What is "Presence"?
People talk a lot about presence. “I should be more present”, “You’re never present” – but what does it actually mean? How do you know when you are present? How do you “get” present?
Our minds are wonderful things. They solve problems, help us operate in the world and most importantly, they keep us safe. Like anything in life, you can have too much of a good thing. Our lives are now faster-paced and busier than they’ve ever been in human history. Our minds can get over stimulated by our environment and become unbalanced. The way we relate to our world changes, eventually leading to anxiety and depression. My beautiful teacher tells me “You mind your mind, don’t’ let your mind mind you.”
Anxiety and depression are complex topics, but they are products of our unminded minds. Neither can exist in the present moment – they live in the past and the future. To be clear, I'm not insinuating that people who suffer these dis-eases are at fault, I'm saying that relief lies in presence. Emotions like regret, sadness, worry and fear come when we are comparing the current moment with a past, future, or alternative moment. Our mind is always striving to make things better, more pleasant, happier and safer, and thus, we miss what is actually happening right now.
So, presence. I often hear people associate presence with relaxing and giving something their full attention, but presence is more than just concentrating on something. Presence can be described as moment-by-moment awareness of your experience, without judgement. For example, I have been concentrating at my computer for a while now, but I would not say that I am present – I am merely focused on what I’m writing. I can bring myself into presence with some simple mindfulness techniques - basically just noticing what is. I'm noticing how it feels to press the keys with my fingers, the temperature of the air on my skin, the taste in my mouth, the sensation of my breath as it enters and leaves. If I judge my experience (“it’s cold and I want it to be warm”), I am immediately out of presence (and in hell). We suffer when we reject what is happening now, rather than simply experiencing it. In the present moment, there is no suffering. There is only what is.
Try it. Start by noticing what it feels like to breathe… Now notice where your body ends and the world begins – where your skin touches your clothes, furniture, the air... Notice any sounds you can hear - just hear them without any story… Notice any shapes you can see… Notice any colours you see. Now notice sounds, shapes and colours all at once…stay with the present as long as you can.
What did that feel like? In that small moment before your mind kicked back into gear to remind you to make that phone call or pick up some bread on your way home, you were present.
You can probably see why we rarely do this. Mindfulness takes effort and concentration and our minds tell us that there are other things that need to be attended to first. The truth is that when we are in a state of presence, we are bringing our body back to homeostasis – our natural resting state. The more time we can spend in this state, the better our nervous system copes with our busy lifestyles. This is why mindfulness and meditation are so good for us. They take our attention inward, to our present moment experience and rest our nervous systems.
We can also use mindfulness to bring presence into our relationships. Remember when you were first dating someone and you held eye contact for a few seconds? It was like the world stopped. As time goes on, we get used to being with one another and in a way, we stop really BEING WITH one another. So, an exercise. Sit opposite your partner or friend or any willing participant. It can feel difficult to ask someone to do something like this, but be brave and take a risk! Set a one or two minute timer on your phone, and focus your gaze on his/her left eye (and they, yours). Don’t talk, just breathe, state into their eye and notice your experience. This can feel quite confronting and you might find yourself fidgeting, laughing or looking away, but just continue to bring your attention back to their left eye and your breathing. Notice how it feels to be present with them. It is impossible to access the past or the future when you are connected to someone in this way. If you want to feel annoyed that he hasn’t helped around the house lately, you’ll have to look away to retrieve that memory. In this moment, there is just you and the other in the present, no past, no future.
So aim to start practising mindfulness, spending just a few minutes in presence each day. Lose your mind and come to your senses. Pay close attention to the water on your skin in the shower, notice the texture, taste and temperature of the food in your mouth as you eat, notice your body relaxing and your breathing slowing as you prepare to sleep at night. I’d love to hear your questions, successes and struggles as you try it out.
If you want to learn more about mindfulness, check out coolkarmacolkected.com
For help getting started with meditation, download the One Giant Mind app.
Laura is a Gestalt counsellor and psychotherapist in Melbourne's inner North.