I was talking with a friend recently about using the present moment as an effective way to navigate stress. But what does “being present” even mean?
It sounds a little woo-woo, but it comes down to simple awareness. At the most basic level, “being present” means being aware of everything connected to a particular moment. This includes the external environment, such as physical surroundings, and the internal one, like thoughts and feelings.
And why would this be useful? The present is basically an advanced tool for managing that most human of conditions—the steady stream of thoughts that can threaten our wellbeing.
Stella tells me I can be prone to drama, but in this case, threaten is really not too strong a word.
You see, our brains are essentially thought factories. Just as the heart is always pumping blood, the brain churns out thoughts all the damn time. Some thoughts are helpful, but many aren’t. In fact, they’re downright destructive.
They lie. This is the worst thing ever!
They distract. Oh I really need to look at that for a sec …
They delay progress, mostly because they occupy us with the past, or entice us with the promise of a buff future. I’m gonna get in shape when work calms down!
Our thoughts get in the way because they often make us feel as if we’re doing something useful. We’re assessing, planning, preparing. Meanwhile, while the ruminating steals our focus, many good things pass right on by — like moments of quiet beauty or opportunities for real progress on things that matter to us.
No biggie. Just life itself.
USING THE PRESENT FOR NAVIGATING STRESS
Being aware of the present is helpful for many reasons, but especially managing stress and unhappiness. Such unpleasantness is typically tied to the past or the future, not the here-and-now. For example, stewing about something that has already happened and cannot be changed is living in the past. Or my personal favorite: worrying about something bad that might happen in the future.
In contrast, focusing on the present is essentially a mini vacation from the thoughts.
There’s value just in being aware, but I’ve found the most progress when I also practice the next-level skills: accepting the reality of the particular situation and ultimately responding in a way that aligns with my goals and values. Let’s take a quick look at each:
- Awareness. The first step is simply awareness of life as it unfolds around us. It’s taking a tour of the thought factory and seeing what is coming off the assembly line. It’s also seeing beyond the thoughts, taking note of anything in our physical world, people or other creatures, etc.
- Acceptance. Second is accepting what we see. Now, acceptance doesn’t mean we like what we see or can’t change it. It just means we’re connected to reality. Ironically, acceptance makes change easier.
- Responding. After being aware and accepting, all that’s left to do is respond. The way we want to. It’s always our choice.
THE VACATION–SORRY, IRS, YOU ARE NOT WELCOME ON THIS WALK
Just like anything of value – working out, cooking skills, and so on – being present isn’t easy. I work on staying present all the time, and often remind myself to turn to it when I find myself on the Struggle Bus yet again.
An example: when I got divorced the IRS got confused and improperly credited taxes I had paid to my ex-husband. They sent me a huge bill and made all kinds of threats about freezing my bank accounts and seizing property. This went on for months, even after I wrote to them and provided documentation that everything was in order.
Logically, I knew it had to be ok in the long run, but I still felt a lot of stress.
Time and time again, staying present offered my best tool for navigating the anxiety. If I was working out or making Stella lunch, I stayed with those activities. If I was walking Kenzie, I focused on walking Kenzie.
The cute little devil. Here she is as I found her one day in my office.
Anyway, the worries would pop up repeatedly, mind you. It wasn’t pretty, but I’d catch myself every time the ugliness appeared. The IRS is not with me, I’d remind myself. There are no agents on this walk or waiting at my house. Well, not that I knew of! Ha.
No, the walk was just fine – maybe a sunny weekend, a clear evening with a bright moon, or a drizzly rain. Whatever it was, I’d pause and take that moment in, which gave me a little break. The escapes didn’t make me any less effective in resolving the issue.
In fact, I was almost certainly more effective because I took breaks from the relentless stream of thoughts that otherwise occupied my time.
Sometimes I’d even confront the perpetrator out loud. Ok, IRS, I see you, but you’re not allowed on this walk. Or in my car, or my kitchen, or my bedroom. Move along now, y’hear? Talk soon.
DON’T JUST READ IT – DO IT!
Fit Energies is all about action, so I’ll leave you with a tool for connecting to the present. I learned this from Ekhart Tolle’s A New Earth, which is my #1 resource on staying present. When life seems dark or going in the wrong direction, Ekhart says we should ask a simple but powerful question –
What is my relationship with the present moment?
When I do this, I find that unhappiness typically has nothing to do with the present. It’s almost always in the past or the future. But all the power is in the here and now.
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