You can be in two places at once. It happens all the time. You’re at the dinner table with your family, but your attention is focused on a problem you’re trying to solve at work. Essentially your mind is at the office while your body is at the dinner table. You are able to switch back and forth between these two places as needed – such as when your family asks you a question. You think you’re getting away with this and no one notices that you’ve disappeared from the table – but you’re not. Everyone at the table knows at some level that you’re not fully present. That’s ok. We’re used to it. It’s the way most everyone is and so that feels normal.
Recently a friend said to me that she doesn’t believe it’s even possible to “be in the present moment.” She thought it was all a bunch of B.S. And even if you could be “in the present moment” it’s not a place she’d want to be since it’s not a place where you can make plans and deal with the tasks of living. She likes all the places her mind wanders to and she likes that she can be thinking about many things at once. She feels capable and competent as a result of all the thoughts and problems she can manage at the same time while doing and accomplishing an unrelated task.
Being in One Place
I totally get what she’s saying. I’ve thought some of the same things many times. But why is the idea of being present – even for just 10 minutes of meditation for example – kind of threatening? Can you spot the resistance to being present?
Having your body in one place and your mind somewhere else is easy. It takes no special skill. It’s actually our default mode. The real trick is in bringing the body and mind to the same place. Can you do that? What happens if you try?
Often the first thing you’ll discover when you even contemplate doing this is resistance. Notice how strong this reaction of resistance is. Do any of these thoughts feel familiar: Why would I want to do that? It’s a waste of time. Nothing gets done if I do that. Does it really make sense to sit around all day and contemplate my navel? Just the thought of doing that drives me mad. Hold on, I’ve gotta check my phone a second. Actually, I’m feeling hungry – or is it a coffee I need? I gotta get up and head out to grab a coffee. I’ll think about this later.
Do you recognize this resistance? Before you can move forward it’s essential to be able to spot it. The only way to disempower the resistance is to see it and recognize it for what it is. Until you’re able to do that the resistance runs you and your actions.
Once you’re able to spot your resistance, the next step is to get curious about it. What are the thoughts that are driving this resistance? In other words, what are the thoughts underneath these thoughts? What are the rules in your head that are driving your thinking? For example, a thought or rule that might drive these resistant thoughts is the rule that you must produce something or accomplish something in order to feel valued. There may be fears or rules in our heads about being lazy. There may be habits of thinking that say “the minute I start to feel uncomfortable I need to distract myself or I need to soothe myself with eating or drinking.” Once you get the hang of this it’s actually super fascinating. It’s like trying to find those hidden objects within a picture – or searching for a word within a grid of letters. What’s the thought hidden behind the resistant thoughts? Can you find it?
A Signal of Progress
When you get good at this game you begin to realize that any time you feel discomfort it’s a super valuable signal. It’s a warning light that says, “Hey – heads up! Pay attention! There’s valuable information here for you to discover. If you’re willing to look you will likely discover either 1) an important message to guide you away from harm; or 2) an important message that a thought that’s running your life no longer serves you, so you may want to stop believing that thought.
As we delve into this process it’s easy to lose track of why we want to do this. It seems like a lot of work. That trip to Starbucks keeps calling. Remind me of why I want to be here instead of there?
The reason to develop the skill of being present is to gain more freedom, more ease, less suffering, more equanimity. The skill of being present allows you to have a greater depth of experience and awareness and a greater sense of connection to others and your environment. As this skill develops it is the ultimate in empowerment. You feel less and less controlled by the circumstances of your life and the events swirling around you. You feel more capable and able to ride the waves of any circumstance.
If this being present is so great, why aren’t more people trying to do it? I think it’s because our unexamined habits of thinking work like crazy to keep us from developing this skill. You need to be strong to resist the pull of these thoughts. These habitual ways of thinking are like the friend who constantly tempts you away from your schoolwork. You know this person who is so persuasive – “Dude, skip school and come with me to the amusement park. It’ll be a blast. You only live once. You don’t want to miss this. We’ll stop at Starbucks on the way!”
I also think what keeps us from being present is that we’ve learned to avoid at all costs the feelings of discomfort. No one likes emotional or physical discomfort. As young’uns we quickly develop strategies for avoiding discomfort: run away, distract ourselves, stay busy, find entertainment, eat something, drink something, sleep, talk, don’t let yourself be alone or quiet. What if you became skilled at managing physical and emotional discomfort? What if you learned effective tools for staying present to it? If those tools are really good, then you begin to realize you don’t have to leave your body. You can stay here – present to what is. You can bear it. The freedom that comes from recognizing your ability to handle discomfort is so empowering.
There is clearly an art to being in the same place as your body. That art begins with noticing where you are. Here or there? Are you mostly there? And if so, what might you be missing here?
Questions To Ponder:
- What does being present mean to you?
- How much of your day do you spend thinking about the past or the future? How often are you lost in thought?
- Can you think of a time when you were with someone and you felt that they were completely present to you – listening attentively without an agenda and without interruption? If so, how was that experience for you? If not, imagine what that experience would be like.