Ahhhhhh, the art of being present.
As I reflected on 2020 in a new year yoga and journaling workshop, I set an intention for my 2021 (and yes, so sorry, it's really been that long since I've found my spot on the blank page again). Setting an intention for this year required me to first look at my growth and challenges in the year prior. When I looked at the past 365 as a whole, I have come to form its existence as a rebirth in some ways. I was forced to be still, to be present, and was literally mandated (and thank the heaven's above I was) to sit down and stay home. It turns out this was the most pivitol turn in my health, well-being, and overall happiness. Call me crazy but I actually get nostalgic about the months of forced stillness due to nation-wide shutdown. Because it was in that stillness that I could truly be awake.
I was able to connect with those I loved in different ways. I was able to walk with mother nature at least once a day if not more as I waded in her rays of sunshine and watched her birds flutter from one spring tree to the next. I learned to set boundaries with what no longer served me (such as tech and work/life limits) and in this time, all the responsibilities of roles, titles, and never-ending obligations settled. I could just simply BE. And although I encountered vast discomfort in just being, I also valued the hidden miracle it was. Because, FINALLY, I could wake up for the day and remain awake. Awake to my body, my mind, my spirit, and my surroundings. I was the most ME I had ever felt. And truthfully, I dreaded the day life returned to feeling like overnight rush delivery.
For the longest time, and still today, I struggle with getting stuck in where I have been and where I am going - and forgetting where I am, as I am. That's when I decided that this year, I simply wanted to stay AWAKE.
Almost every single one of my clients have come to me and told me that they struggle with being present, so I know I'm not alone and that my challenge is far from unique. And it only makes me more concerned that everyone else GETS IT. Because that means were all living in a constant phase of "what happened" and "what's next".
Let's take a quick glance at how present you currently are:
Do you constantly ruminate or worry over past situations or interactions?
Are you ALWAYS seeking the next degree, next title, or next tier of change?
Does more doing bring you a sense of purpose?
Does more being bring you a sense of guilt?
Do you start scrolling, or turning to mindless numbing habits (TV, video games, social media, excessive news media) the moment you encounter stillness or boredom - maybe in a line, on the couch, while eating lunch, or even while talking to your friend, spouse, or boss?
Is multitasking your "thing"? (Secret: our brains were not wired for it to be anyone's actual "thing")
Do you rush through your days checking off a to-do list that feels like it NEVER gets done, and NEVER dwindles?
Do you lie awake at night with feelings of worry, stress, or anxiousness?
Would it feel like a death sentence if you had to drive to a destination without any music, any audiobook, or any physical company? (just you and the long road ahead....)
If yes to any or all - you may struggle with being present. I know, because if I'm not totally and completely intentional, I get caught in these same webs.
Ok... so what's the big deal? What is this actually doing to our bodies? (you might also be thinking, I don't have time to be sitting around being 'present'... or maybe even to be reading this). So hopping right to it...
Let's talk amygdala for a hot sec. The amygdala is a small almond-shaped processing center in our brain whose sole purpose is to pick up on fearful and threatening stimuli. This is where the "flight-or-fight" response is born, and the stress response begins. This center is where emotions are given meaning, remembrance, and associations to our memories - a powerful little guy, eh?
When we encounter "good stress" or stress that is controlled, in moderation, and motivates us - the frontal lobe of our brain (our head-of-the-house decision maker) is able to rationally process these thoughts, emotions, and creates meaningful actions. However, when we experience excessive stress, anger, fear, or overwhelm our frontal lobe can't possibly manage the emotion overload - whether they are dispersed in one moment of rage, or a slow seep of stress and anxiety every day. When our frontal lobe no longer has the capacity to hold our emotions it hands off to the amygdala, and whoop there it is - your fight-or-flight takes over.
You may not recognize you are in this state and that your amygdala has "hijacked" your brain (as some say) but your body does. An over-reactive amygdala and constant stress response leads to chronic pain, recurrent or chronic illness (ahhhhhhhhhh, so that's why I get EVERY sickness in the air), autoimmune diseases, anxiety, depression, and of course all the side effects of a body screaming SOS such as cravings, weight gain/weight loss, excessive exercise/non-existent exercise, oversleeping/no sleeping, etc.
When we live without being fully present - ruminating over past events or stressing about what the future brings - we are changing the chemical composition of our brains. We are sending a massive workload to our emotional processing center every time we multitask at work or at home, numb with mindless media, or focus on a combo of last Monday + next Thursday without being where we are now, as we are now.
So, how can we begin practicing more presence?
Truthfully, cultivating presence is an every-day work of art. It's not something that just takes 21 days to accomplish and then sticks around forever. I work with clients (and do my own inner work) for weeks and months creating tools together that work in THEIR (and MY) life for intentional living and a lowered stress response. And even still, we, and our practices, ebb and flow with the seasons.
But here's a quick and generalized practice that can get you started RIGHT NOW.
Begin with this simple grounding tool.
Wherever you are, however you are, RIGHT NOW: Un-clench your jaw. Soften your eyes. Allow your palms to face up if you wish to receive, and down if you are craving grounding. Feel where your feet are, whether standing, sitting or lying. Where is the support under you? Feel the anchoring of this support. Notice the ground below you. Begin to imagine the ground below that, and the soil below that, all the way to the core of this earth. Where you are standing/sitting/lying - it is profound. Your existence is not by accident. This moment in time is not by accident. Be here.
From here, just breathe. Don't change your breath. Don't fix your feelings. Just sit, just stand, just lie, just BE. As thoughts of yesterday and tomorrow begin to wash in, take a deep inhale, and a long exhale. Come back to focusing on just this - your breath.
Try this a few times throughout your day. It can be difficult to get in the swing of when first starting because our brains have lived hyper-actively for so long. Know that while it can feel relaxing, it might not. Being present when our mind and body have gone against this grain for so long can be incredibly uncomfortable. There are no supposed to's, no have to's, and no should have's.
Breathe and be. Breathe and be.