“The past is history, the future a mystery. Right now is a gift. That’s why they call it the present” Master Uguay, Kung Fu Panda
Staying present is one of my intentions. To be present, you live in the moment. Not in the past or the future, but right now. So what if the present is unpleasant? Or worse, boring!
Here is an example from my own experience illustrating why presence is important. Imagine this guy, sitting on the beach in Jamaica, thoroughly grumpy. He is thinking about work, the limited cocktail options at our all-inclusive resort, the local who unwelcomely offered him a joint earlier that day, everything but sitting in the sunshine on the beach in Jamaica. This is not a happy guy. If only he could enjoy the moment. If only he could be present. Here’s the same guy, sitting at the dinner table shoveling down his food and periodically checking his cell phone. He hardly notices the food or the people sitting at the table with him. He brought his work to the table with him, not physically but mentally. He is so preoccupied with his work and worries that he is missing out on what is in front of him. No enjoyment of a good meal for him. Think of examples in your own life. How many times have you ignored your kids, didn’t see a lovely view, or missed out on a learning experience because you’re checking Facebook or simply not paying attention? You might not even be aware of how much you’ve missed.
The Buddhists believe that the only place it is possible to have happiness is in the present. Think about it, though you may have had happiness in the past, and though you may be happy in the future, the only time it is possible to really experience happiness is right now. Even if the present is pleasant, we find our minds wandering. We find distractions, which are all too available these days, to get our mind anywhere but here. Imagine our guy floating on a pontoon in the middle of a beautiful lake talking on his cell phone rather than soaking in the day. How much happier would he be if he shut out the rest of the world and lived right now? How do we close the tabs in our head, erase the mental clutter, soak in the present, stay in it, reap its benefits? To stay present we must focus, bring awareness to our surroundings, breathe, and practice, practice, practice.
In yoga, the most effective practice is when we are fully focused on one movement at a time. Not the movement that is coming, not the one that we already did, not what we’re having for lunch, but the exact muscles we are engaging right now. Take balancing poses, such as Vrksasana (Tree) or Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon), for example. If I am thinking about other things I often fall out of the pose. I feel anxious, scattered, doubtful. If I am completely present I feel calm, steady, confident. This is why I often fall out of poses when I am teaching. I am thinking ahead to what I am going to say next and noticing how the people in my class are doing, rather than being in my own authentic pose. This is also why you shouldn’t be worried about what you look like to others in a live class. If anyone but the teacher is noticing you, they are doing themselves a disservice.
What if the present is unpleasant? Think of a situation when you were really uncomfortable. When the present isn’t very pleasant, our instinct is to fully check out. We make lists in our mind, think of what is next, or are distracted by what we should have said or could have done. Like the end of a long hike, run, or bike ride when your feet are killing you and if you have to walk over one more giant rock or peddle up one more hill you’re pretty sure your legs will give out. These are interesting examples which have happened to me a few times. Each time I felt every change in the wind, every step (which in more than one case was not a lot of fun because of enormous blisters), and developed some pretty intricate coping mechanisms. “Coping” usually means that you check out of the situation in favor of an alternate reality. In other words coping = not present. I have found, however, that if you focus on what is happening in real time it actually makes the experience better. Pain has a funny way of keeping us present, but there are other, more pleasant, ways to stay in the here and now. For example, I’m guessing that I could still recognize each turn and possibly most of the rocks and trees in the final 10 miles of my last marathon. Pretty sure I could also identify most features on the return trip of my 32 mile bike ride where I pulled my 3-year-old in a trailer. These are situations where I was living one breath, one step, one muscle twitch at a time. Focusing on surroundings takes the mind of off painful feet and burning legs. I was still present, but I shifted my perspective. I turned intensely uncomfortable, stressful situations into challenges. This sort of thing takes practice.
What about socially unpleasant situations? Remember the Sex in the City episode where Carrie learned the benefits of sitting at a restaurant alone without a book for a crutch? She learned to sit with her thoughts and be fully present for one glass of wine. In public. That was before everyone had a smartphone attached to their palms. 90% or more of the people in the Mayo Clinic waiting rooms were looking at their phones or iPads. Many people walking down the hallways had earphones. Of course, this is a usual thing everywhere. When was the last time you saw someone in a coffee shop just sitting there drinking his coffee without a laptop or phone or iPad? Just sitting there. Like a psycho. Everyone is on their phones for most of their day, always plugged in, never present. Why are we so afraid to engage in our world as it is happening? Are we afraid to be bored, or are we just that uninterested in our surroundings?
“If you’re bored you’re not paying attention.” -Alan Alda
When we think ahead we fall out of the present. Often we think ahead to what we are going to say next rather than listening to what our friend is saying. This is not only poor manners, it also diminishes our enjoyment of the conversation. The person across from you might have something very valuable to say, but you won’t realize it until later because you were concerned with what you already know. Next time you talk to a friend try to focus on what she is saying, then reply or ask thoughtful questions. Your enjoyment of the encounter will be greater and you might learn something. Same goes for worrying. When you worry you’re thinking ahead to what you fear may happen. Thinking ahead is useful to plan or avoid disaster, but worrying takes over our consciousness and is never wise use of energy. What we worry about (or look forward to) tends to be different than anticipated anyway, so why do it? To avoid excess worry, do what you can to smooth the path or fix a problem, then allow the powers that be to take over. Worry is wasteful and largely useless.
Juggling too many tasks takes us out of the present as well. This causes us worry and suffering. Multitasking is highly valued in our society. I wonder how much healthier we would be if doing one thing at a time, but doing it very well, were a priority instead. In The Book of Joy, the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu agree that all we need for happiness in life are love and connection. Funny, they didn’t mention stuff. So, to focus on love and connection in life, what do we need? Presence. We need to be present for our family and friends. Not on our phones, not in front of the television, not in our own heads, but fully present with our families spending quality time. Set boundaries where electronics are concerned. Turn them off during meal times and family time. This is vitally important.
Walking through life in a present state of mind is like looking at the world on a crystal clear morning. It fully alters your perspective and, as we’ve said before, perspective is everything. So, next time you are on a pontoon in the middle of a beautiful lake, or on a hike in nature, consciously bring yourself into the present. Give up the mental clutter, close those open tabs in your head, and breathe in the fresh air. This takes conscious effort and practice, it won’t happen overnight. The benefits of being present are worth the extra effort it takes. Think of the people in your life who are fully present. Young children are always fully present. Dogs are also fully present. Think of how happy a toddler is about a game of peek-a-boo or dog is to see his owner every time she comes home. Oh, to experience that kind of happiness! Do you remember the meme about the guy sitting on the dock thinking about bills, relationships, work problems, money problems, and the dog sitting beside him thinking about how great it is to be sitting with the guy? Be the dog.
Meditation exercise for restoring presence:
You can do this wherever you are. Take a deep breath and close your eyes (unless you’re driving, then skip the closing your eyes part). Inhale slowly and deeply, pause at the top, then exhale slowly and fully. On your exhale allow your breath to slide up the back of your throat. It may make a sound like ocean waves to your ears. This breath is calming and may reduce any excess mind clutter with repetition. Continue until your clarity of mind returns. If worry or stress is an issue see Meditation for Positivity
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche (find it on Amazon)
The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams (find it on Amazon)