Researching this changed my perspectives on being a human-being
Being present in the current moment comes from freeing your consciousness from mental noise. This process can be aided by learning to observe your thoughts, emotions and fears without judgement, according to Eckhart Tolle. As he writes, the “egoic” mind exists in the past and the future [and with thoughts about other people and things], but cannot function in the now. It is in the now where we can actually ‘be’.
Being present is not about quieting your ever racing stream of thoughts. There are no thoughts, when we are present. Thoughts take us out of our direct experience. Direct experience is the present moment. When our mind is still, we can touch a deeper part of ourselves and each other. It is there where all relates and everything blends into oneness. It is there where we realize we are all connected. Being present can be indisputably felt, but it is very hard to understand mentally. I’ll give it a shot, trying to articulate it here.
Why it matters to be present
Thinking moves us in time. Direct experience is being in the here and now. “I am” is a more personal way of saying you’re in the here and now (Mandell, 2021). Identifying with our thoughts and emotions always results in tension, stress and anxiety. This happens irrespective whether the thoughts and emotions feel good, or bad. Your thoughts, the never-ending chatter of self-talk streaming through your mind, blocks the experience of being fully present. When we are present, we can act. When we’re not, we react.
How we act in-, and react to the world, depends on how we view it. How we view the world, is a conscious choice. A particular state of mind, being it positive or negative, primes our mind in a certain direction resulting in some thoughts to become more probable than others. This results in habitual thinking which is not from a state of presence and objectivity (Siegel, 2018). When we are not present, consciously choosing becomes impossible. Being and becoming present helps us choose how to view the world. When we can choose to see challenging issues positively, we feel less stressed (Kabat-Zinn, 2013).
People filter reality rather than experience it directly. The more we become aware of our filters, the more conscious we will become of our environments. When we can be present, we can actually see and hear the other people we’re interacting with. We then can see who they are, instead of who we think they are based on our thoughts and stories we’ve created about them. These stories are mostly built on our own references and experiences. Which, in many cases, are for the larger part completely unrelated to the personal we’re interacting with in that moment.
When we can learn to choose where to focus our attention, everything changes. The relationship with ourselves and others will change profoundly. ‘The more [we] are able to honor and accept the Now, the more [we] are free of pain, of suffering – and free of the egoic mind’ (Tolle, 2001). It’s when we are in the here and now that we feel secure, in control and adequate (Mandell, 2021). One could argue, that this is where we are whole.
Tolle speaks of ‘Portals into the Unmanifested’, which are a synonym for being. This formless realm, as he calls it, is the invisible source of all things. This unmanifested is a source of inner energy which can be used to bridge between the manifested physical world and the unmanifested. That what waits to emerge and be activated. Focusing on the present with intent awareness provides access to this energy and inspiration. ‘[This] unmanifested lingers in silence, in the pauses between sounds, and in space, as the no-thing between objects’ (Tolle, 2001). Instead of continuously feeding ourselves with impulses and stimuli, more time with this no-thing does miracles. Being present can be learnt and expanded upon by cultivating attention, awareness, and intention according to clinical psychology professor Daniel Siegel.
Being present and health
‘Becoming more aware helps people improve their lives by strengthening their minds, making their bodies healthier and helping them age more slowly’ (Siegel, 2018). Being present has a positive effect on our physiology. According to Dr. Daniel Siegel, being present helps ‘strengthening the immune function, optimizing telomerase enzymes that allow the body to repair itself and remain young, improving gene regulation, and strengthening aspects of the cardiovascular system such as blood pressure’ (Siegel, 2018). He also identified that ‘[cultivating presence] enhances “neural integration,” which helps people function better, regulate themselves, solve problems and adapt to change.’ Being present obviously also greatly improves our relations with other people.
How to become present
When we want to become fully present, we need to focus fully on the here and now. This is why I love doing sports. When the exercise I do becomes more physically challenging, from either a cardiovascular- or strength perspective, it requires me to become more present. This process happens automatically for me. I guess that’s also why I enjoy doing simple mundane household chores. Doing laundry, cleaning, doing the dishes (no, I don’t have a dishwasher); they all provide me with opportunities to practice focusing on exactly that what I am doing with my full attention. I actually got up from writing, to grab a snack from my kitchen. There, I noticed my dishes scattered over my countertop.
