Practicing Presence

by Joanna Kleinman

living34-01I have devoted my life’s work to support people to live lives that they love.  I teach people how to investigate their lives and learn tools for them to be happy, to feel empowered, fulfilled and content.

By age 9, I was already aware that I was struggling to feel more comfortable in my own skin.  I had loving parents, close friends, and yet I struggled with feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, and fear.   I suffered feelings of not belonging, and that I was not as well liked as I believed I should have been.

What I didn’t understand at the time, was that my mind was in a constant stream of endless thought.  Experts estimate that the mind thinks between 60,000 – 80,000 thoughts a day. That’s an average of 2,500 – 3,300 thoughts per hour. And these thoughts are automatic, habitually evaluating, judging, and categorizing everyone and everything we encounter.   Our automatic stream of thought is forever searching, but what is it really searching for?  We don’t really even know!   And in our never ending search to find something, we continually end up feeling lost.

In my work with thousands of people, what I constantly keep hearing is how fast the years have gone by, and they really don’t know what they were focusing on for most of that time.  For most of us, we weren’t actually present to our lives.  We used this moment as a stepping stone to get to the next.  And the more we searched, the more exhausted, overwhelmed, and unfulfilled we became.

Harvard researcher Matt Killingsworth conducted a study to answer the question, “What makes us happy?”  In his research, he found that people are least happy when their mind is wandering and most happy when their focus is in the present moment.  In other words, what constitutes the experience of happiness has far less to do with what we are actually doing and more to do with whether we are focusing our attention on the present moment while we are doing it.  Killingsworth further concluded that the average person’s mind is wandering approximately 47% of the day.  That is almost half the day spent focusing on things that are not actually happening in reality!  Our endless stream of automatic thinking traps us into creating a reality that doesn’t actually exist.

So how do we interrupt this automatic and constant compulsive thinking?  The answer is this:  We must practice being present.  And this skill almost never happens by itself.  It takes a willingness to be your own teacher, and the desire to regularly practice this skill in your daily life.

Here are 6 ways to practice presence in your daily life:

1.    Start the day by asking these two questions: “What do I need to let go of right now to be calm?”  In other words, what are the thoughts I am having that are causing stress and write down any responses that come to mind.
2.    Next, ask yourself a second question: “What do I have to be grateful for?”  Set a timer for several minutes and write down whatever comes to mind.  If nothing comes up, make it up!  Anything can belong on that list.
3.    Pay Attention to the sounds around you.  Take a few minutes to turn your attention to all of the sounds that are around you.  Don’t go into an explanation of the sounds, how you feel about them, or why they are occurring.  Just simply listen.
4.    Pay attention to your breath.  Focus on feeling your breath go in and out.  This simple exercise for just two minutes a day is a powerful tool for practicing presence, as well as for relaxing. When your mind wanders, just notice it and say “thinking, thinking.” Then gently return to the breath, and focus completely on your breath.
5.    During the day, when you remember, pay attention to every aspect of whatever you ‘re doing in that moment.  If you are driving, notice the things around you, such as the cars or trees. Notice how your hands feel on the steering wheel.  When we bring mindfulness into our daily routines (dishes, laundry, eating), what we’re doing is bringing more focus to each moment. Always try to notice the thoughts that are there, and gently let them pass, and bring yourself back to your present task.  Just notice your thoughts jumping from one to the next, and lovingly come back to the present.
6.    Release the Tension in the Body. When you are truly aware of your body, you can notice there is usually some tension and stress someplace within it.  Learn how to release it.  Use your breathing.  You can practice relaxation anywhere.  For example, while driving your car, at a red light, notice if there is tension in your body.  If yes, notice where it is in the body and practice releasing the tension that you noticed.

This is hard work at first, as we are constantly forgetting to engage with these practices.  But if you continue to practice presence, your life will change in ways you hadn’t imagined could be possible.

5 Steps to Stop Letting Fear Get in the Way of Life

Model Released. Confused Frightened Young WomanThis past week in my “Dethroning Your Inner Critic” class, we discussed how fear stops us from living the lives that we truly want to live.

