On Being Present
There’s an old story about asking yourself how to get to the next town and, after mulling a bit, you decide, “You know, I don’t think I can get there from here.”
I think the same thing can be said about achieving the mental state commonly called “Presence.” If you’ve never been there, or have always chosen to take a bypass around it, it may seem like it just doesn’t exist.
But it does, and some part of everybody already has in fact been there, if only briefly or by happenstance.
I think part of the problem is that the word, “Presence,” can be confusing. (Hearing it spoken, for example, still makes me think of Santa Claus.) Instead, I tend to translate it into three important words: Be Here Now. These three words convey a state of mind where you’re relatively undistracted by thoughts or emotions, and are fully present to experience life as it happens.
It’s in this wonderful quiet that you get a real sense of your Self and your place in life.
It takes practice to learn how to still the mind in this way. But meditation taught me how.
Meditation is the place where the emotional noise of the past and the anxieties of the future become muted. As they do, your mind becomes clearer. You’re in the Present, the only place where change is possible. You see that the past can’t be altered and the future is just guesswork. You become unshackled from the obsessions that live there. You feel free. Peace ensues.
That said, the present isn’t always pleasant. If we’re so used to busy-ness and numbing our way through distractions, it’s not uncommon to discover a flood of sadness, anxiety or even pain when we slow down and pay attention. If this has been your experience, you’re not doing meditation wrong. While being with our difficult experiences can be uncomfortable, it’s actually one of the ways that Presence helps us know ourselves and heal. With practice and skilled guidance, you can learn to be present with the full spectrum of your experiences – both the delightful and really hard stuff.
Random thoughts and emotions still arise but seem to pass across your consciousness like distant clouds. Just let them go. Calmly resist the temptation to latch onto them. By practicing this way, you build the ability to separate from them, even outside of meditation.
Presence is ideally a state of mind where your brain is given a rest from its habit of rattling off barrages of alerts, notifications and other distractions.
The benefits are extensive. Using Presence both in and out of meditation has been proven to reduce stress, relieve anxiety, neutralize destructive emotions, increase kindness, improve self-image and build a positive outlook.
In addition, learning and practicing Presence can increase your attention span and your patience, improve sleep, control pain, and reduce blood pressure.
But for me, the benefits also include the absolute thrill that “being present” can bring when you open your eyes and take your practice off your cushion and into the world.
The first time I heard the term “Conscious Awareness'', approximately 40 years ago, I probably said, “Huh?” I still don’t completely understand the depth of those words, but what it means to me is using the techniques learned in meditation to fully experience the beauty around us, pretty much on demand.
While meditation techniques are mostly practiced while sitting in chairs, cross-legged on the floor, or lying down, I’ll seldom pass up the chance to do it with open eyes, and watch as everything and everyone blossom. A friend calls it “LSD without the LSD.”
With the quiet mind of Presence, an ordinary street can become an exhilarating landscape as the noise of your thoughts are stilled. Colors pop. Voices become richer. In a park or in the woods, you fully sense the aliveness of nature. People take on new dimensions. Music seems to levitate you. Food gets seen as the marvel that it is.
It’s also in this state that you can practice being able to separate your Self from your emotions…and how to acknowledge your feelings without feeling compelled to react to them. You can learn to become as nonjudgmental of your emotions as an untended movie camera.
This kind of training can help you cope with any possible situation. A woman recently wrote that she felt in control of her chronic pain for the first time by using mindfulness techniques. People walk on hot coals using them. Athletes talk of it as being “in the zone.” Billions of people have been practicing forms of it for more than 3,000 years.
So, why not you?
This holiday season, treat yourself to something special. Give yourself the present of Presence.
You’ll soon see that you can indeed get there, no matter where you start from.
Ed Klein, a Pause member, is a retired journalist from Dow Jones & Co., publishers of the Wall Street Journal and Barron’s Financial Weekly and, at the time, a string of community newspapers where he started out his 40-year career with the company. He’s been a beat reporter, photographer, statehouse correspondent, editor, wire service chief, and investigative reporter for the community newspaper division, where he also ran newsrooms in Traverse City, Mich., and Middletown, N.Y. He subsequently was head of the Wall Street Radio Report, handled international copy for the AP-Dow Jones News Service and was the editor in charge of staff development and training for APDJ in the Americas and China. Now a Portland resident, he enjoys theater, jazz, local pro soccer, hiking and, of course, meditation.