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The Power of Cultivating Presence

Presence is the powerful practice of being in the moment.

It is created through an acute awareness to one’s thoughts, feelings, and emotions, and in our modern day society, being present doesn’t always come easily. The overstimulation and distraction that come from technology, social media, work, family life, social engagements, and the never-ending “to-do” lists, regularly take us out of the now and into a memory from the past or a fear about the future.

As the first of three pillars of Mindful Living, cultivating the power of presence comes from creating the space to observe one’s mind and one’s self. This skill of observation allows us to look at our own lives and the lives of others without attaching judgment or analysis. Using this awareness we become mindfully attuned to all that is around us through our five senses (smell, touch, taste, sight, and sound) as well as our physical sensations (you know, those signs from our bodies that we often tend to ignore?!).

Our bodies are equipped with a natural mechanism called the “stress response,” also known as the “fight-or-flight” response, which was first described by Walter Cannon at Harvard. When we experience something that feels like a threat, the amygdala in the brain experiences the emotion of fear. The brain then communicates to the hypothalamus, which communicates to the nervous system, which signals to the adrenal glands to release the stress hormones cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. This assembly-line-like process of the sympathetic nervous system is a crucial part of our body’s internal self-protection mechanism. The only problem is that we are not physiologically designed to be frightened often.

In today’s world, many of us live in overdrive and operate in a constant state of “flight or flight.” This state can be a result of feeling the fear of imagined threats: financial security, societal achievement, the steadiness or demise of a relationship, a perceived health threat, the loss of a loved one, etc. Operating from this place, it is no wonder that many of us feel the perils of stress and anxiety on a daily basis. We struggle with migraines, digestive issues, difficulty breathing, lack of concentration, fatigue, depression, and innumerable other physical ailments because our body is actually attempting to flee the scene of a real threat (car crash, lion chase, assault, etc.).

The opposite is also true. When we practice deep breathing and mindfulness, we encourage our body to employ the “relaxation response,” our body’s counterbalance to the stress response as defined by Harvard professor Herbert Benson. Being in a state of relaxation, your body will experience physiological symptoms of ease, openness, and balance.

A few days ago, I unintentionally experimented with the topic of presence when I accidentally left my phone at home. Even though I am generally good about creating intentional space to be phone free, something felt different. Normally, I choose to not bring it on a walk, I choose to keep it in my purse during dinner with a friend, and I choose to put it on airplane mode when I am writing or working during the day. Yesterday was the middle of the workweek and if I had been asked whether or not I wanted to bring my phone along for the day, my answer would have unquestionably been “yes.”

Climbing up the stairs to the train platform, my hand impulsively reached into my bag in search of my phone. I was subconsciously looking for a meditative distraction during my morning commute. Remembering that it wasn’t there, I closed my eyes, took five deep breaths, and boarded the train car upon its arrival. Within moments of taking my seat, three street performers made an announcement, turned up their boom box, and had at it with their superfly dance moves. I was engrossed and totally present: wide eyes, big smile, heart beating in my chest.

Over the course of the rest of the day, I made note of a few other observations that I could have missed if I was in the phone zone:

  • A gathering of beautiful purple flowers on the sidewalk that had fallen off a tree
  • The smile from a saxophone player on the street
  • A little girl selling brownies in front of her house (although there weren’t many left because she was eating them when she thought no one was looking!)
  • The way the breeze felt on my skin between the high-rises

Upon noticing each of these observations I felt the tension in my body dissipate, I smiled effortlessly, and my body felt calm and at ease. Being fully involved in the present moment, I didn’t have the time to become entrenched in thoughts about the past or fears about the future. I was simply aware of what was going on in the now.

Now let’s be realistic. I know that we live in a technology-focused era and that using our phones and our computers are significant tools for work, connectivity, and enjoyment. They serve a purpose and an important one at that. We also live in an age where anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18% of the population. Countless studies have begun to explore the effects of mindfulness on reducing anxiety and depression, with many of the results from these studies suggesting that mindfulness-based therapy is a promising intervention for treating anxiety and mood problems in clinical populations. If pills, therapies, and medical advice aren’t curing our ailments, it seems foolish to not give mindfulness a shot. If nothing else, maybe we will get the opportunity to notice small and simple details throughout the day that put a smile on our face.

