Last week’s entry had an agenda: it was supposed to get you started on the examination of your own relationship to ‘thinking’ so that, this week, we could begin tackling the subtle art of being present in the present full-time.
So, in today's entry, we’ll start by clarifying what ‘being present’ actually means. The goal is to learn to develop the witness within, and for that, we need to learn to spot a few ‘watch-out-for-clues’ that may help us realize when we are getting off-track and losing presence, so that we can correct the habit anywhere, anytime.
When we talk about ‘presence,’ the starting point of the discussion is essentially three-fold: we need to discuss what being ‘non-present’ looks like, why we identify with the mind, and our relationship to the idea of time. Indeed, what is ‘being present’? Do we know what people mean when they say stuff like that? If we have never had the awareness of presence before –though, let me tell you, we’ve all been present regularly a lot of times– perhaps it may be easier for us to recognize when we are not being present. So, let’s put an easy example to establish a baseline.
When I wasn’t so present...
During my PhD writing period –which lasted quite a while– I used to reserve weekends as my ‘time-off.’ I would spend the whole week reading and working and writing and thinking and feeling inadequately suited for the task of writing a relevant piece of thought-out research, looking forward to the weekend. In my head, Friday to Sunday was bliss: the time I had reserved to let go of the stress of a busy week and enjoy myself. Ironically, by the time I was out grabbing dinner, out for a movie, or getting some drinks in a bar with friends, my head would be anywhere but there. I would think of all the pages I should have written that week that I hadn’t managed to; or of deadlines soon approaching that I wasn’t sure I’d make; or of a million irrelevant ‘mental notes’ that I had to remember not to forget so as to write them down as soon as possible. These instances, which seem anecdotal here, were the reality of my weekends for several years; and even in those rare occasions were I was genuinely allowed to have a good time (as on vacation), the thought of ‘what I should be doing, had not done, wouldn’t probably manage to do, or would fail to do’ was always my ‘Mr. Hyde.’
This here is a very good example of non-presence: the type of ‘absent-mindedness’ about the present we were referring to last week. At the time, I did not realize there was a way out of this pattern. I knew my inability to set limits to my thinking was problematic because it ruined most of the moments I had reserved for me to feel free from (over)thinking and feel good instead of guilty. But back then, I had very few tools at my disposal to correct the habit, and the fact that most people seemed to admit to some sort of similar trajectory for themselves didn’t much help my looking for solutions. It seemed that projecting into the future or holding on to the past in the present was absolutely normal –all too normal. And so, it would take me several years to realize that that was not necessarily true.
Identifying with ‘thinking me’
The main problem here for me was that I had fully identified with my mind, with my thoughts, with ‘thinking me.’ And so, me being my thoughts and my thoughts being me, I could not ‘not be’ them. If I did, who would I be? And yet, as the famous quote goes, “you are not your body, you are not your brain, you are not even your mind” (Weiss). I now know this. But accepting these words is no easy task at first. And it isn’t because this clashes against the bulk of an identity as individuals that, here in the West at least, we derive essentially from our identification with what we think.
Last week, we explained some of the historical reasons accounting for this ‘habit’ of ours, but perhaps, we should also approach our ‘individual’ reasons to do so. So, in very simple terms, one could say that the human mind works much like a computer: it creates the illusion of its reality, what yogis call Maya: an environment it can interpret by using a certain code. Our mind comes with an inbuilt need for a method to interpret the world, to make processing data from the outside (and inner) worlds easier and faster. In our case, this method is partly ingrained and partly acquired as we grow older, and it functions as the equivalent of a computer’s binary code of ‘1-and-0,’ this time made of ‘this-or-thats.’ And so, we judge everything we experience in the physical world by ascribing tags, labels, stickers, words, or judgements, placing whatever we encounter into a ‘this-or-that’ box. This means that we place those tags between 'us' and 'the world.' We separate before we can connect.
Why do we do so?
For starters, this allows for a lot faster processing. But it also has to do with our ‘ego’ –the part of our mind we most directly identify with the 'Self,' or the 'I.' The ‘ego’ is driven by the impulse of self-preservation. In order to survive in a potentially hostile environment full of challenges and dangers to our survival (and to our idea of who we are), the ‘ego’ resorts to this labelling and (dis)identification method to separate ‘this’ from ‘that,’ the “I’ from ‘the Other.’ This enables us to make decisions relevant to our survival vis-à-vis anything we encounter –be it other people, other objects, situations, or even qualities we don’t like.
