Why does being present matter?
“Be in da now,” he said for about the 16th time this class, as he led us into a wide-legged forward bend. Be in the now… Okay. Focus on my fatiguing hamstrings, now somewhere between a dull ache and a foaming burning feeling? I’m not sure what’s so fantastic about ‘the now’ – I’m definitely not enjoying this. Sweat is running into my eyes. Ew. When are we gonna change poses? I really need to bend my knees. I might be close to tearing a muscle. Am I still in the now? I guess I’m frustrated. That’s the now, for me. Is that really what he wants me to be thinking?
This is just a snippet of my crazy thought-train during a few seconds of a yoga class, in which I was struggling to be mindful. “Be in the now” or “be mindful” or “stay in the present” are all phrases that have begun to lose their meaning for me. So, let’s refresh them.
Why be in the present?
There is an abundance of research forming around the benefits of meditation practice. Much of it is around mindfulness meditation – usually defined as “paying attention in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”
Here is just light round-up of a few of these findings:
- Decreased stress, worry, anxiety, depression, and anger
- A sense of greater well-being, even when mindful for just a moment
- An increased sense of joy, hope, vitality, contentment and inspiration.
- Better ability to control emotional reactions
- Increased self-awareness
- Improved immune system function
So how does mindfulness work?
A Buddhist model of mindfulness created by British Columbia researchers theorizes that every sensation we experience carries a “feeling tone” of pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. We experience thousands of sensations in the space of a second, so we usually don’t even notice this feeling tone, but it’s this subtle pleasantness that creates desire, and the subtle unpleasantness creates aversion. For example, the uncomfortable tightness just below the ribs that indicates what we label “hunger” creates a desire for food.
Because there are so many sensations passing so quickly, it’s easy for our desires and aversions to become habit and then identity. As a result, we think we love chocolate, or we don’t like our mother-in-law, or we need coffee every morning. Mindfulness allows us to break habits. Habits in the way we think, feel, and behave.
It’s not the thought that counts.
One of the most common ways to begin meditating is by focusing on your breath. You see if you can bring your entire attention, without dividing it, to your breath – maybe the way it feels going in and out of your nose. Maybe the sense that some hairs are wiggling, or that one nostril is a little more restricted, or whether the breath is smooth or jagged as it goes in and out. But doing this alone is not necessarily a mindfulness practice. It’s a concentration practice.
During your concentration practice, thoughts and feelings are bound to float into your focus. The mindfulness comes in, according to renowned mindfulness teacher Sharon Salzberg, when you notice. It’s the noticing that is important, not the concentration. “This is where you have the opportunity to be different,” she says. You can decide to let go of the thought and go back to the breath. You can decide not to judge yourself or your experiences.
I was doing a lot of judging in my yoga class. I didn’t like holding the pose or the sensation in my hamstrings. These are both judgments that I made about my experience. From those judgments came desire – a desire to get out of the pose. As meditation teacher James Baraz points out, once you are noticing, you’re no longer busy judging. Your attention is no longer bound up in liking or disliking because it’s busy observing. Just by noticing what you’re desiring or what you have an aversion to, you’re often freed from that desire or aversion.
Don’t be put off by the formal practice – noticing what you are aware of doesn’t need to involve sitting cross-legged on a special pillow. The reason that you sit down and practice in a quiet place is so that you can do it more easily during more distracting times. Like when you’re in a yoga class and sweat is dripping into your eye.
Noticing is key in breaking habits and forming new ones – it’s what gives you space to shape your life.