, though, my mind jumped ahead of my body: it was busy planning out what I would do as soon as I got back. First a snack, then another writing session, or maybe both at the same time, then a hot shower. And what would I have for dinner?
The mind can go and go without us noticing how fast it’s going, or what direction it’s headed in. Then, suddenly, a thought jumps out at us, and we trip, or stumble, or burn something on the stovetop.
Many minutes would pass before I noticed this. How many footsteps did my feet take while my mind carried me away? And how many times in any given day does this occur, or even in just an afternoon? And what can bring us back to the present moment? How can we return to what’s at hand — the conversation we’re having, the child in front of us, the trail we’re walking?
The mind can go and go without us noticing how fast it’s going, or what direction it’s headed in. Then, suddenly, a thought jumps out at us, and we trip, or stumble, or burn something on the stovetop. And just like that we’re reminded to pay attention. This is where a little magic happens.
In that moment we can bring our attention back to our breath. We can reconnect with ourselves, our spirits, and our awareness of where we are — right here, right now.
Three Questions for Coming Back to Now
Thich Nhat Hanh has said that “the opposite of forgetfulness is mindfulness. Mindfulness is when you are truly there, mind and body together.” In order to wake up from my forgetfulness, I ask myself three questions that prompt me to come back to the present moment:
1. Where am I?
To find the answer to this, I stop. I physically stop moving, and if I’m sitting, I stand up. I look around, locate myself. Taking a deep breath, I remember that I have a body.
2. What am I doing?
I take a moment to observe exactly what I’m doing, with no filters, and no judgment. Taking a deep breath, I bring awareness to what I am doing in the present moment.
3. Who am I with?
I ask myself, am I with someone or am I alone? Who is talking? Am I making eye contact? If I’m alone, I touch my arm or leg, look into my own eyes in a mirror, or close them and breathe. If I’m with someone, I take a deep breath and reestablish our connection.
When I ask myself these questions, I take a few deep breaths and pause to observe what’s going on in my mind. To watch and monitor the mind, to see how the mind strays, even when the external circumstances are pristine for being present, is an opportunity for transformation. A quick U-turn back to the breath always gets me headed in the right direction.