Consider, for example, how you would define yourself if asked about it. If I’m not too mistaken here, you would most likely resort to a series of labels, or positionings, for you relative to other people –mainly, comments about your job, your age, your background, and your likes and dislikes. So, you would go something like “Hi, I’m so-and-so, I am a teacher” –aka, not an engineer, not a doctor, not a lawyer, nor a beggar, for instance– “I’m 30, I live in London, but I was born in Italy” –so, not in your 20s, nor in your 50s, not living in a rural, non-cosmopolitan environment, and originally from the South of Europe. A seemingly naive description such as this already contains very relevant pieces of information that help create a certain idea of ‘who you are’ and, most importantly, ‘who you are not’; an idea that you, and others, will use to place you in the world. In essence, there is nothing wrong with this. We all do it. Like the bios on Instagram! The actual problem begins when we ‘identify’ with the tags we use and use them as shields to protect us from everything we think we are not. The moment we identify with what /who we think we are, with the label that separates us before we can connect, we disidentify with a lot of other stuff creating an illusory barrier differentiating 'us' from 'that/them.' And so, not only do we become the illusion of ‘what we think,’ but also ‘that’ which thinks. And what thinks in 'this-or-that' terms? The ‘I’ or ego-mind.
Again, this here is an oversimplification of a very broad and complex process; but we learn to do life by seeing ourselves in a certain way and disconnecting or disengaging from everything and everyone we believe we are not before we begin to connect. This is often how the feelings of separation, isolation, and disconnection from the world/people around us first arise.
Ok, but then, what does time have to do with all this?
The notion of time becomes important the moment we start considering the idea of ‘suffering,' the type of suffering triggered by our thoughts, for example, which are the ones responsible of producing our emotions, as mentioned last week; or that derived from experiences we may be having right now that we would prefer to have differently or not to have at all.
As the example from my PhD overthinking time shows, most of my suffering during that period was of a mental sort. It wasn’t real. I hadn’t yet failed to finish chapters on time or prove smart enough, nor was there anything I could do about mistakes or shortcomings from the past. Both my past and my future were nothing I could realistically do anything about in my present. But the thought of possibly failing in the near future and the memories of past mistakes created anguish, anxiety, suffering in my present. And that’s where our idea of time becomes key.
There are, of course, other types of more immediate suffering –diseases, for example, or things happening to people we love– but even in those situations, it is generally 'how we react' to the event that triggers the suffering, and not the event itself. Which means that, it is the tension between what we are experiencing (our present) and what we would want to experience (a different thing, not our present) that creates the suffering, the discomfort. So, our mind is the one creating the suffering, because it is our perception and consecutive emotional investment on a certain narrative about an event that produces the ennui.
Hence, the whole point behind learning to be present has to do with realizing that time, much like the reality we think we live in, does not exist. I’ll repeat: TIME DOES NOT EXIST. It is an illusion, a mental illusion; part of the code needed by our mind-machine to make sense of our world. So, we could say, that time is part of the programming language inbuilt into our code so that we may make sense of what we experience in this plane of existence in a linear and organized way. Again, think about it. Can you be in the past? Can you be in the future? Where are you always at, even when your head may be busy trying to remember something or predict what could happen?
There is only one answer possible to these questions, and the answer is NOW. We are NEVER EVER in the past. We are NEVER EVER in the future. And ALL WE EVER HAVE IS NOW.
Accepting what is: learning to develop the witness within and be here now
This is where the notion of witnessing comes in. Once we accept both intellectually and heartfully what the last few lines above have exposed, we can begin to realize that ‘what is’ and ‘the narrative we build around what is’ are two very different things.
Learning to witness ‘what is’ is all about not judging everything we perceive. At least, not constantly, so that we can gain some perspective, and increase the moments where we don’t have to think. The thought process would then resemble something this: “Ok. So, I experienced this thing. And my mind jumped right on to thinking ‘this.’ Which made me feel like 'that.' But that’s just a thought. And I’m just going to pull back for a second and observe the pattern. Is there a pattern in my thinking? Am I getting carried away by my thoughts here again? If so, what if I stop it now, and don’t think of anything? Just be. Just observe. Just stay with whatever arises, and as easily, let it pass.” That’s all it really takes.