Marianne Williamson says, “Love is what we were born with.  Fear is what we learn.”

Fear stops everyone.  Imagine how many opportunities we miss when fear keeps us stuck, and stands in the way of what we most want.

Your Inner Critic, the voice in the mind that speaks to you all day, runs on fear.  This is the voice that tells you that you shouldn’t take risks, because you might fail; that you need to keep yourself safe and protected from the possibility of rejection, inadequacy, vulnerability; that you should not put yourself out there to the world, because what if the the world says “no?”.  This Inner Critic develops in childhood as an attempt to avoid painful feelings, protecting you from feeling hurt in any way. It might sound like, “you should…”, “why didn’t you…?”, “What’s wrong with you?” or “Why can’t you get it together?” It is the Inner Critic that is responsible for keeping you stuck!

You see, it is fear, disguised as your Inner Critic, that slips into your mind, and goes for your weakest spots, which it finds readily.  One moment, life feels good.  You are calm, confident and happy.  And then the next minute, your Inner Critic takes over your mind.  It’s always lurking, ready to pounce on any part of life that doesn’t fit the ideal picture.

It is only fear that has the potential to defeat life.

To get fear out of the driver’s seat of your life, you need to see clearly how often you are operating from fear.  Maybe you are angry because you aren’t getting the love you want in your marriage, but you’re too afraid to give it, because it might not be received.  Maybe you’re afraid that you are failing as a parent, and are so angry at your child for making you feel that way, that you are frequently critical.  Maybe you are staying in a toxic relationship, because you are more afraid of being alone.  We can’t shift something unless we can clearly see it.

Follow these 5 steps to stop acting from fear:

1.     Become the Observer of Your Inner Critic’s Fears.  Eckert Tolle said, “The greater part of human pain is unnecessary.  It is self created as long as the unobserved mind runs your life.” You have to be willing to become the observer of your Inner Critic, rather than blindly listen to it.   Many of us don’t realize it’s presence.  We move through our days living very passively, rarely paying attention to our thoughts.  It is these thoughts, the voice of the Inner Critic, that is responsible for creating all of the fear.  Start to pay attention to all of the fear that your Inner Critic whips up by making a list of your deepest fears.  Be radical in your honesty about what you are really afraid of.

2.    Make a list of all of the ways you are acting out your fears.  When you are gripped by the fear of the Inner Critic, how do you act?  What do you do?  Are you lashing out in anger?  Are you putting up walls to keep others from getting too close?  Are you acting compulsively to self medicate your fear by over eating, shopping, over working, over exercising, or drinking too much?

3.    Notice what are the patterns to your fear.  Have you felt this fear in other times of your life?   Make a list, starting with your earliest memories, of all of the circumstances in which you have felt this fear.  Start to see this fear as a broken record that plays over and over in your mind. Notice that Your Inner Critic is always sucking you in to the same drama.

4.    Have a Dialogue with Your Inner Critic.   Ask your Inner Critic:
•    What are you trying to protect me from?
•    What is it that you don’t want me to feel or experience?
•    Thank your Inner Critic for trying to protect you, but let her know that you don’t need her protection right now.

5.    Practice getting in the present moment throughout the day.  Periodically throughout the day, stop what you are doing and turn your attention towards this very moment.  When you are paying attention to the moment you are in, there is no room for the Inner Critic’s mind chatter.  Use these simple tools as examples, for a minute or two throughout your day, to practice getting present:

  • Focus on your breath.  Pay attention to the air coming in and out through your nose.
  • Practice what I call “driving meditation”.  While you are in your car, say out loud the things that you see, like “tree” “car” “dog”.  Get present to what is around you at that very moment.
  • Sit down with your hands on your lap, and put your attention into your hands.  Try to feel the energy flowing thru them.  Also try the same with other parts of your body.

The bottom line is this:  Fear is nothing more than automatically and habitually listening to your Inner Critic trying to protect you from vulnerability.  When you are willing to take and feel the emotional risks that your Inner Critic is telling you not to, fear will no longer control your everyday life and destiny.