“Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future; live the actual moment. Only this moment is life.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh”
“As soon as we wish to be happier, we are no longer happy.” ~Walter Landor
“Suffering usually relates to wanting things to be different than they are.” ~Allan Lokos
“The best way to capture moments is to pay attention. This is how we cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness means being awake. It means knowing what you are doing.” ~Jon Kabat-Zinn
As we move closer to the holiday season and the coming year, life can seem to speed up. We are already making doctor appointments for the new year and planning, planning, planning. This is an essential part of taking care of ourselves, but planning can also interfere with our ability to be present. Whenever folks ask me how to practice present moment awareness, how to stop their minds from cartwheeling into the past and the future—the answer I give is always, start with the body.
For most of us, we have fluid patterns of opening to the time continuum. We may be driving, shopping, listening to someone else, meditating, or reading these words and our thinking self is leaning into the future, planning as a way to stay safe and protected, or leaning into the past working furiously to shift the experience of the past and develop more protection and understanding to apply to similar situations in the future. All this mental activity centers around our primary goal of staying safe. We can see that this thought process comes from the basic need to care for ourselves and our loved ones. It’s rooted in the beautiful desire to save ourselves from suffering, but the price of this activity is exhaustion. All these maneuverings don’t really do the trick. In my lifetime, I’ve spent hundreds of hours preparing defenses to debates that never happened. All these hours of mental strategizing seemed crucial at the time but in retrospect, these are hours I’ve been absent from my life.
When we come back to the body, we have the opportunity to stop what Thich Nhat Hanh calls NST, or Non-Stop Thinking. If you go to a Plum Village monastery, something extraordinary happens every fifteen minutes. A bell rings and the entire community pauses and comes back to their breath. When we do this practice of consciously stopping and settling, noticing the body, the breath, and the mind, we are in the present moment. Basic practices include stopping and breathing in awareness three times before answering the phone, or before emailing or texting. I’ve made it a practice to breathe consciously three times before beginning to drive. We can build these pauses into our day and although this practice may seem simplistic, it has a profound cumulative effect upon the relationship we have to our body and to our ability to be present.
The body responds to being remembered and attended to. The mind and feelings are constantly asking to be seen and known. In only three breaths we can bring kind attention to the body and mind. In my own practice, I’ve added an element of self-care into these three breaths. When we stop and bring this warm accompaniment to ourselves, it’s like pouring out water from a full cup, releasing the buildup of stress that we unconsciously accumulate during the day. With the first inhale, I track the phenomena in the body. As I exhale, I image all tension leaving with my out-breath, flowing through the soles of my feet into the Earth which can hold everything. With the second inhale I investigate the quality of my mind and the emotions, accepting whatever is arising. As I exhale, I acknowledge this mental state silently with “of course,” or “I understand.” With the third inhale I say silently, “here,” and with the exhale, “now.” This practice encourages the body to release physical tension and lets the emotional states know they are understood without trying to change or manipulate them away. Remembering that we are here now, reconnects us with our power to be present with the vast experience of living our lives, leaving nothing out. We learn that we can trust ourselves to care for all our feelings, the pleasant, as well as the difficult. As we work with these practices that include the body, we can extend our periods of awareness and actually do that thing called “being present.”
Another way to give ourselves the gift of presence is to create a small window of time using an hour or less to give ourselves completely to the task at hand. We can even set a timer if it helps us focus. Creating this small circle of time, we give ourselves permission to wholeheartedly do one thing whether it’s washing dishes or seeing patients. We allow ourselves to fully inhabit this window of time in our bodies, attending to what’s happening in and around us.
As we work with embodied awareness and come back to this moment, we can be playful with our attention. I enjoy asking teens what the texture of the body is at this moment: is it smooth, bubbly, spiky, sharp, soft, grainy, or rigid? And what is the color: gray, aqua, red, yellow, or purple? I’ve heard some very interesting responses and each one is unique to the person experiencing it. This type of inquiry and noting can teach us to be more stable and aware of our body’s singular vocabulary.
This body is a marvel of sensory processing. Coming back to the body means we can be alive to all our senses. We can feel the texture of the sheets as we lie in bed, the weight of the body touching the mattress, the head resting on the pillow. We can rest in the awareness of the colors of the sunset, taste the food we are eating, listen to the sounds of life all around us, smell the coffee before we drink it. When we turn our attention to the body, we automatically become present since this body is incapable of holding onto the past or projecting into the future. Doing things wholeheartedly, with our body and mind in the same place creates a source of stillness and restfulness that transcends schedules and gives us refuge even in busyness. Granting permission to focus, staying with our experience, bringing warmth and compassion to all of our experience is the path to a greater and greater capacity for presence.
For the holidays, please give yourselves the gift of your own attention and care. The more we are able to listen to ourselves without running, the more we become fluent in the language of our lives. We learn to stop leaning, to straighten and find the center where we can be with the whole of our lives, just as we are right now. The gift of acceptance, of compassion, and understanding can give us the strength to inhabit our lives fully, as they are, at this very moment.
May we all trust our light,