Let’s say, for example, that you are invited to a party and you dress up. At the party, you’re having a good time. But at one point you realize that your shirt has a stain you hadn’t noticed before. All of a sudden, that stain on your shirt is everything you can think about. Objectively, nothing has changed from one second to the next. You are still at the party and the atmosphere is still nice. The stain was already there before, you just didn’t know. How you feel, though, has changed. Your reaction to the event –the stain on your shirt– has triggered a thought, an inner narrative. And so, now you’re thinking about the stain, how it looks, what others may think of it or of you looking a certain way. Or else, you think of how expensive that shirt was. How the shirt may be ruined forever. What will your mother say, she gave you the money to buy the shirt as a present in the first place… This narrative (your thoughts) is not real, but it feels quite real to you at that moment because you identify with it. You let it sink in, overtake you, become everything that’s happening at the forefront of your perception. And that makes it real. Your ego, your ‘I,’ the part of you that is always labelling and categorizing before it can connect, has summoned some labels, tags that are producing a lot of ‘mental suffering’ because you are identifying with the narrative they conjure around a stain on your shirt. But you have the power to stop it. How? By realizing the hidden pattern, the inner pattern; the inbuilt habit of the mind to come up with a narrative like that to begin with; to create a thought sequence about what’s happening and thus allow certain emotions to arise.
The thought sequence around the shirt could in fact have gone entirely different. Instead of obsessing about the stain, making it the protagonist of your party, you could choose to think: “Oh, well… What a pity. But how nice is this!” And carry on in the present as if nothing had happened. That’s in your power. And that’s the power we gain when we learn to become the witness of our inner narratives.
Easy clues to be more present
Granted, what we just described ain’t easy. If it were people would not spend lots on money on classes to learn to meditate, for example. The habit is really strong in all of us. But if Jonas and me have managed to be more of a witness to our present over time, so can anyone else. As Stephen Cope suggests, "[t]he solution to the problem of suffering is to expose the roots of suffering and be present.” Be present with it. And how can we be more present?
Some of the easiest examples that come to mind have to do with games, sports, activities we truly enjoy, and the contemplation of nature. Meditation is also a nice place to start and stay at! If you are a runner, or you hike, or bike, or like intense sports like Jonas, think of the way time often flies when you are doing those activities. Some of Jonas' previous entries have beautifully described the feeling. Doing any of those things can easily make us lose track of time. And that is because we're fully present; and when we really are present, time (meaning both our past and future) evaporates, it moves to the background.
The same can happen when we play games or dance –something we adults don't do nearly as much as we should. Think of children and their ability to spend hours and hours immersed in the world of play, doing puzzles, drawing, dancing, running around or exploring in amazement. Ain’t that awesome? Again, that’s called being present, and it's one of those abilities I believe every adult human would love to have more off. Not thinking about anything other but whatever is right now with you is what it looks like. We can often have glimpses of it when we participate in creative projects, at work or elsewhere, or when we engage in activities that require us to use/move our bodies. As the tradition of yoga shows, WE SHOULD NOT UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF MOVEMENT.
All of these things bring us to a spontaneous state of flow. We can get that when we write or paint, for example, by watching a sunset, or wandering surrounded by plants, trees and the sounds of nature, or even while doing the dishes, grocery shopping or anything else. But if these things still seem a bit elusive, the easier method to be present is to stop whatever you’re doing right now and just be. Observe yourself now, your thoughts, your mind. Notice whatever arises and when a thought comes, watch it. You are not that thought, so just pull back for a little and observe it, observe what happens. Let the thought be. It will pass. Then wait for whatever comes next. Is it another thought? Or no thought? Just be present there, paying careful, gentle attention to the moment present. You can listen to your own breathing, your heartbeat, or any sounds or sensations if it helps.
Indeed, attention and intention are great door-openers for presence. They bring you to the present by virtue of concentrating all your energy in one direction. And that’s what being present, acting as a witness to yourself, and living here now look like. Over time, the effort inherent in consciously paying attention decreases. You manage to have more time off from rushing from one thought to the next and not only when you sit to meditate. And whatever the space you manage to generate this way contributes to a feeling of lightness, of lifelines, of peacefulness at heart; to an awareness of beingness that you can fall back into whenever you notice you’re beginning to play the overthinking track again. But don't take our word for it. Give it a try and experiment what works best for you to be more present in your present. We are all different, after all; even if, in the end, we are all much more like one another than we like to think.