Practicing Presence

I want to talk about practicing presence. One of the most powerful gifts you can give another human being is to be present for them. If you’re doing dishes and your daughter comes up, and says, “Mommy, I want to show you this picture I made;”. You turn and you look. Saying “Oh, that’s really good.”   You’ve given her 20 percent of your attention because the water’s running and you’re washing dishes.  And then you go right back to washing dishes.

That’s not exactly quality time. That’s more like acknowledgment.  But if you were to give that child 15 or 20 minutes of complete, 100 percent attention, or presence, she would blossom.  Presence is when you give them the kind of attention that says “I see you.  You are important to me.  I want to hear more.”. So one of the things I recommend in parenting is setting aside 20 minutes to a half-hour of just presence.

The message is clear, if not even spoken aloud.  “I’m here for you. I’m listening to what you have to say”  Presence is done without judging, nor evaluation and you are being 100 percent present. The essence of being present is what we call mindfulness. Being in this moment.

What is Presence?  Presence is Being here, now, as opposed to having your attention on the past or the future.  When you are with someone, and listening with intention, the person feels heard. 

You may have had the experience of talking to someone and notice that they are not paying attention.  They may ask you to repeat yourself, or they don’t respond on-topic but shift the conversation.  Or they may answer your question before you have made your point.  It was as if they were thinking about what they were going to say next, rather than hearing you.

None of these scenarios will feel pleasant, some may even anger you.   The other person was not present, but distracted, in their thoughts.  If we are honest, we have all been there at times.  And I want to suggest that Being Present even for a few moments, is an amazing gift.

Your daughter wants to show you a picture she did at school.  You, though interested, are busy with dinner, or on the telephone and you respond with ”That’s nice dear.”  You have missed a chance to be present, to give the gift of your complete attention.  And she turns away, disappointed.  Perhaps even sensing that she is not important.

Imagine, just for a minute, that instead you stop what you were doing, turn fully to your daughter, and see her.  See her pride in creation; see her eagerness to make you happy; see the gift that she is sharing.

Yum!  What a difference.

To quote Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Full Catastrophe Living,

“Mindfulness is:
 paying attention to the present moment, on purpose, without judgment.”

And Mindfulness can be much more.  As we practice being here, in this moment, life can get easier.  You may find that what causes the most stress in life is not the people, places or things of life, but rather our thoughts about them.

And thoughts are never a reality.  No thought of an orange will give you the experience of eating the orange.  The past is just a thought about something that no longer exists.  The future is a thought about what “might” or “could” happen.  And most thoughts about the past with be incorrect.

Worry about tomorrow is seldom accurate and only spoils today.

A Theory of How the Mind Works

While studying NeuroLinguistic Programming I learned that the Mind has approximately 5 slots of awareness. (some research suggests that it varies between 3 to 7 with 5 being the median.)  This suggests that we can hold our awareness of about 5 things at the same time, as long as they are similar/related. So you can be reading this article, while listening to music and, perhaps, smelling dinner cooking.  However, if your attention is primarily in the Past or in the Future, problems arise.

When your 5 slots of attention are on:                                                                     You may feel

PastPastPastPastPast Depressed
FutureFutureFutureFutureFuture Anxious
PastFuturePastFuturePast Anxious and Depressed

Notice that the focus of our attention in any moment creates feelings that we experience.  So, how do we change?  By practicing Mindfulness

Fill each of your 5 attention slots with                                                                      and discover

NowNowNowNowNow PEACE

Mindfulness is not a cure for depression or anxiety, at least not in the beginning.  It is more of a vacation from those moods.  Over time, with regular practice, it can become a habit of letting the thoughts go and being Here, Now.

What does Now mean?

In reality, Now is the only time there is. There is no such thing as the past. You can’t point to the past. You can’t change the past. It doesn’t exist anymore except as a memory. And when is that memory happening? Right now. The same is true of the future. The future doesn’t exist. A weatherman can’t even accurately predict tomorrow’s weather, let alone what’s going to happen next Tuesday or next Thursday or, oh, a month from now.

It’s just too variable. We can’t predict the future. We can’t change the past. So we only have one place to really be where we’re effective at all. And that’s this moment now. The art of mindfulness is learning a new skill. We’ve all learned the skill of memory. We’ve all learned the skill of storing data. We’ve all learned the skill of tracking, but we haven’t learned the skill of letting go and just being present. Imagine that your brain has slots. There is a theory that says your brain has five slots of awareness and in this moment they’re filled with me standing up here. So you’re reading this here and perhaps, you’re mentally repeating the thoughts, the words that I’m writing. Maybe you’re listening to music. Perhaps you notice your body’s position, or your breath.

Maybe you’re aware of yourself sitting in the chair. Maybe you are aware of the sound of the air conditioning. But around 5 of these, your slots of awareness are full.  You can’t pay attention to more. So when somebody walks into the room, for a moment, you stop reading, because your attention is on the other person, noticing them walking into the room and wondering something about them. What do they want? And then you come back to.     “Oh, yeah, what a minute,  I’m reading this blog. The idea is you can only pay attention about five things at one time.

So this becomes really interesting because, as it turns out, the phenomenon is that if you have most of your slots filled with thoughts about the past and you’re thinking about the past all the time or primarily, you tend to be easily depressed. Because you’re thinking about what happened that you didn’t do or what happened that you did do that you shouldn’t have done or what you could have done if you …. Depression is about the past. What do you think happens if all of your attention is on the future? “What’s going to happen? What ifs? What is that?”  Anxiety.

PastPastPastPastPast Depressed
FutureFutureFutureFutureFuture Anxious
PastFuturePastFuturePast Anxious and Depressed

Anxiety is about the future, forever and always. Why I love this example is because I got stuck wondering how can people be anxious and depressed at the same time? Anxiety is a kind of a high, energizing, the blood flowing, the thoughts are happening rapidly, and depression is kind of low energy, sluggishness. But using this model by having thoughts about the future and the past at the same time, you get anxiety plus depression. So the mind has the ability to do that.

NowNowNowNowNow PEACE

Okay, so now the burning question, how do we do that? How do we keep our attention on the now? What does that mean? Any ideas? How do we keep our attention on the now? What would be the technique of mindfulness? The technique is using one or more of your five senses.

By putting our attention on one of our 5 senses we remain present, in this moment, Now.  It is thinking that moves us out of this moment and into the past or the future.  Some ways we can be mindful using one of our senses:

  • Sight                           Watch a candle flame; pick out a spot or a star, a mandala
  • Sound                         The ocean, the rain, a mantra, or any repetitive sound
  • Smell                          Incense; fragrance; odiferous candle
  • Taste                           The taste, texture of food.
  • Touch/Feel                  Aware of your breath; of the aliveness of your hands

Choose one, and sit for a time and practice.  Set a specific time; 10 minutes, 15 minutes, or 20 minutes.  (no longer than 20 minutes initially,)

Now, many people have tried meditating, or Mindfulness, only to complain that it doesn’t work for them.  Every time I as “Why?” I get the same answer.  “I couldn’t stop thinking!”  This makes me sad, because it means that they misunderstood, or the sources of their knowledge misunderstood a fundamental principle.  You will never stop thinking!  The idea that the purpose of Mindfulness is to stop thoughts is a common, albeit sad, error.  The human mind cannot go very long, maybe only seconds, without thoughts popping up.  I have been meditating since 1972 and I continue to have thoughts in every meditation.

When I first started learning mindfulness back in the early 70s, one of the first things I learned was to take a visual technique where you stare in a candle flame and you watch the candle flame flicker. And every time you start thinking about fire, about wax, about where they went. Then you get back into thinking, you let it go and you come back to the moment; Now. And you watch the candle flame.

So that was an early mindfulness technique. And then I moved on; one of my professors, was teaching a technique called Spotting, where you would close your eyes and you would notice the spots in the darkness when your eyes were closed and you would try to keep the spots from moving. If you looked at a spot, it would move away.

So the idea was to relax the eyes and keep the spots from moving. Again, a visual technique. And then in 1972, I learned Transcendental Meditation. And that was an auditory technique. That was being given a meaningless word, a mantra, and just quietly, mentally, repeating the sound to yourself.

What is a mantra? Virtually, every word you have ever learned has two components. It has the sound and it has the meaning.

So if I say the word chair, the ear hears Ch-air-er, the sounds and the brain says, something to sit in. But imagine a word where you have no meaning. You just have the sound. The example that I love to give is “rasslablya.”

Almost noone who speaks English has any idea what the word rasslablya means. So there’s no meaning, there’s just the sound rasslablya. You can invent meanings, but it doesn’t have a meaning to you. That’s the idea of a mantra; you have a sound but no meaning. So you don’t get hooked in the thoughts. You just repeat that sound. By the way, the word was rasslablya from Russia. That means mellow out, chill. It was one of my favorite words and I was studying Russian.

So that was the auditory technique that I learned. In probably the mid-80s a doctor by the name of John Kabat-Zinn, gets into mindfulness and starts teaching a physiological technique; a tactile sensation where you’re aware of the body breathing. And the idea is you put your attention on the breath, not that you’re controlling or counting your breath, so much as you’re just aware, “my body just took a deep breath” and notice as you exhale and inhale and exhale. The attention is on the physical sensation of the body. Also a wonderful technique. 

But my favorite was one that Eckhart Tolle taught me.    If you’re interested in mindfulness at all, Eckhart Tolle wrote the preeminent book on mindfulness; is called The Power of Now. It’s a powerful book on Mindfulness. In his second book, Creating a New Earth, he taught me a technique that has worked for me very well, focusing on a tactile sensation. So I want to share it with you and we can do it together.

Focusing on a tactile sensation

What I’d like to suggest you do is you just hang your hands at your side, or rest them on the arms of the chair. The idea is to put your hands in a position where they’re not touching anything. So your hands are hanging free. Not touching anything, not moving. Now if you’d like, you can close your eyes; or not. But for me, it’s easier to close my eyes. And ask yourself the question; “How do I know my hands exist?” They’re not moving. They’re not touching anything. How do I know my eyes exist?  And as you ask yourself that question, You become aware of your hands.

They’re not moving. They’re just being hands. Now, in the medical profession, they have a name for this; it’s called Proprioception and it means body awareness. Well, for a moment, I want you to just be aware of your hands. Feel the sensation of aliveness in your hands as you’re sitting there.

For some, it’s a tingling sensation. For some, it’s a warm, kind of fuzzy feeling. Others have reported kind of a pulse. Feeling the pulse of blood in the hand. There’s no right or wrong, it’s just noticing the sensation of aliveness in your hands. And usually, within about 15 seconds, the mind starts off on its trip. Thoughts like “This is kind of cool” or “This is really stupid”or  “How long is this going to last?”

And you just notice that you’re thinking and you let the thought go and find your hands again.

Feel the aliveness.

And up comes another thought.  Why are we doing this? What time is lunch? Is he almost done? And then you notice that you’re thinking, you’re talking to yourself.

And you let the thoughts go and you just go back and see if you can find your hands again.

Find the feeling of aliveness.

Notice if there’s judgments or boredom or restlessness. Those are all thoughts.

And when you notice it. Let it go and find your hands again. You don’t push thoughts away. You don’t fight, resist judgments or talking. You just turn your attention back to.

Finding that feeling. That fuzzy sensation of aliveness.

And you’ll have another thought. Don’t beat yourself up. It’s not about wrong; thoughts are a part of the process. And the art of mindfulness is noticing that you’re having a thought and then finding your hands again.

Feeling the aliveness.  Listening to the body.

And then open your eyes,  Coming back. What did you notice? Do you notice, lots of thoughts? Very few thoughts? Notice judgments? Were you aware of that process?  Anybody?

Lots of thoughts, right? I couldn’t settle my mind.

You won’t settle your mind. That’s not the purpose of it. The purpose of your mind is just noticing oh look, lots of thoughts.

Find your hands again. Oh, lots of thoughts, find your hands again. Yeah.

A common mistake that people make, is thinking that, with meditation, my mind should get quieter. In reality, it depends on the day, the hour, the stress in your life.

I discovered it over my years of meditating was that my morning meditation would have less thoughts than my afternoon meditation. Then my afternoon meditation was just chaotic. Lots of thoughts about the day, about the evening. And it was just the practice of noticing thoughts. And letting them go.

Noticing thoughts. Returning to my mantra, My breath, to my hands. Whatever your focus point, your technique, is.

And be aware, sometimes you’ll beat up on yourself. Oh, I’m doing this wrong. Probably over the course of 40 years I’ve had 15 or 20 times when I thought Aha, I’ve got it Now!  all this time I’ve been doing it wrong and now “this is it.”

It’s just another thought comes up and when you notice the thought you go back to your focal point. That’s really the technique. I have a thought, go back to my focal point. I have a thought, go back to my focal point.

And that is Mindfulness. More to follow….

Published by Jim Hussey

I am a licensed professional counselor, working in a hospital setting. I have been a meditator and teacher for 47 years, a therapist for 28 years and married for 29 years. My secret vice is golf.

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