Mindfulness, The Doorway To Presence ( 7-minute read)
(This series presents a retrospective understanding of the role awareness plays in the pursuit of joy and happiness during times of personal difficulties. The introduction to the series can be found here: https://tim-coats.com/digging-deeper/)
Recently I was looking after our nine-month-old granddaughter Adalyn. She is fascinated by details. I watched as she crawled across the floor to examine a piece of lint on the other side of the room.
I wondered what she was thinking?
Perhaps she wasn’t thinking about anything. She appeared to be wholly absorbed in the moment.
She seemed very happy!
How different her awareness likely is from mine. Mine is consumed by thought. I guess that’s typical for adults. The only time we aren’t thinking is when engrossed in an activity. Recently I made a gate for the stairway to our deck to make it safe for Adalyn. After taking a few measurements, I went to work. Two hours passed. I don’t remember having a single thought during that time.
The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this “Flow,” a state of awareness often associated with peak performance. It’s also very relaxing because it gives us a break from stress produced by incessant thought.
“Presence” practiced in mindfulness is similar. When “present,” we bring our complete attention to the moment. It differs from “Flow” in that we aren’t engaged in an activity, like building a gate. We simply stop thinking and sit in peace.
That probably sounds like a waste of time, right? When was the last time you sat still, not looking at your phone, not thinking about what needs to get done, not doing anything?
Most of us can’t remember!
That’s why newcomers to mindfulness find it difficult or a waste of time. What could possibly be the point of sitting and doing nothing?
To answer that, let’s step back and analyze what’s happening when we are thinking.
Thoughts take us out of the moment. Maybe to something we did earlier in the day, or to something we need to get done. Sometimes thoughts remind us of an unpleasant encounter or a loss.
Stress is a factor in most of our lives, and it appears to be growing. Unfortunately, a good portion of that stress comes from thinking. We all experience difficulties. Thinking about those difficulties and wishing things to be different makes it worse.
Three years ago, I experienced some mild chest discomfort while on a bike ride. At the time, it didn’t seem like any big deal. A precautionary trip to the emergency room revealed I was wrong. My left anterior descending artery (the so-called “widow-maker”) was 80% blocked. I would need quadruple bypass surgery. I asked the doctor how soon? He said tomorrow!
After a sleepless night thinking about the nine-hour procedure, the surgeon greeted me at 5:30 AM with bad news. An emergency had kept him up all night. As a result, my surgery was out of the question. I would have to wait until the following day.
This gave me another day (and night) to “think” about it.
Another emergency resulted in my surgery being canceled yet again the following day. After two days and two sleepless nights of thinking think about it, my anxiety reached new highs. I was not in any physical pain. All of my stress and suffering was caused by thinking about the surgery. The tendency to be “in our heads,” especially concerning difficulties, is not unusual. For some reason, we insist on touching our wounds.
Let’s examine another angle of thought. Besides stressing us out, thought narrows our awareness. We miss a lot when preoccupied with thought.
A few years ago, MJ and I rented an apartment in Paris. We don’t speak French, but that didn’t pose a problem because the friends we were traveling with did.
One afternoon, my buddy suggested I go out and buy a baguette and some cheese to go with an afternoon glass of wine.
In the US, I would’ve jumped in the car and driven up to Jerry’s supermarket. Along the way, my mind undoubtedly would’ve been in some other place, planning dinner or thinking about what was on the agenda for the next day.
Not in Paris!
Emerging into the bright sunlight from the long staircase leading down from our apartment to the street, I realized I didn’t know where the bakery was. Furthermore, not speaking the language, it wasn’t clear how I was going to find one. However, I did see a Boucherie (meat market) on the corner. I walked in the door and quizzically said, “baguette?” to the butcher. He looked at me like I was an idiot.
I finally found the bakery and a cheese shop, but only after a successful game of charades with a friendly French shopkeeper who left his store to show me the way.
My afternoon search for groceries in Paris was a far richer experience than the regular trip to Jerry’s. I was in the moment rather than distracted by thoughts.
This is not to suggest thoughts are bad. On the contrary, we couldn’t function without thought. The issue is balance. Thoughts trap energy inside us. That energy always finds a way out, often as emotional stress.