In my upcoming posts, I will explore the power of cultivating presence through the three cornerstones of our first Mindful Living pillar: grounding in the now, observing the mind, and creating space between thought and reaction.

You ready?

All you have to do to start is take three deep breaths and allow yourself to be.

5 Simple Actions to Creating Space

In our modern world, we often feel like we are in a constant state of busyness and doing. Such feelings result in moving quickly from task to task, responding immediately in communication, and not having a moment to stop, breath, and notice. Creating space is a simple yet elusive concept in our current society. However, when we give ourselves permission to stop and create space between our thoughts and our actions, we are able to prevent reactive responses and instead engage in life feeling grounded and aware.

My partner and I are spending the month of August living and working in upstate New York. We both have family nearby and are attempting to explore the possibilities of bicoastal living. In the process of navigating the details of our summer experiment, it has become apparent how different our intentions are for this trip.

My partner is excited to spend time with his family, visit old childhood friends, and network for new job opportunities in Brooklyn and Manhattan. His agenda feels social and connected to others. I, on the other hand, desire to use this time to get quiet, create a more regular writing routine, be in nature, and slow down to observe all of the new things around me.

Having wildly different expectations of an upcoming experience with your partner (or friends and family) sound familiar at all?

Upon openly discussing our thoughts for our time away, I felt immediately contracted, defensive, and closed down while my partner was sharing. Rather than being present to his feelings, my mind was running through a steady stream of internal rumination: How can he not understand what this time is for? Why would he want to travel across the country for a month that is just as busy as our normal day-to-day lives? Why isn’t he able to see that my way is the right way?

See what’s happening here? This experience is just one example of what can unfold when we aren’t creating enough space to observe ourselves and separate our thoughts from what may easily become a reactive response.

Cultivating a foundation of presence in our lives requires that we begin to notice the moments that we are allowing our thoughts to rule and overtake our interactions. Rather than actively and empathetically listening to what our partner, boss, friend, parent, or child is trying to share with us, we are running through our own internal dialogue while exuding an energetic expression of “when is it my turn to talk?”

When this happens, we miss out on the beautiful and complicated details of the now. We aren’t present and we aren’t hearing what the other person is saying, which inherently means that we are missing out on the unique opportunity to connect with someone else from a deep, heart-centered, and open space. As American author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau once said,

“The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.”

Having a handle on the first two cornerstones of presence, Grounding in the Now and Observing the Mind, I want to introduce to you the five simple actions we learned from our friends over at Search Inside Yourself on how to create space:

  1. Stop: That’s right, I said STOP! Stop what you are doing, saying, thinking, and feeling…simply stop.
  2. Breathe: Breathing allows you to become grounded and gain clarity.
  3. Notice: Pay attention to your senses, physical sensations, and whether you have stopped paying attention to someone else while they are talking.
  4. Reflect: Dig deep. What is coming up for you in this moment? Why are you having a reaction? What do you think the other person’s experience may be?
  5. Respond: Take enough space (minutes, hours, days, even a week) to be able to come back and respond from a grounded, aware, and open place. If you still feel highly tied to your emotional experience, you probably need more time.

So now I turn toward you. Are you willing to take the risk of pressing the pause button amidst the chaos and overwhelm of everyday life? Are you willing to create space, get quiet, and really listen to your truth and the truth of whatever is happening around you? Are you willing to SBNRR?

Don’t worry, I’ll be right there with you.

Message from the Editor:

Wanting to learn more about these concepts from the comfort of your own home? Feel free to check out our 5 week online Mindful Living Essentials Program.

If you are looking for more opportunity to create space and engage in empathetic listening, come to our free and open-to-all Mindfulness Community event July 27th here in San Francisco. Check out our Facebook event page here.