Life is always lived right here and right now. There is nothing that can be directly experienced other than the present moment. Everything else is a conceptual rendering— a sketch, a thought, a plan, a memory, a picture drawn. And even though all of these refer to imagined futures or pasts, they can only be experienced in the present moment.
The ability to consider the past and plan for the future is essential for humans, and it’s helpful a good deal of the time. However, problems arise because people tend to get excessively and rigidly engrossed in the future or past and lose contact with the present.
When under the sway of cognitive fusion, people tend to interact with these conceptualized futures and pasts as if they were really happening and, as a result, may end up spending little time in the here and now.
Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) suggests that the problem isn’t that we need to eliminate thinking about the future or past, but that people need to be flexible: being in the present when a present focus works best, being in the future when planning works best, and being in the past when remembering works best.
However, helping clients be in the here and now is particularly important because this is where new learning occurs. It is where opportunities afforded by the environment can be discovered.
One of the key targets of ACT is to help clients let go of the struggle with their personal history, as well as unwanted feelings, thoughts, and sensations, so they can show up to engage in the ongoing process of life that occurs moment by moment. Contact with the present moment therefore refers to the process of helping clients routinely step out of the world as structured by their thoughts and to more directly, fully, and mindfully contact the here and now, including both sensory contact with the external world and contact with the ongoing processes of thinking, feeling, sensing, and remembering.
Showing up for the present moment
Showing up for the present moment involves bringing awareness to internal and external experiences as they occur in the here and now. This kind of focus is created by observing or noticing what arises within awareness on a moment- by-moment basis. For instance, when attending to your external and internal experience, you might first hear the sound of a bird, followed by the sight of a yellow color in the petal of a flower, followed by the feel of your foot touching the ground, followed by a thought (This is nice), followed by the sensation of an itch, and so on. Each one of these experiences is noticed as it occurs. In this effortless process characterized by nonattachment, experiences arise and then fall away.
Contacting the present moment is easy and difficult at the same time. It’s easy to turn attention to an experience, yet it’s difficult to maintain attention on ongoing experiencing. Our minds are quickly pulled away from the moment as we’re repeatedly drawn into a virtual world structured by thought. Because this happens rapidly, it takes practice to stay present.
In ACT, clients are asked to practice numerous defusion, acceptance, and mindfulness exercises to help increase their capacity to stay present. It should be noted that not even those who practice intensively can stay present at all times. Indeed, the process of present-moment awareness involves developing the ability and skill to observe when the mind has wandered and then return to the present moment, while also recognizing that it’s nearly impossible to stay present at all times.
Also note that ACT therapists help clients develop the ability to be focused and present not because clients should always be in the present moment, but so they can do this when it works to do so (e.g., in the presence of an aversive experience that constricts behavior in unworkable ways).
Present-moment awareness is encouraged not only because it’s the place where life is truly lived, but also because it promotes values-based living by increasing psychological flexibility. One of the important aims of working with present-moment awareness is to help clients develop the ability to attend to their experience in a more flexible, fluid, and voluntary manner.
As with all of the flexibility processes, one of the key goals of working with present-moment attention is increasing clients’ flexibility in ways that lead to effective behavior in context.