Most of us who have participated in a yoga class, a meditation group, or some kind of contemplative practice in a group context, have heard the words “Just be present,” spoken in a soft, welcoming voice by a well meaning instructor. You may have also heard, “Stay present,” “Come back to the present moment,” or “Stay present with the breath.” You may have been profoundly moved by these sentiments and felt lovingly guided into a deeper state of bliss. Or perhaps you became increasingly agitated as the incessant flooding of thoughts began to arise: your grocery list, how you anticipate avoiding traffic on the way home, how you should have eaten before this class, why the person you went out on a date with last weekend hasn’t returned your call, your upcoming trip to the Bahamas, worrying that the headache you feel is really a brain tumor, or how much you hate your job and that you wouldn’t have to come to these classes if it weren’t for the daily tyranny you feel subjected to. The number of thoughts we become aware of during the course of an hour long yoga class or 10 minute meditation practice can be exhausting. As well intended as the gentle ring of the words “Be Present” are, we all know that intention without sound guidance can be counterproductive. The truth is that being present is hard work, especially in our modern day world. “Being Present” is a complex action that is often downplayed by simplistic wording.
Many beginning students and clients have reported to me that they have no earthly clue what “being present” actually means, and were even more thrown off course by feelings of impending uncertainty regarding what they were actually “supposed to be doing” during instruction. Many felt overwhelmed at the incessant barrage of thoughts flooding their minds and, as a result, the focus of their practice became questioning their ability to comprehend simple instruction rather than having a transformative experience. Feelings of failure and little motivation to return to the practice often followed. A common concern that is often expressed to me by clients is, “I just can’t stop my thoughts. There is something wrong with my brain.” The good news is that if you have thoughts, you have brain activity and are still alive. A brain WITH thoughts is actually in pretty decent shape. The bad news is that if you thought the outcome of meditation practice is to stop the flow of thoughts, unfortunately you may have been misguided. Just as the nature of the heart is to beat, the nature of our minds is to have thoughts. Thoughts are not the problem. It’s how we have we learned to relate to our thoughts that creates the desire to flee the present moment and seek out safety in acts of either avoidance or pleasure.
The concept of “being present” can feel incongruent with the fast paced, ever changing world we inhabit. In fact, for many modern humans, a certain level of vigilance and planning ahead seems to help minimize the anxiety that often arises when faced with the ever present uncertainties of life. I recently had the privilege of taking a training with Dr. Ronald Siegel, Psy.D., a prominent researcher and scholar in the field of mindfulness and psychotherapy. He discussed the concept of “negativity bias” which gave our earlier ancestors a major evolutionary advantage by allowing the “thinking brain”, also known as the neo-cortex, to assess and analyze every situation in order to avoid pain. If you take a moment and scroll back throughout the landscape of your life, our earliest patterns of conditioning involved seeking out what pleased the senses and avoiding what brought pain. As children, that was usually in the form of a punishment or reward. It’s Pavlov’s theory of behavior at its simplest. We learned to be in the world according to which actions would increase our chances of pleasure and success and minimize the possibility of pain and failure. According to Siegel, “activities that perpetuate our DNA are pleasurable.” These activities can include eating, sleeping, having sex, alleviating most pain, and enhancing social rank. The problem isn’t with these activities themselves, however when we are focused on seeking out the pleasure derived from a specific object or activity, or avoiding painful circumstances that we predict might happen, we attach to the future and lose our connection to all that is occurring in the present moment. A common yogic analogy for the modern human mind, is a monkey swinging from branch to branch (my own monkeys have had a cup or two of coffee, I think). Sound familiar?
To be fully engaged in the present moment can be really scary. Any adept practitioner can attest to that. Learning to befriend and witness our sadness, anger, and fear is a major step for our modern minds to accomplish. We are continually bombarded with an array of products, objects, substances, and illusory stimuli that lead us to believe that we will be happier, skinnier, better looking, wealthier, and have higher social rank if we only consumewhatever is being marketed to us. We are continuously focused on our plans for the future so that maybe the lingering, unresolved regrets of the past will magically disappear from our consciousness. One of the most common statements I hear from others when they attempt to describe the intensity of their psychosocial stressors is, “I just need to get through the next 3 months and then everything will be ok.” We all have our default patterns of navigating tough times. Again, the problem isn’t with our innate impulse to survive (i.e “checking out” for the next 3 months). The problem is that we often try to deaden our senses and avoid the suffering that can arise when our lives become challenging.
Being present is simply an invitation to cultivate an awareness of breath, sensation, sound, taste, smell, or anything that sustains attention on something without judgment. Seeking refuge in the sensation of the breath, or the connection of the feet to the earth, can begin to shift the relationship to the body as a strong, safe container that can withstand high levels of energy and a vast spectrum of human experience. Being present involves "returning" to the present moment, rather than "being" in it. We can always come back. The present moment is always there for us to return to. It does not judge us or deny us. The continuous presence of real time can in and of itself be space where safety and peace can always be found. When we practice awareness of something either internal or external, we are anchoring and grounding ourselves in the present moment. Present moment awareness takes time to develop. Simply having the awareness of when you have become lost in your thoughts or stories about yourself, and returning to the present moment IS the practice itself. Be kind to yourself. Cultivating a meditation practice isn’t easy. Just as you wouldn’t be harshly critical towards a baby, try to abstain from being harshly critical towards yourself. Practicing presence is an act of undoing and unlearning. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither are new neural pathways.
The take away message here is that practicing awareness of the present moment is good for your health! The practice of focusing on an object of awareness, such as following the breath, without any judgment creates a portal for better nervous system regulation and resiliency. The ability to self-regulate decreases nervous system activation associated with the stress response. Less stress decreases the toxic load caused by an over-abundance of stress hormones and ultimately less inflammation, which is associated with many chronic health conditions. By practicing present moment awareness, we are taking an active role in preventing the onset and progression of potential health risks.
The following techniques provide multiple, accessible options for cultivating present moment awareness during any kind of contemplative practice be it yoga, meditation, prayer, mindful walking, etc.
1. Find the breath. Taking deep breaths creates a lot of sensation in the torso. Breath moves the belly, chest, rib cage, diaphragm, pelvic floor, and shoulders. Try making your exhale twice as long as your inhale.
2. Focus on endpoints. Endpoints are places are places in the body that create a closed chain connection with surfaces in the environment. There are a lot of nerve endings in the endpoints! For example, take your shoes off and feel your feet on the floor. Feel the bottom of your pelvis in the chair or the floor. Press your palms together. Notice the sensation of air on your skin. Lying on your back, focus on the sensation of the entire back body receiving support from the floor.
3. Notice the sounds that are present in your environment. For example, try taking a walk and only focusing on the sounds of the birds.
4. Practice becoming aware of when you engage with your thoughts. Notice that it’s a thought, then switch your awareness back to a present moment object.
5. Practice with the mind of a beginner and give yourself permission to be imperfect. Self-Compassion goes a long way.
Dr. Ronald Siegel PsyD is a Assistant Clinical Professor at Harvard Medical School. He has written several books on mindfulness, including the The Mindfulness Solution available on Amazon.