Cultivating Presence: The Mind


Brain Tree blueIn my last post I discussed the importance of being present with yourself during change. There are three elements of the self for which such presence is important: the mind, the body, and the heart. This week I will focus on mental presence; I will cover the others in the coming two weeks.

We all know that mental presence is important. And, almost without exception, we have each in our own ways tried to cultivate it at some time or another. Perhaps it was meditation. It may have been daily reminders, or periodic alerts on our computer/tablet/smart phone. Journaling is a mindfulness practice for some. Then there are the times when we end up “in the zone;” time—and the world—disappear as we focus fully, presently, on a particular person or activity. For me, this most often occurs when I am either writing or photographing.

And, we all know how easy it is to lose that presence of mind. The project that is running behind schedule; making sure the kids have the clothing they need for this weekend’s event; the disagreement with our best friend. The future and the past often seem to want to control our minds, leaving no room for being present with ourselves or anyone else.

Yet, there are people who always seem to be present. When you are “in their presence,” you know you are in their presence—there is no other world for them outside the space the two of you occupy. But as much as I wish to be that person, and I am still working on it, that is not always me. Nor, most likely, is it you. If you are like me, we learned long ago how to be “not present.” Learning to be present takes lessons, and practice.

So, let’s begin with mental presence. How do you cultivate it? Here I will offer two lessons.

It’s best to begin in a quiet place, the less the ambient distractions, the easier it is to begin. As you practice and develop the skill, it is as applicable in highly turbulent environments as it is in a library or meditation hall.

If possible, find a place where the light can be soft and muted. Find a comfortable place to sit, or to lie down. Notice your posture, your position; you want to be comfortable, relaxed but you also want your body open, not folded and scrunched. Reposition yourself if you need to. Draw your attention to your breath. Don’t try to control it, just become aware of it. As you take a breath in, think, “breathing in.” with the exhale think, “breathing out.”

Don’t be surprised when your mind goes off somewhere else; it will. Just note that, and return to “breathing in;” “breathing out.” I had one teacher liken it to standing on a busy train (or subway) platform. There is always another thought pulling into the station. It is our choice as to whether or not we let it take us for a ride away from presence. Let each thought leave. “Breathing in.” “Breathing out.”

Set a timer so you don’t keep looking at your watch. Allow yourself ten minutes a day for this practice. If you can give it more, great! If you can do it more than once a day, great! (If you cannot commit ten minutes to practicing presence, make it five; anything is better than nothing. And, as with any new skill, the more you practice, the better you will become with it.) As you practice, you are becoming present, in the moment “Breathing in.” “Breathing out.”

Given this blog’s focus on change, let’s look at another “presence of mind” practice related to changes in habits that you want to make. Here I am drawing from the writing of Doug Silsbee in his book Presence-Based Coaching. And, having applied this practice myself, I can attest to its power to foster mental presence.

Begin by identifying a habit that you want to change. Write a brief description of it. Develop a personal template that you can use for self-observation. In the template, include the following.

  • When will you observe yourself, watching for this habit? (For example, “during staff meetings.”)
  • How long a period of time will you observe yourself? (For example, “through the month of May.”)
  • When will you complete and record your self-observations? (For example, “after each meeting.”)
  • What will you use as a reminder of what you want to observe? (For example, “include the following questions to answer each time I record my observations.”)

Silsbee provides these questions as an example for someone who finds himself too prescriptive.

  • When (in this situation) was I prescriptive?
  • What drove this tendency? Was it habit, or was it the best choice at the time?
  • What did I do?
  • What was the impact?
  • What alternatives where there?

During the observation period, focus on observing, not on changing the habit. Remember, this is a presence practice. Periodically review your observations. Over time, you will become aware of the fact that you are more self-present in those moments the habit is executed; then, you become more self-present in advance, as it is being triggered. You will note that you have choices, including–but not limited to–the habit you want to change. You can begin making new choices, and leaving the old habit behind.

Mental self-awareness–being present–is one of the often unspoken keys to change. It doesn’t matter whether the change is personal, organizational, or social…if it requires you to change the ways in which you think and/or act, change won’t happen without your presence.

What do you do to help become present? Is it something that you practice? Do you consciously call on yourself to become present? Comment below.

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