As a kid, I had no desire to be ordinary. I was fascinated with doing little things to stand out. I was the third grader who insisted on writing “M-A-T-H-E-M-A-T-I-C-S” at the top of my paper every single time, although the rest of my classmates simply wrote, “Math.” I was the kid who arrived at school early to help the teachers grade papers, cut out letters for their bulletin boards, and cleaned their erasers. I was also the kid who eagerly awaited hearing my name called during attendance, so I could proudly say, “Present!” when all the other kids said, “Here.”
Today, I received a challenge (intuitively) to be intentional about remaining “present.” I’ve heard so many spiritual teachers and thought leaders speak on the importance of this. I read “The Power of Now” and watched numerous videos on the concept, but after a day or so I fell off. Well, I discovered a new practice that I can easily do, anywhere, and I think I’m going to stick with this one.
Before I go on, let me explain how I view “presence.”
I see presence as the awareness of being in the current moment. It’s the difference between being in a conversation with someone and hearing nothing but the “wah wah wah” like Charlie Brown’s teacher, versus actually listening. It’s the difference between noticing the color of the leaves on the tree in front of your house are now red, instead of green. It’s about bringing our focus back into the room, away from the story that’s going on in our minds.
I remember seeing Eckhart Tolle explain how to become present. In one talk, he took what felt like 5 minutes to take one sip of water, as he explained all that we can observe in that simple act. We can feel the texture and temperature of the cup against our fingers. We can feel the sensation of the cup against our lips. We can slow down and observe the simplest acts with all our senses.
But why would we do that? Because in taking that time to slow down and notice, we quiet our minds. All that useless and sometimes stressful chatter slows down as we focus on something tangible. We re-center as we feel the sensation of the keys on the keyboard, pay attention to the coolness of our breath as we inhale, and warmth as we exhale. When we find ourselves stressed, practicing presence can help us to find our center and regroup.
These simple acts help us return to the present moment, and that’s a very important skill. Not only does it help us clear our minds so we can complete tasks, it also helps us be better communicators. So often our minds are filled with worries about the future and pain from our past. We lose connection when we are not present. We are in conversations with people, but our minds are completely elsewhere. How many times have you grinned and nodded through a conversation, only to realize you have no idea what the other person was talking about? You mentally “left the room.” If you do that enough with someone who’s close to you, the distance will be felt. We also waste time when we’re not present. I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve restarted the same paragraph because I wasn’t present. My eyes were following the words, but my thoughts were recalling the details of a recent argument. Each time I drifted off I didn’t retain the information, so I had read it again. Sometimes we scare ourselves with what we accomplish while completely unaware. Have you ever arrived at work, or home, with no recollection of making the decisions required to drive there safely? We zone out. And I’m about to show you what I started doing yesterday to zone back in.
We autopilot our way through so much of life because we have developed a habit of not being present. As someone who is working to overcome anxiety, I now recognize a major reason why I feel anxious is that I spend a lot of time in my head picturing future scenarios…. going really badly. I’m just being honest. As optimistic as I am for basically everyone else on earth, I still find it challenging to not be pessimistic about my own pursuits. (Don’t worry. I’m working on it.) It’s just that I’ve experienced so many unfortunate outcomes that I developed a habit of worry. So when a situation feels familiar, and I recall the last time it went badly, I panic in advance. I see it happening again (in my mind) and possibly with worse consequences. The panic sets in as I think, “Oh gawd, not again. This is where I was last time. It’s going to happen again.”
Today, I was given the gift to choose to remain present. So throughout the day as things occurred that triggered anxiety, in the middle of anxious thoughts, I paused and asked myself, “Where am I?” (I know it sounds crazy, but just follow me. Don’t make it all dramatic like I woke up with amnesia. 😆 ) I just interrupted my thoughts, out loud and asked. (I spend a lot of time alone so that works for me, you may want to think or mouth it, 🤣) And then I ask myself the follow-up question, “What am I doing?”
The first question, “Where am I?” snapped me back to reality and out of the fictitious doom-filled daydream I was inhabiting. The second question reminded me of what I was attempting to do before I drifted off in thought. In that brief moment of clarity, I was able to follow through on numerous tasks, because I cut through the noise and returned to the present moment. I must admit, I was kinda amazed at how much that simple thing helped.
As I reflect on all I got done as a result of this new practice, I realized that I now prefer the word “here” to the word “present.” It may just be my perception of the word, but it feels like “present” just means that my body is occupying a certain space. But when I say, “I’m here,” it feels like all of me is in the room, that I am alert, aware, and alive.
So I offer you this simple practice. It really helped me and it begins with two simple questions. “Where are you?” “What are you doing?” It’s like calling to a child whose in the middle of pretend play. It interrupts the scene going on in our minds and returns us to the present moment.
I encourage you to become intentional about being “here.” Let’s not just occupy space, let’s be in the room. Let’s intentionally notice our surroundings, tune into our senses, and listen to the people who are talking to us. Let’s take a break from planning out every possible negative scenario (or maybe that one’s just for me. 😆). Let’s be alive. Let’s be here.