Anything that brings us out of our heads and into the moment helps relieve stress and achieve balance. But often, we don’t have the opportunity or the time to engage in a hobby or exercise (like when I was in the hospital). This is when “presence” helps.
There is nothing mysterious about “presence.” It is simply awareness absent the preoccupation of thought. When “present,” we are an alert witness to the moment. Freeing ourselves from thought, even if only for a few minutes, lifts a tremendous burden from our shoulders. The effect is similar to taking a few slow deep breaths!
The harder it is to sit in “presence,” the clearer it is that awareness has been overrun by thought.
If you doubt the value of “presence,” consider for a moment the gift of someone’s full undivided attention. Someone who isn’t trying to solve your problems, or always talking. Simply a person who sits with you, giving you their full attention and listening.
Being present for someone is powerful. So is being present for ourselves.
The challenge of “presence” is unlike anything we typically pursue. That’s because rather than practicing to acquire a skill, it’s a practice of letting go (of thoughts).
Years ago, I participated in a team-building event at work that involved a “high-ropes” course. I am afraid of heights, and was not looking forward to this activity!
In one event, two ropes were strung between trees positioned about fifty feet apart. The first rope was forty feet off the ground. The second rope was about eight feet higher. The higher rope was outfitted with guide ropes just long enough to reach while standing on the lower rope. The objective of the exercise was to use the guide ropes to traverse the fifty-foot distance between the two trees. Just to make things interesting, the guide ropes were spaced far enough apart to require us to let go of the rope we were holding to reach out and grab the next one. The safety harness was attached from behind, creating the sensation of “free-soloing” while traversing the span.
The hardest part of the exercise was letting go of the guide ropes while balancing forty feet off the ground.
Mindfulness is similar. It’s hard to let go of our thoughts. We like being in control. We like knowing what’s next. That’s why we say we “practice” mindfulness. There is no mastery. In mindfulness practice, the guide rope is our focal point. It might be a mantra, the breath, or something else. We hold on to this singular point of focus until one day we let go and discover “presence.”
Why is “presence” so important?
This is an important question. The answer may be off-putting!
Thought always refers back to “Self.” That’s because “Self” is the center of our existence. Now the off-putting part, “Self,” turns out to be the problem.
“Self” is a separation between what we feel on the “inside” and what we experience on the “outside.” Dis-ease occurs whenever “outside” events deviate from “inside” desires (which often is the case). “Self” is the source of nearly all suffering.
The more experience is conveyed via thought, the more we experience the world as we are, rather than as the world truly is. In other words, “We see through a glass darkly.”
“Presence” absent of thought is liberating because it is not clouded and constrained by the separate “Self.” When “present,” we experience life free from context and judgment. “Presence” is the portal to an awareness most of us are unaccustomed to.
The first experience of “presence” may feel like the fleeting moments of bliss sometimes triggered by natural or artistic beauty. Except, rather than a temporary condition, it’s a more lasting awareness. This will be explored at length in “The Anatomy of Peace: Part Two.”
Here’s a teaser:
Awareness determines the breadth of our relationships. The more we are absorbed in thought, the more awareness is narrowly focused on “Self.”
Awareness expands our connectivity, and therefore, our intimacy with life. The more connected we are, the more we experience that we are merely a player in the grand symphony of life. Life is not about us. We are about life. This is not about ethics or being a better person. Rather, it concerns an awakening to a broader perspective.
As awareness expands, day-to-day disappointments are experienced in a different light. Somehow, they aren’t as debilitating. Rather than being consumed by circumstances, we are able to step back and observe our reactions. This becomes a source of wisdom.
For awareness to expand, distractions (thoughts) must subside. We can’t see the stars in the presence of a full moon. Thoughts are like that full moon. They hide our capacity to experience broader relationships. This is why practicing “presence” is so important.
The fleeting experience of bliss, which may come only a few times in life, is actually the unmediated awareness of pure “presence.” I didn’t know this until it became a common experience in my mindfulness practice.
Practicing “presence,” enables us to witness life in a broader context, which increases our experience of joy, and makes us more resilient to hardships.
Nearly every problem we face arises from separating “Self” from the unity of existence.
Mindfulness* is the doorway to “Presence,” which leads to an expanded awareness of unity.
*More on the mindfulness technique I use can be found here, https://tim-coats.com/digging-deeper/, in a five-part series titled “Silent Fitness.”
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