Skip to main content

The Challenges of Being Present

The phrase "Be present" seems ubiquitous these days.  Maybe it's just because I'm a yoga teacher and so it's ubiquitous in the things that I read and the conversations that I have (even the pants that I wear), or maybe it's because there's a national worry on how obsessed we are with smartphones and multitasking.  Whatever the reason, it seems to be one of those spiritual secrets of happiness.  It's even one of my Personal Commandments (more on those when I write yet another Happiness Project-inspired blog soon).  But what does it mean to Be Present?  More importantly - how do you do it?

Our thoughts are always focused on the past, the present, or the future.  The present is the only place we can be grounded in the reality of what is happening in our lives at any given moment.  Past is gone - as insubstantial as the thoughts of it.  Future is a completely imagined composite of assumption, hope, worry, and storytelling.  Present encompasses all of our five senses and the ability to act with a clear, focused mind.

Meditation is one of the number one ways people can work on embracing the present moment, but it's also probably the hardest, at least in my humble opinion.  Just sitting there, eyes closed or open, focusing on a mantra or breath or whatever your technique is, the brain is just roaring with memories, plans, stories, and everything else under the sun.  It can be incredibly frustrating, and often the assumption is that in order to properly meditate, you need to banish all thoughts from your mind.  That's certainly what I've always thought - that implies great focus, self control, inner peace.

The book I've been reading for the last week or so has given me a completely different perspective on meditation, however.  It's called The Joy of Living by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist master teacher of meditation and philosophy.  Marc recommended it, and it's a great read, regardless of your religion, spiritual affiliation, or if you're a seasoned or green meditator.  It's taken a lot of the self-imposed pressure off my meditation practice by reiterating time and again that the purpose of meditation isn't to stop your thoughts - that would be like trying to stop the flow of a river.  The purpose of the mind is to have thoughts.  Meditation, in Mingyur's view, is "simply a process of resting the mind in its natural state, which is open to and naturally aware of thoughts, emotions, and sensations as they occur."

Later, he goes on to say one of my favorite things I've read in the book so far.  In describing how attention to thoughts always wavers in beginning meditation practice, he says that the trick is to simply catch yourself and become aware of your mind wandering.

And when you suddenly remember, Oops, I was supposed to be watching my thoughts... just bring your attention back...The great secret about these "Oops" moments is that they're actually split-second experiences of your fundamental nature.

The good news is that the more you practice, the more "Oopses" you're likely to experience.  And gradually these "Oopses" started to accumulate, until one day  "Oops" becomes a natural state of mind, a release from the habitual patterns of neuronal gossip that allows you to look at any thought, any feeling, any situation with total freedom and openness.

'Oops' is a wonderful thing.

I find this is great wisdom and advice not just for a seated meditation practice, but for throughout the day.  Getting distracted, dissolving into worry over something - we can always catch ourselves with what Mingyur would call an "Oops" moment and come back to wherever we are at present.  By letting go of past rumination or future supposition, we're better serving ourselves and those around us by being engaged in whatever we're doing and wherever we are.  Have you ever felt like you spaced out during your entire commute or running errands?  It's can be a little disconcerting to feel like you just came back into your body with only the haziest recollection of what you were just doing.

Personally, I think the number one time I'm present throughout my day is when I'm teaching yoga to young children - especially the under 5 crowd.  I have to be 100% focused on what is happening in that room right in that moment.  Who's engaged?  Who's flopping out and running around in circles and about to faceplant?  Who wants to go upside down?  Who sees a dog at the jungle?  (My job is wonderful)

Teaching yoga to kids is so interactive.  We're always asking them questions - everything from "Did you bring your hands to yoga today?" to "What do you see?" or "Can you show me your manatee pose?"  You never know what they'll respond with or when 57 ideas will be thrown at you at once.  One kid needs to be praised, another needs to be asked to keep their hands to themselves or their yoga mat off the floor, another kid needs a little encouragement to come out of their shell.  As the teacher, it's your job to be the leader of the adventure, so for 30, 45, 60 minutes, you're 100% engaged in your surroundings.  It's exhilarating, energizing, and sometimes exhausting all at the same time.

The great thing about it, though, is it doesn't require any conscious effort for me to be present with the kids.  It's not a choice, it's a natural response.  Whatever else is going on in my life, any worries or weariness, simply shuts off in deference to the present.  As opposed to seated meditation, where you're actively trying to focus or let thoughts go or focus on breath, and when you're inevitably wondering if you're doing it right, there's so much action and interaction with teaching kids that being present is something that just happens.

I'm trying to bring that kind of total mental focus to other areas of my life, but as a compulsive planner, slave to the clock, daydreamer, and worrier - it's a challenge.  Keeping up with my meditation practice every morning has been a huge help in keeping myself present throughout the day.  The biggest help, though, is simply remembering that it is my intention.  "Oops" moments happen every day, a zillion times a day.  The important thing to remember is to be thankful for them.  Every "Oops," as Mingyur says, gets you closer to freedom and openness in your mind and in your heart.


Popular posts from this blog

The Magic of Brain Gym

I cannot believe I haven't blogged about Brain Gym yet!  That is absolutely bananas, and also sort of great because after a few years of incorporating the little bits and pieces I learned from Shari (founder & director of Karma Kids Yoga and the only boss I've ever had with whom I've also done crazy things like the pose on the right, which she named "fart neck"), I finally took the "Brain Gym 101" course this past weekend to learn more in depth about the what's and wherefore's.

Brain Gym is a lot of things, but what it is primarily is a way to facilitate better learning through movement.  Although it started in the field of education and helping children learn better, everyone can benefit from it.  You may be reading and writing just fine, but do you have a situation where you struggle to communicate your needs clearly to a partner, a friend, a co-worker?  Do you struggle with random bouts of unexplained anxiety that you struggle to release…

Home is Where the Heart is

One of the most cloyingly saccharine cliches of all time?  Yes.  True?  Also yes.  Sort of.

It's been an incredibly eventful three weeks.  At the end of June, my sister underwent major abdominal surgery to repair a major diastasis caused by two back-to-back large pregnancies.  On that same day Marc and I headed up on the Megabus to Massachusetts for a fun long July 4th weekend of family (including our two delicious little LeVasseur nephews!), wine, fun, and going through endless boxes of nostalgia from his childhood as his parents prepare to put their gorgeous house on the market.  The baby pictures!  The metric tons of books! The middle school poetry!  Oh, the earnest and terrible middle school poetry...

Then last weekend, I flew to SC for a whirlwind celebration of the twins' third birthday with family (third!!!), helping out my sister, who is recovering beautifully in every sense of the word.  Just shy of three days of nonstop work, play, and extreme highs and lows of overs…

Health Scare

I had a whole draft of a blog in my head all made up, but it has been a day.  And now that I've come down from all the life-stuff of the day, I'm left to ponder with a growing, nauseating dread what 217 elected representatives voted for today.

Forgive the pun-y and ridiculous title.  I'm just so afraid that this is our country now.

In case you're wondering who voted how, check out this helpful page in the NYTimes.

Listen - we all know Obamacare wasn't perfect.  But I know several people who would literally not be alive today without it.  I wouldn't have health insurance without it - and you better believe I use my health insurance.

Instead of having a group of adults who can intelligently discuss policy and talk about improving our health care system, we have a group of children who stick their fingers in their ears and simply shout about destroying any bit of legacy President Obama may have had.  They've denigrated this so deeply that there are literally p…