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Mindfulness & The Power of Presence

The below is an extract from the book The Ultimate Guide To Mindfulness & Meditation:
A Scientific Exploration of These Powerful Ancient Tools which is available to purchase HERE.


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The First Mindfulness Skill: Presence 

Before we look at presence, we need to cover the back story - in this case the back story is mindfulness

Let's consider where the word "mindfulness" stems from...

The Sanskrit word "Sati" literally means mindfulness or awareness. Sanskrit is the language used in early Buddhist and Hindu texts, the earliest traditions where mindfulness practices can be found.

In English, presence or "being present" are words that are strongly related to the word "awareness". Why? To gain awareness you need attention on the present moment - you need to "be present" or exhibit presence. 

Being present: not that difficult in paradise...

Even though mindfulness can be loosely translated into presence, developing presence is just one mindfulness skill. 

Presence is nevertheless the main mindfulness skill. As such, presence is the basis for other mindfulness skills you encounter in later sections of the book.

Maybe you're thinking: "please define presence? What do you exactly mean by that word?".

I will...

Let me first introduce presence's meaning through an example:

Steve's a father of three and a stay home dad. 

His wife is the breadwinner. Steve is homeschooling his children during the week and takes care of the household.

He and his wife have been struggling financially. Steve has also been worrying whether he will be able to home-school his children correctly in the upcoming years. 

When he's actually teaching his children, Steve is often troubled about the finances, the lack of time to properly take care of the household, and the future of his children. 

Due to his worry, Steve is not actually fully engaged in teaching his children. His worry makes him spread his attention and multi-task between different activities. 

As a result, Steve's only directs 70% of his attention towards his children during school-time. His other 30% of his thought is directed at his finances and other problems.

The example of Steve illustrates that you'll do less well on that task any time you divert your attention from that task.

Why does Steve's example matter? 

Most people go through life doing two or three things at the same time.

People worry about two things and use the spare 50% attention they have left on the task they're actually trying to complete.

Alternatively, people try to work while also spending time on Facebook, or they're calling customers while 30% of their thoughts regard other situations.

Through the skill of presence, mindfulness teaches your brain (or mind) to deal with just one task at once.

Let me give another reason why that principle is important...

In Steve's case, it would be great to fully focus on teaching his children during the few hours of homeschooling. Because he'd be fully immersed in that activity, he's actually saving an hour or two on that work each day.

With the two spare hours he'd have freed up, Steve can easily complete the tasks in his household. As a result, he may even be able to get a side gig in the evenings and make some money to pay off his financial debt.

If you'd just learn to fully focus on one task, your life would be completely different over time. On the contrary, being engaged with two or three things at once is (often) completely destructive.

Why? 

Let me clarify:

People assume they can multitask, but that possibility is really a myth...

Let's say you have two tasks that you deem are really easy, such as cleaning the house and listening to a podcast. Even if your brain can perform these two separate tasks completely on autopilot, performance will go down when switching between the tasks.

The more you listen, the worse your cleaning becomes. The more focused your cleaning, the more you'll miss from the podcast. Doing two things at once will make you perform worse on either task.[39-42]

Please also remember that cleaning and listening to a podcast are relatively simple tasks for your brain. During tasks where you need more higher brain functions, the loss in performance would be exponentially greater.

And there's more...

You're not just losing focus by multi-tasking:

If you've got a primary task and a secondary task, your short-term memory will do worse on the primary task because your part of your memory is allocated towards the secondary task. 

Multitasking will also make you more error-prone on both tasks.

In fact, multitasking can lower your overall performance by as much as 40%. That's a big drop...

My advice?

Get one task done perfectly, and only then move to the next. Repeat until you've gone through your to-do list. 

There's more though:

Developing presence is very, very important in our modern society.

Why?

High level creative cognitive work is increasingly paying off in today's society, while more mundane jobs are increasingly being outsourced to technology.[43]

Due to the developments in artificial intelligence and robotics, it can reasonably be expected that simple tasks will become even less important in the coming decades, while high-level creative cognitive work pays off exponentially more.

To perform well on the latter kind of job you absolutely need the ability to be present.

You also need to realize one thing in relation to presence:

Multitasking or focusing on one purpose is not a behavior that people engage in just once--for most people these behaviors are habitual. Presence is habitual as well and can be developed.

There are lots of other presence benefits though. Presence can lower your stress levels and help your social relationships for example.

I'll expand on these in more detail later. First I'll also show you how to actually practice presence.

Practicing Presence

In my article on conquering (chronic) stress, I've explained how stress can often be treated with mindfulness via presence (or focus).

Remember that there's a reason for that specific choice: presence is the easiest mindfulness skill to develop - the acceptance and self-understanding skills come secondary. 

Presence is also a necessary precondition for cultivating acceptance and self-understanding.

Let me explain why now...

Not being able to stay present makes it difficult to accept states of mind without attaching to them.

Let me give you an example:

Let's say you're observing sadness in yourself and trying to accept that emotion. If you cannot stay present with that emotion you cannot promote acceptance.

Another example:

If you cannot stay present with the now it becomes very hard to observe how all states of mind - such as emotions - are transitory. Creating self-understanding thus becomes difficult to develop without presence as well.

Now that you comprehend that presence is the foundational mindfulness skill, let's dig into the practice of that skill now:

The easiest way to practice the presence skill is to focus on your breathing.