A lot happened, while doing my dishes. More thoughts and feelings came up than I could count. I noticed the heat of the water. The sound of my cutleries. The green of the grass, outside. I perceived the smell of the washing detergent and noticed some anxiety I felt about the work that I have told myself I should complete. I felt my abs, from the training the day before. Sensed my abdomen, being hungry for food. I became present to my ankle, being a bit sensitive from running this morning. I observed the thought of my parents reading this later, and commenting on slowing things down with my training. I witnessed the thought of not writing this down, and then reflecting on that thought. The water cooled down. A question arose, for the interview with Faye Mandell on being present. I surely was observing and witnessing a lot, but was I present? I did notice I felt happy, in spite of the turmoil of my thoughts. There was gratitude, for being able to do my dishes.
Observing and noticing all that is there, for what it is, brings us into the present. Slowing down, brings us into the present. Shutting down devices, brings us into the present. Consciously observing what happens. This video of Eckhart Tolle is an interesting example. Watch it, or just the beginning. You’ll notice that in the first 1:47 minutes, nothing happens. Yet at the same time, a lot happens. We notice, by slowing down, and by Eckhart being slow.
Naz Beheshti, former executive assistant to Steve Jobs, has some clear tips on cultivating and practicing presence. ‘When you find yourself struggling with “monkey mind”, you need to stop and breathe’, she writes. She also recommends a daily meditative practice. Even if it’s just for five minutes. Also finding a quiet place prior to an important meeting does wonders. A place where you can just be silent for a moment. Beheshti also recommends doing this together in groups, prior to starting a meeting. Becoming aware of your breathing is the simplest way to cultivate and deepen presence, and being in the here and now. Don’t worry if you are uncomfortable. The point is to pay attention to your “actual experience, moment by moment”. You can calm down by becoming aware of your breathing and feeling it move into your belly, as you “ride the waves” of both the inbreath and the outbreath. To do this, take a few moments to become aware of your breathing, and let whatever thoughts arise come and go in your mind. ‘With greater awareness, you can begin to see yourself as larger than your problems and emotions, part of a larger whole. You can also alter your relationship to time’ (Beheshti, 2021).
‘Often, problems are situations you try to handle by planning and worrying without acting’ (Tolle, 2001). ‘When something stressful happens, give yourself permission to be aware of how “threatened, fearful, angry or hurt” you may be feeling. Notice the tension that builds throughout your body. By paying attention to these sensations, you can transform them and reduce the harm they can cause you and others. In a moment of stress, you can choose’ (Kabat-Zinn, 2013).
Attention, our human superpower to choose where we focus
Elizabeth Acevedo so rightfully observed in this beautiful TED talk, that being present is about noticing and focus. It’s about having our full attention focused on one thing. She speaks of her experience while running, noticing her knees hurting. In order to correct her form of running, she is forced to focus completely on where her feet land. That run, only focusing on where- and how she lands her feet turns out to be her best run. In that run, she was fully focused and fully present. ‘Mindfulness [or being present] is the awareness that arises by paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally’ (Kabat-Zinn, 2013).
Dr. Faye Mandell uses the metaphor of pixels of a TV or computer screen for describing attention. ‘Your attention is your arms around all the pixels. You don’t let a couple pixels out to go into reactionary mode, and you don’t let a couple of pixels out to be defensive. You control the pixels. That changes everything’. Doing things with full attention allows you to move from being reactive, to being proactive and at choice. When we can focus our attention, we can become present enough to feel our true feelings, instead of getting carried away by the thoughts with which our feelings are coupled. As Mandell explains in our interview about being present; ‘There are two components to thought; content and feeling. When we shift our attention from the content of thought to the feeling, then to focusing our attention on experiencing that feeling, this jumpstarts our superior intelligence of the body. From the cognitive we switch to the sensory, and that puts us back into the present moment. The content of our thoughts is not important. This is a realization that will set us free and shift our focus and attention to our feelings and the sensory being. We have to recognize the value of feelings.’
