At the heart of any mindfulness or meditation practice, the central message is always — be present — but what does this actually mean? Is there proof that it’s good for you and how literally should you take it?
As I sit and write this article on the train back from work, I’m wondering if I’m being present right now. I’m listening to music whilst writing in my notebook balanced on top of my bag. I’m not really present to the lyrics because I’m writing. I’m also not present to the people around me or to the world outside the train window — maybe in brief glimpses, but not really. My focus right now is this article.
Ironically, when I brought my attention back to being on the train, I realised I’d missed my stop. Was I being un-present and mindless to the world around me, or was I just too absorbed in what I was doing? My attention was on the writing, but where was my so called ‘ever present awareness’?
Considering that I meditate most mornings, I sometimes feel secretly like I’m not a ‘proper meditator’ because I enjoy daydreaming and dare I say — thinking about the future and what I want to do next.
I sometimes feel like we take ‘being present’ too literally. If we never thought about the past or the future, nothing would ever get done. Being truly present, therefore, just means being aware of what’s going on in our heads. Most of the time we drift from thought to thought without really being conscious of what we’re thinking about at all.
A number of years ago the NSF estimated that our brains produce as many as 12,000 to 50,000 thoughts per day depending on how ‘deep’ a thinker you are (other estimates run as high as 60,000/day). Sentients Development
The point I’m trying to get at though is that being present for me just means being aware of where your mind is drifting too — at least for some of the time. If you choose to think about what you’re going to wear later or what you’re going to cook for dinner, then it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not being present.
If, however, you’ve chosen to revise for an exam, but your focus keeps drifting off to your shopping list or the hot new guy you work with, then that’s being un-present — no matter how pleasant it might be.
Mindfulness for momentary stress reduction
Yes, being present in the very literal sense can work in the short term to relieve stress and anxiety. For example, if you’re feeling overwhelmed or your heart is racing, taking a step back to focus on your breathing or the detail of something close by to you, can really help. Similarly, allowing yourself to become absorbed in nature can feel incredibly healing.
But, imagine living your whole life, only trying to absorb what’s in front of your eyes and that’s it. We’d all be like walking zombies if we only honed in on the details of a moment and limited our thinking. Plus, don’t we play any part in shaping the moments of our existence through our thoughts?
What do you spend the majority of your time thinking about?
Instead, I propose the ‘thought journal’. Rather than trying to stop thoughts and become ‘at one’ with every moment of our waking lives, wouldn’t it be better if we just had a bit more control over our minds. By this, I mean making a conscious decision to observe what you think about for the majority of the day — at least as a first step.
Ask yourself how often you complain. Are your thoughts more negative than positive? Are you optimistic? Are you imaginative? Do you have vivid images and feelings accompanying your thoughts? Is there one person who dominates your thoughts more than others? Do you have self destructive thoughts? Would you still be friends with someone if they spoke to you like your thoughts do?
Once you’ve worked out what you’re spending the majority of your days thinking about, you can start to make changes if needed. After all, if like me, you believe that our thoughts help to shape our future realities to some extent, then isn’t it worth being at least a bit mindful of how we’re using our minds?
What is the present moment?
Does the true present moment exist anyway and is there really an objective outlook to any given moment? We all know that two people faced with the same reality or situation can come away with two drastically, but equally valid interpretations of the same event.
Austrian psychologist, Viktor Frankl always said, that you shape your reality, not by what happens to you or what life throws at you, but how you respond.
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. Viktor Frankl
Another way of looking at it is to take the red bike theory. As you’re reading these words, start to focus your mind on something; for example, a red bike. If you think a fair bit about red bikes and set the intention ‘I’m going to start seeing loads of red bikes’, chances are, you’ll start noticing them everywhere. It’s similar to when you learn a new word, and suddenly you start hearing the word used all the time. Was the world always filled with red bikes and unheard words, or had you just never noticed them before?
I’d like to think that our brains are like radios waiting to be tuned. We can choose any number of realities to tune into — we just have to shape our thoughts in the right way. Once we’ve become present and more conscious of our thoughts, I believe that everyday life, then equally becomes more meaningful, and those moments of awe and feelings of being ‘at one’ will only increase naturally and without force.
Sometimes when we meditate and try too hard to be mindful and in the moment, we lose it and there’s nothing awe inspiring or natural about that. I believe that when it comes to being more present, we’ve all somehow skipped a step. We want to be like Zen Buddhists — taking life as it comes and melting into moments as they come and go, but we’ve failed to observe our thoughts first. Only when we shape our thoughts, can we become fully present to the moments that follow — in a natural and unforced way — at least that’s what I think.
You know how everyone’s always saying seize the moment? I don’t know, I’m kind of thinking it’s the other way around, you know, like the moment seizes us. – Boyhood