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.