Present Moment Awareness in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a way of learning to live outside of your head. So often we spend time and energy thinking about how we wish our situation was, or (even more often) trying to avoid thinking about how it isn’t what we wish it was.
ACT encourages us to start by Accepting what the reality is. That doesn’t mean resigning yourself to never changing, or to despair, it means looking clearly at what is really happening, not at how you think the world ought to be. Even if your reality is painful or worrisome, you will find that fighting not to think about it, or struggling to create thoughts that are not painful or worrisome only increases your distress. And acknowledging that something bad has happened is a necessary first step before you can take action to make your life better.
Both painful and enjoyable experiences are a part of life. By accepting the painful experiences, without fighting, avoiding or denying the painful parts of life, we create space and energy to acknowledge the negative and move on to enjoy the positive.
ACT is the brainchild of Dr. Stephen Hayes, who uses the method to help people learn to live in the present moment, and then to develop a clear sense of their values and commit to behavioral change that will improve their lives.
After acceptance comes Being Present. Present moment awareness, as Dr. Hayes calls it, is often just called “mindfulness”. Moodsurfing has explored the benefits of mindfulness practice in several posts. From the point of view of ACT, being present means engaging with your awareness of the present moment without labeling it as a good moment or a bad one.
Try it now: look around you at the place where you are. Can you see out the windows? What’s out there? What is in the room? What kind of a seat are you sitting on? What bodily sensations do you have right now? Are there other people or animals in the room with you? What sounds and smells are there? Spend some time just being aware of your present moment.
This kind of present moment awareness is not easy, and it doesn’t come naturally to anyone. Mindfulness is not about stopping the mind from wandering. Our minds always wander, but in mindfulness practice, we learn the skill of gently calling the mind back to the present moment, every time we notice the mind is wandering.
Awareness of the present moment can help with the management of troublesome emotions like depression, irritability or anxiety. Being present can help identify what is really happening in life, and what we want to have happening, which allows us to take realistic steps to overcome present difficulties and attain future goals. Rumination about the past and anxiety about the future can cause painful struggles, and disciplining the mind to being present can overcome that suffering.
As your skills in mindfulness grow, you will begin to notice a growing awareness of your own internal moods, thoughts, emotions, and symptoms, allowing you to utilize strategies to recognize early warning signs of oncoming hypomanic or depressive episodes. For example, if you begin to notice that your thoughts are racing, or restlessness is increasing, you can take steps to prioritize sleep schedules or avoid mood-altering substances.
For more on ACT, see these posts: