This post is part 2 of a series focused on anxiety. To read part 1, click here.
We are most in touch with reality and our inner wisdom when we are present in the here and now. But how often are we actually paying attention to the present moment?
It never ceases to amaze me how easy it is to get caught up in our heads, worrying, speculating, strategizing about the future and ruminating on whatever went wrong in the past. The truth is, we rarely focus on what’s actually happening in front of us in the now.
Instead, we live in a past and future state, where the now moment gradually gets buried under a mountain of distractions. Without realizing it, we’re thinking ahead to the rest of the day, the rest of the week, the rest of our lives.
Or maybe you’re stewing over someone’s careless remark, worried about something that you said that you wish you could take back, or cringing over a choice you knew better than to make and now you’re facing the unpleasant consequences.
Or you may be grappling with uncertainties like:
When will I be able to get vaccinated?
Will that noise under the hood turn out to indicate that my car needs a really expensive repair?
Will my retirement funds hold out?
Will I be able to find love after this divorce?
It’s not difficult to see how these concerns accumulate into a pile of emotional tinder that can keep us on edge, tense and worried, and just about everywhere but here and now.
In a previous post, I talked about how focusing your mind’s attention on relaxing your posture and breathing freely helps to anchor you in the present moment. You’ve experienced how this conscious choice to breathe with now-moment awareness reduces stress and calms your reactive alarm system.
When you’re experiencing severe anxiety or depression, or when you’re new to awareness practice, it will take time and effort to remember to do the Practice, and it will take time for your body and mind to return to a more relaxed state on a daily basis. So don’t expect to focus on being present for five minutes and then, miraculously, you’re no longer anxious! But think about it this way: even 5% more calm can be a game-changer in the way you deal with stress. If you do the Practice routinely throughout your day, the beneficial effect really adds up over time.
If you develop a habit of getting back to the now several times a day, you’ll become increasingly aware when your presence slips.
If you’re not sure how to tell what actually constitutes being present, or how to make a point to maintain it when you feel it slipping, here are three dimensions of presence to consider.
1. Awareness of physiological and emotional state.
How does your body feel? Are your muscles tense or relaxed? Are you slouching or assuming a posture more likely to cause discomfort or pain? Where are you holding tension? In your neck and shoulders? In your lower back?
Are you experiencing reactive emotions like shame, blame or self-pity? Are you fearful or agitated? Are you moody or shut down?
When you feel awareness of the present slipping, this is a good place to check in first. The interesting thing is, whenever you pay attention to your physiological state in the now moment, you automatically become aware of your emotional state and are much better able to regulate those emotions.
2. Awareness of mental state and storylines.
Where is your mental focus? Are you tired or distracted? Is your mind foggy or racing? Are you worrying about the future or dwelling on the past?
Is there a narrative running in your head like, “This always happens to me… he always… every time I…”
Notice the connection between your storylines and your emotional and physiological state. What happens when you fixate on the mental narrative playing on repeat inside your head?
Now, what happens when you make an effort to focus on your posture and breath and stay in the present moment instead? The difference might be subtle at first, but very often it can pull you back from the brink of a full-blown reaction.
3. Awareness of a more complete picture of what is happening in the now, with sensory details.
Make an effort to see yourself as you are right now, with no storyline or emotional reaction or judgement. Think in concrete terms. Where are you in space? What are you physically doing?
Keeping an awareness of your breathing, describe the room or outdoor area or vehicle – whatever space you occupy. What are the textures of the things around you? What sounds do you notice? What smells? If you’re eating, make an effort to really taste your food or your beverage.
Try practicing these presence dimensions the next time you go for a walk. Suspend your judgment of people’s yards or paint jobs, and simply notice what you can of everything you pass.
And when it becomes really, really hard to keep yourself here, focus on your posture and your breath. Even if you can only interrupt the cycle for five minutes, this will go a long way to reducing your stress levels and increasing your sense of calm.
Do the Practice of relaxing your posture and focusing on your breath while you’re doing whatever you’re doing, for as long as it takes to calm down. Of course, this may take a lot longer than 5 minutes at times.
Pay attention to where your mind goes today. Pick three times to check in with yourself, for instance: lunch, mid-afternoon, early evening. Or if you really want to challenge yourself, see if you can check in once an hour.
Then, reflect on the things you found yourself ruminating about. What kinds of worries and fears did you project onto the future? What percentage of each hour would you estimate you actually spent in the here and now?
See if you can start integrating more of this awareness throughout your day. And when you recognize these familiar worries or fears coming up, try to keep yourself in the moment with the Practice.
Take good care : )