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Seeking presence in challenging times

Kathy Carter

Contributor

The pandemic has made many of us turn to self-development as a way of managing life’s challenges. Mindfulness - paying attention to our thoughts, emotions and body states - has been a buzzword for some time. But for many individuals, regular states of mind-less-ness could be closer to what we’re seeking. That ultimate presence – being in the now, away from our chattering minds, free from the ego’s past fears and future concerns – can allow us to really live our lives. While finding presence can be aligned to one’s spiritual or religious belief, it is not a religious practice – rather, one of taking time to focus on our own needs, and savour each and every experience in our lives.

Why should we be in the moment, and what benefits may it reap?

There’s a reason Eckhart Tolle’s spiritual tome, The Power of Now, is an international bestseller. Now in its twentieth year, the book famously encourages us to leave our analytical mind behind. COVID-19 has taught us so many things about the need to appreciate what we have, and for many people, this has involved spending time with the things we own now, and the people we live with. It’s very easy to project forward to the next vacation; but presence is all about finding something to savour in the current moment; even if it is mundane. (Accepting the mundane means the thrilling becomes even more enriching!)

Being present means we’re not distracted by ruminations on the past, or worries about the future. But it’s no dull, smug outlook on life. Far from requiring that we shouldn’t enjoy extravagant, fun and joyful activities, it helps us truly savour them; so for example, we’re not guzzling our lunch, but mindfully enjoying our food and the pretty dish it is served in, plus the view before us. Book that amazing holiday, then make the most of your ‘here and now’ life; when your holiday arrives, savour every moment and try to connect with what you experience. Why? Because this attitude of ‘presence’ is said to help reduce anxiety, and also quieten negative beliefs exacerbated by chattering self-talk. It is also thought to increase our emotional intelligence, empathy and resilience – and can be achieved almost entirely for free.

Thought leaders who can help us develop presence

Eckhart Tolle’s books and teachings, with their links to Zen Buddhism, are a good place to start when considering developing presence. With the premise that we are not our minds, and that acceptance of whatever we experience in the moment is key, Tolle has helped many individuals find inner peace and get more out of their lives.

Dr Phil Parker is famed for teaching individuals how to change the way our nervous systems control our bodies. He advocates gentle movement, meditation-like techniques and mental exercises under the banner of ‘The Lightning Process’; the trainable process is said to switch on pathways in our brains that promote mental wellbeing and physical health, and snap us into the ‘now’.

Deepak Chopra is a mindfulness meditation teacher, author and pioneer of integrative medicine. A doctor of endocrinology, he’s recently launched a meditation and wellbeing phone app with meditative practices that help us become present.

Jon Kabat-Zinn has reimagined Buddhist contemplation practices as ‘mindfulness without eastern mysticism’. He now devotes his energy into trying to inject his theories into global politics, and offers a range of meditative, stress reduction CDs and downloads.

Presence helps connect us with nature; while nature aids presence

Focussing on nature is a wonderful way to help us become more present; nature is omnipresent, and has no materialistic agenda. Studies show that pleasing natural environments can reduce our stress, and positively affect our nervous, endocrine and immune systems. Focussing on nature can distract us from our negative self-talk, and develop a sense of respect for the natural world.

So-called Green Therapy is becoming increasingly widespread, and we’re all encouraged to spend at least two hours a week in nature to boost health and wellbeing. Lunch-break walks, spending time barefoot in the garden, trips to gardens and wildlife centres, and even keeping house plants can all help boost this connection.

Whether or not you believe in their powers, crystals are certainly popular artefacts to ‘ground’ us in the moment (e.g. connect us to our current, physical reality) and make connections with the natural world. Black tourmaline is said to cleanse negative thought patterns and insecurities, and some people believe the stone also reduces radiation from electrical devices such as computers. Selenite is said to enhance meditative practice by adding a grounding element, while hematite is said to help develop concentration and focus, and is widely used in feng shui.

How to incorporate presence into our daily lives

There’s much talk of mindfulness as a goal. It’s the practice of paying attention in the present moment, and doing it non-judgmentally. In mindfulness, we pay attention to our thoughts, emotions and body states. However, is there an argument for regular periods of reenergising ‘mind-less-ness’? So we are not just focussing on the now, but quietening the mind and our thoughts altogether, when we are able. Here are some tips to achieve this.

Set aside brief, daily time to quieten the mind and your inner dialogue – observe the chatter, then let it go, like a leaf on a stream. Focus on your breath and any body sensations in a quiet space.

Take walks in nature, and notice what you see – don’t rely on the mind to label what you observe – just notice your reaction, and how you feel.

Notice your interactions with others – do you spend too much time ruminating on the past, or re-playing and sharing previous negative experiences? Can you observe yourself doing this, and change the focus to how you’re feeling right now?

Try to accept whatever is happening in the moment, and observe how you feel about it, even if it is mundane. ‘It is what it is’.

Take pleasure where you can from little things that stimulate the senses – what senses are activated?

Become mindful of how people make you feel in the moment you’re interacting with them; and likewise, how your words and interactions affect other people.

Use guided meditations to slow yourself down and gain some self-care – free meditation apps like Insight Timer have a wide choice, and you will find one to suit your needs.

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