What does it mean to “be present?” I’ve been exploring present moment awareness for years – as they say, it’s not a destination, it’s a journey. I’m not always good at it because so much of life is future- or past-oriented. Sadly, too much of my life occurs while on autopilot. Have you ever had the experience of driving to a destination but not having any recollection of how you got there? Scary! In some ways, autopilot is a good thing because habitual behaviors don’t have to be at the top of one’s mind while we think about other things. But, we miss out on large chunks of our lives when we aren’t present.
Present moment awareness, on the other hand, is a decision that I try to make, moment by moment, day after day. When I’m in that place, my life is more real than it ever is at any other time. I am completely grounded in my True Self. But the truth is, that happens in very small increments sprinkled throughout my life. Still, this momentary Presence, this calm in the center of the storm, this Knowing is worth the daily practice because it is from this place that I operate with the most assuredness that I can muster.
Formal vs. Informal Practice
More than anything, I practice informal mindfulness throughout the day. Jon Kabat-Zinn teaches that mindfulness can be both a formal and an informal practice. A formal practice includes setting aside an amount of time to sit and meditate, or practice yoga, or do a walking meditation. An informal practice is living life in a conscious, present, mindful manner, moment by moment.
Dan Siegel, MD remarked in a keynote address that I attended several years ago at the Renfrew Center in Philadelphia that he washes the dishes mindfully, being aware of the temperature of the water, feeling it against his hands, feeling the slipperiness of the soap on the dishes, washing the dishes with deliberation. This is his informal mindfulness practice. He said his wife is very grateful that he does a dishwashing mindfulness practice! In support of Dr. Siegel’s informal mindfulness practice, I found this quote by Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh:
“While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes.”
If a formal sitting practice seems out of the question right now, that’s okay. An informal practice can begin anytime, anywhere. Be present walking; be present showering, making the bed, cooking, eating…whatever! How does it look? Feel? Smell? Sound? Taste? Experience it.
Mind and the Ever-Present “To Do” List
Being present means having a conscious awareness of sensations, thoughts, and emotions related to this present moment and its activities. Mind is here now. Mind is not on the next thing on my “to do” list.
We are so programmed to be future- or past-focused. My mind is usually concentrated on my ever-present “to do” list. I sometimes don’t even have the satisfaction of knowing I’ve completed a task because my crazy mind has moved on to the next item of concern—if I let it. I’ve learned to give myself even a just a moment to appreciate a job well done before moving on.
And, therein lies the problem: a nervous system that never gets a break. It’s like my foot is always on the accelerator and my mind-body-spirit doesn’t experience enough of the braking system – an opportunity to stop and reflect and appreciate being right here, right now. That’s where the practice of present moment awareness or mindfulness comes in.
It is very important to remember that Mind is nothing more than a thought-producing machine. And, that the mind produces thoughts which are simply mental events. That’s what it does all day, every day. It analyzes, compares and contrasts, judges, and plans. That’s its job, and Mind does it with great earnestness. Please also know that Mind will spin off to the next thought, and the next thought. The actual practice of mindfulness, either formal or informal, is to bring the mind back to the object of your attention – over and over again. Yes, that’s the practice.
What you are doing by practicing mindfulness, or present moment awareness, is developing the mindfulness muscle. You are developing the ability to be present with your conscious awareness of all of your experience. You sit with it and you develop a tolerance for all of it.
Sounds simple but, believe me, it is not. Who wants to sit in the swamp of our deepest, darkest thoughts, feelings, emotions, sensations, and memories? And why would we?
Psychological Flexibility and Good Emotional Health
When we develop the mindfulness muscle, we develop a willingness to be with ourselves and a curiosity about our patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior. We see things for what they are, and we become, in a sense, smarter than the stuff that Mind produces. Just because Mind produces an apparent gem of a thought, it doesn’t mean that this thought is true or real. Thoughts, I have been taught, are not truths but mental events. When we are able to see certain thoughts for what they are and not get caught up in them (again and again), we allow ourselves to respond effectively rather than react impulsively. It gives us more tools for our toolbox. Instead of hitting everything with a hammer, we might choose a screwdriver or a plier. We have more choices. This is called psychological flexibility, and psychological flexibility is a sign of good emotional health.
And the truth is, some of our thoughts are a perspective Mind takes when we are angry, sad, scared, and even when we are happy. For example, when we are sad, Mind uses a sad filter through which we view the world. It skews things a bit and isn’t usually a very accurate representation of reality. When we know this, we can challenge Mind and its filters. I have a young patient who told me that his sadness is like putting on a pair of sunglasses. Everything seems darker until he removes the sunglasses.
Mindfulness and Self-Compassion
Mindfulness has a quality or tone of self-compassion. This is very, very important to remember. Practicing mindfulness can be extremely frustrating for a perfectionist like me. If you want to do everything just right and your mind spins off to other thoughts, as it inevitably will, one tends to become self-critical: “I can’t do this right!” “What is wrong with me?” “I hate mindfulness!”
One of my favorite teachers, Pema Chödrön, makes it very clear that the tone of practice is one of self-compassion. Her metaphor is that mindfulness is not like shooting a clay pigeon where you blow the thought out of the sky because it has spun off but is more like taking Mind by the hand and gently walking it back to the object of concentration, over and over, again. Always with compassion.
Things that Happen when I’m Paying Attention
When I’m paying attention to this moment with curiosity, openness, and willingness, I become so much better acquainted with my True Self. Not only do I find more compassion for myself, but I also have a heightened awareness of the interconnectedness of all beings. I can recognize our shared humanity and in that, my compassion for others is heightened, too.
Because of my practice, my mindfulness muscle is developing mass and definition. My courage to be myself and to be with myself—all the sloppy unsightliness of some of it—is expanding, and my commitment to live authentically is more steadfast than it’s ever been. For this, I’m grateful.