Becoming present by moving through the actual experience; feeling the feelings
The Self-Powerment Model of Dr. Faye Mandell is the perfect tool for shifting our focus from the content of our thoughts to our feelings. This is extremely useful. Professor of clinical psychology at UCLA Dr. Siegel concedes that many people practice spiritual or mental disciplines incompletely, leaving self-limiting past traumas and patterns intact. In order to clear ourselves from this and cultivate the ability to be fully present, we have to learn to physically move through the experience of feeling our feelings. The Self-Powerment Model offers a practical method for doing so.
The Model is built-up from two axes; time and space. The horizontal axis displays the past on the left side, and the future on the right side. The vertical axis represents space. Space is defined as where we put our attention; outward focused on the top, and inward focused at the bottom. Our attention creates our reality. Where time and space meet is the here and now. It’s there where we feel secure, in control and adequate. That’s where we are in the now, and where the mind is quiet. Where we are in the ‘I am’. ‘Am’ is a present tense verb that lets you know that you are in the moment, while ‘I’ is a pronoun that lets you know your attention is focused inwards.
The Self-Powerment Model helps increase our awareness in two ways. Firstly, by becoming aware of the time space dimensions, we can recognize when we’re not being present and navigate back to the here and now. Secondly, it helps with differentiating between natural feelings which exist in the present moment; anxiety, frustration and sadness. When these feelings are coupled with a though, they result in the experience of fear, anger and guilt. Fear takes us into the future, anger makes us focus on other people and things, and guilt takes us into the past.
Since we are taught by society not to pay attention to our feelings, the feeling has to get discharged and therefore creates and/or triggers a thought. The feeling becomes connected to the thought, like a horseback-rider on a horse, and gets discharged that way. The problem is, that thought takes us out of the present moment. We start to believe that the content of our thinking is real.
Instead, we can also learn to identify the feeling that is connected to our thoughts. When we are able to do so, we can navigate back to that particular feeling and let the body do what it naturally does, which is to recalibrate itself back to the present moment. The primary feelings of anxiety, frustration and sadness are experiences in the present moment. These feelings let us know we have to pay attention to them, so the body can create the actions it needs to recalibrate itself back to the present moment. Have you ever watched a dog getting up from laying down? They always stretch. It’s their ability to be in the present moment that enables their body to do exactly what is needed in that particular instant. Our feelings of anxiety, frustration and sadness can do the same thing for us.
Anxiety coupled to a thought always takes us to the future. Frustration attached to a thought is always about other people and things. And sadness in our thinking is always about the past. Recognizing the feeling coupled with thoughts (and the words we use while thinking) can be a marker to know where we are and how we can navigate back to the present moment. There we can experience the feeling coupled with the thought. When doing so, we move through the uncomfortable feeling and allow for the body to recalibrate itself back to the present moment. Then, from anxiety and fear we can become secure again through focus. From frustration and anger we can become in control again by choosing. And finally, from sadness and guilt we can feel adequate again by creating clarity.
Finding the present by assessing our drivers
Dr. Faye Mandell argues that in nature, we are driven by seven drivers. If you’re driven by these drivers, you know you’re being present. They are; service, compassion, integrity, accountability, courage, kindness, and gratitude. If one of these, or a combination of them is driving your behavior, you’re set. If other drivers are driving your behavior, such as; worry, anger, fear, guilt, regret, shame, or self-doubt, it’s no good. You will not be in the present. Assessing and realizing what is your current driver can therefore be a tool to bring you back to the here and now.
Everything is temporary
When experiencing thoughts, feelings or some form of physical pain, time can slow down and we can get lost in the experience. However, it is very important to understand that everything is temporary. This is actually what I learnt by practicing Vipassana meditation. During these meditations, which took place for 16 hours per day, I was confronted with both physical and emotional experiences. Some were good, some bad. Sometimes it was bliss, other times it hurt like hell. Sometimes hours flew by. Other occasions, the minutes took hours.