Follow the steps below:

  • Allocate some time in your schedule to mindfulness, such as 5-10 minutes. You can increase the time to 30-45 minutes as you get more experienced.
  • Make sure you're in a comfortable posture. Standing and sitting both works. You need to be comfortable to avoid being distracted by a painful, uncomfortable, or irritating posture. There's no need to sit in a weird meditation position, such as a lotus seat. Simply sitting in a chair or couch with back support works perfectly.
  • Practice presence by continually focusing on your breath. In other words, your attention becomes directed at your breath at all times for the entire session.
  • During that focus, expect your mind to wander to all kinds of different states of mind, such as emotions and thoughts.
  • Examples of thoughts? You might think about a deadline in the future, or still having to finish your dishes. Alternatively, emotions might come up such as anger or boredom (insofar boredom is an "emotion").
  • When you become conscious that a state of mind that distracts you from your breathing you'll redirect your awareness to your breathing.
  • When your mind wanders, there should be no judgment. You should simply notice that your mind is wandering and re-focus awareness towards your breathing.
  • One goal is to learn not to beat yourself up when noticing you're changing states of mind and having to re-direct your attention towards your breathing. The process of re-direction should be gentle.
  • If you're thinking: "damn, I shouldn't have thought about that Netflix episode" or "I'm thinking of my ex once again" (with irritation), you're being judgmental - you're judging how well you're doing.
  • The mentality of gently changing your focus, on the contrary, would be to neutrally notice "hey, I'm thinking about a deadline". Without beating yourself up, you direct your attention to your breathing again.
  • The bottom line is that you have to accept that your mind naturally wanders. Even expert-meditators still have distracted minds sometimes.
  • You can thus not demand perfection from yourself in this exercise, as you're bound to fail. The goal of this exercise is not to avoid getting beat down (changing your state of mind), but to get back up (gently re-direct attention to your breathing).
  • If you estimate that about 5-10 minutes have passed, look at your clock. If you've made it to the time limit, quit your session. If you're quitting, wait for a minute or two to resume your daily activities.
  • If time's not yet up, continue until you're about sure that the session's time has fully passed.

That's it, a simple presence technique that's very hard to master.

Simplicity does not equal easiness!

To be sure, to practice the skill of presence you don't have to focus on your breathing. 

There are many possibilities to practice mindfulness: bringing attention to different parts of your body one by one, concentrating on a candle in your room, noticing how your body moves while you walk the dog, or being present while driving your car.

Using a device such as the Heart Math InnerBalance can help you develop this skill. You can read more about this device and other technologies to help you with your meditation in my article Five Minute Meditation: 7 Strategies For Quick Results.

It's best not to practice presence with activities or objects that have an overwhelming sensory experience. Noticing how you feel while drinking tequila or while driving 100 miles per hour on the highway are objectively bad methods for practicing the presence skill.

Why?

You'll want to increase your awareness of the subtleties of experience during mindfulness. Intense experiences block out these subtleties (even though activities such as drinking may have benefits in other areas of your life.)

Please notice that the presence mindfulness skill is directed at distancing yourself from most of your states of mind while favoring sensations. 

The more you practice the skill of presence, moreover, the more you'll notice that your mind shifts to anything but the object you're supposed to focus on. The awareness that your mind wanders is also a sign that you're developing the skill of presence.

Phrased differently, by merely becoming conscious that your mind is continually shifting is an important insight.

Why?

Most people continually shift their attention without noticing that fact.

How many times did you become aware that you're opening Facebook only after you were already looking at profiles? And how many times did you open YouTube, only to become aware of doing so after watching videos for 20 minutes?

The quicker you can become aware that your mind is shifting its focus the better the development of the presence skill gets.

If you practice presence very often, you'll become aware almost immediately that your mind is shifting. Over time, your mind also starts shifting less and less.

There's more though:

Developing presence has important benefits to your overall well-being.

How?

The same brain pattern that undermines your presence is also the brain pattern that causes you to ruminate about the past or future.[296-299] That brain pattern is called the "default mode network".

Once your brain activates the default mode network, you're starting to think about the past or future. In common language that pattern is called "rumination". The more you practice the presence skill, the less often active that brain pattern gets activated (without your consent).

As a result, you're no longer as distracted when focusing on a task.

 

Looking For More?

For more on meditation, presence & mindfulness (including stratergies to help you incorporate them into your daily life) be sure to check out The Ultimate Guide To Mindfulness & Meditation: A Scientific Exploration of These Powerful Ancient Tools 

The ebook is covers the following:

  • A quick look at the history of mindfulness. That history will help you understand where this practice is coming from.
  • The three most important mindfulness skills in three separate sections: 1) presence; 2) acceptance; 3) self-understanding.
  • Next, you'll learn how mindfulness practice interacts with the human brain and what changes it can make to your brain structure.
  • How to implement a mindfulness practice for your unique circumstances.
  • All the benefits (and possible side-effects) that mindfulness can have for your life. Because there have been lots of studies on mindfulness in the past decades, many of the claims on the benefits of mindfulness that have been made in the past can actually be corroborated.
  • Lastly, I'll explain everything you need to know about how mindfulness can radically alter how you see both yourself and the world. I subsequently conclude...

Click HERE to purchase this book.

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