Have you ever woken up wondering where you have been all your life? Or at least for the last day, week or even the last 20 years?
We often don’t remember parts of our lives simply because we actually weren’t there.
I live in a beautiful part of the world surrounded by nature, mountains and beautiful sunsets. But even the most stunning sunset won’t mean a thing unless we are here for it. Often we only realize in retrospect that we were ‘lost in thought’ for a significant chunk of the day. Most days I am now here, but many I am not.
In today’s world it would be a tall order to be open and available to every event, interaction and interruption, but we know that in order to have some sense of well-being, being present is high on the list.
The ground-breaking research by Harvard Psychologist Matt Killingsworth (2010) found that 47% of the time we are not present to our lives, that is, we are not focussed on what we are doing. We are lost in thought. This might not seem surprising but the kicker is that people are thinking about what is not happening almost as often as they are thinking about what is happening and that those that are present, are happier.
We all have an innate capacity to be aware of the present moment. If you feel like you have enough to do, don’t worry, being present only ever requires a shift in attention and if you are already here, why not actually be here?
Every time we become present, our brains shift. The more we shift, the more we create neural pathways that then become our default. But more importantly over time and the more we practice, we can experience a better quality and depth of our lives. In other words, we can be here, and not miss out on this very life we have been given.
Being fully present does require one thing: responsibility. When we are present we feel what we feel and notice what is happening right now. We don’t escape. We notice what is happening for us at this moment, right now, in and around us. And that it is unique to us.
“The little things? The little moments? They aren’t little.” Jon Kabat-Zinn
Small task? Not really. Most problems in the world boil down to one thing: a lack of presence. If we were fully present with our anger and frustration at our boss would we cut other people off in traffic? If we were fully present with our own grief and loss would we yell at our kids as much? Would we drink away our work stress or eat away our low self-esteem? Would we tweet out our anger when we wake up in a bad mood?
If you’re wondering why you should be present to so-called unpleasant or negative feelings, here’s the thing: what we resist, persists. Does that shame really go away with a glass of wine? Maybe temporarily, but then it gets stored away until a later date when it gets triggered and makes it’s grand appearance again.
“Whatever you fight, you strengthen, and what you resist, persists.”
Presence offers a pause in between the stimulus and response. This is where we can find all our peace and freedom and choose a response as opposed to a reaction. Is it perfect? Nope. It’s always a practice. A practice of what it means to be human.
” Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
If we can manage to stay present even just a minute longer, things can begin to change. But don’t believe a word I say. Experiment with it yourself and see what you notice over time. Practice a habit for 30 days and then decide.
Pick only one or two of these simple practices and start today:
1) Breathe in bed before you get up. Really, it’s 30 seconds. Lie on your back with your hands on your belly and breathe to expand up through your upper back. Don’t rush. Think of 3 things you are grateful for. I had heard this advice hundreds of times before I actually really started practicing it. I can say it has changed my days, and the effects are cumulative.
2) In a conversation today, really listen. Be aware of yourself and your thoughts and perhaps your need to create a response before the other person finishes. Just listen. Make eye contact. Your attention is the biggest gift you can give someone. Or, you may notice that you feel it’s time to end the conversation and exit respectfully. The only way we create clear boundaries is being truly connected to ourself.
3) Taste your tea or coffee. Really taste it. Smell it, feel it and savour it. If you are going to drink it everyday, you might as well be there for it. I realized this after drinking thousands of cups mindlessly in my car since I was 20. Now my coffee taste has become somewhat refined and my consumption has decreased because it’s not going down mindlessly.
4) Look at the sky at least once during the day. Research shows consistently that nature even in small doses has profound effects on learning and well-being. Even better, get outside and breathe deeply, taking in your surroundings with ‘beginner’s eyes’. That is, as if you had never seen it before.
5) Breathe deeply 2-3 times before you start your car and also when you park.
6) Walk a little slower. I live in a house with three males who stomp, thump and crash when they walk. I slowed down even walking down the hallway and not only did it reduce my own stress level while walking, I am more present when I enter the next room and magically I think they have slowed down too. Try it when you stand up next.
7) In the shower feel the water on your skin. Be in the shower, not in your next meeting. Feel the temperature, the sensation, the touch. Marvel that you have running water. It’s such an overlooked luxury but what would life be like without it?
8) Do one task mindfully from beginning to end. Be in it fully and do it like your life depended on it. In a world of multi-tasking, you don’t have to give it all up. Just. One. Task. Today.
At the end of the day when the sun goes down you can know that you have been here a little more and contributed to your own well-being as well as the well-being of the planet.