The one key lesson I learnt in this process of meditation is profound: everything comes and goes. Pain in the back from sitting all day comes, and at some point, also leaves, miraculously. Through physically experiencing, and consciously witnessing, this process of the arrival and departure of pain, thoughts and sensations, I understood myself and life better. I realized that when we are present with what is, no matter good or bad, it completely changes the experience. For the better. I also believe that the more we are able to be present with our experiences, the more and better we are able to process hurt, grief and loss. Instead of escaping from the uncomfortable, we can become curious about it, and study it with probing interest.
As Eckhart Tolle explains, ‘[a] “pain-body” is the emotional residue that negative experiences leave behind. This negative energy field is dormant until something triggers it and brings it to life’ (Tolle, 2001). The more we cultivate presence in the here and now, and with what is, the less power these dormant triggers will have. Also, the more neutral we can be in its observation, the less we have to identify with our thoughts, feelings and emotions. On the contrary, when we identify with our thoughts, emotions and these so-called “pain-bodies”, the more strength and momentum we give to them. Taking us away from the present. In order to observe neutrally, it is important to resist the tendency to judge or analyze and overthink. When we can disengage from our thoughts, feelings and emotions, they will lose their power over us.
Practice for being in the present
Being in the present requires practice and awareness. Download this app to help you practice expand this awareness. In the app, set the bell timer to random. Then, at every moment the bell chimes, answer for yourself the following question: “where am I?” The answer to this question is not so much a country, or the living room, but where your thoughts are. Being in the future, the past, with other people or things, or in those scare moments, the present.
Use the cheat sheet below to help you navigate. Recognizing where you are in time and space will help you navigate back to the present by focusing on the corresponding feeling that fits with your thoughts in that moment. Remember, when in the future, move back to the present through experiencing the anxiety in your body. When in the past, experience sadness. When your thoughts are with other people and things, experience the frustration coupled with them, and come back into the present.
We know when we’re in the future, when we think with future words such as: if, will, might, what if, should…
We know we’re in the past with our thinking, when we think with words such as: did, was, could have, would have and should have…
We’re focused on other people and things, when in our thinking we use words such as: he, she, they, them, the mortgage, the goals, the grades, the sales numbers…
In order to learn how to be present, I interviewed Dr. Faye Mandell, an expert on being in-, and getting to the present. The here and now. Or where we can say, “I am”. Faye has a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from Boston College and is an organizational effectiveness consultant who founded a number of companies, of which the latest is Being Present Inc. She’s written a book on being present titled ‘The GPS to Self-Powerment’, which is translated in English, Spanish, German, Korean, French and my language, Dutch. The book is recommended by Eckhart Tolle, known from the worldwide bestseller ‘The Power of Now’ and his work on being in the present moment. He called her book ‘An eminently practical book and powerful pointer to the truth’. Faye has been working around the theme of being present, for over 30 years. She has worked internationally and throughout the US with different (Fortune 500) companies. There, she has helped people to have focus, be at choice and be clear. This interview has changed my perspectives on experiencing my thoughts and feelings. It taught me how I can use the latter as a means to get back into the present. No matter where my thoughts have taken me. Immensely useful. Website of Dr. Faye Mandell’s company, Being Present Inc.: https://www.being-present.com
Acevedo, Elizabeth, 2013, Being Present. https://youtu.be/ygCN3gSREls, accessed on 8 July 2021.
Beheshti, Naz, 2021, Pause. Breathe. Choose. https://amzn.to/2TS6OWu
Kabat-Zinn, Jon, 2013, Full Catastrophe Living. https://amzn.to/3dVZO1F
Mandell, Faye, 2003, The GPS to Self-Powerment. https://amzn.to/3e2HqUM
McEwen, Peter, 2019, Stop Meditating and Start Being Present. https://youtu.be/OtQXvDxxGZg, accessed on 8 July 2021.
Scharmer, Otto, 2009, Theory U. https://amzn.to/2TYNYNp
Siegel, Daniel, 2018, Aware. https://amzn.to/3wuJcEG
Tolle, Eckhart, 2001, The Power of Now. https://amzn.to/3xpAWqR
Tolle, Eckhart, 2018, Staying Present. https://youtu.be/0sKKubwN4vM, accessed on 11 July 2021.