What does it mean to “be present?”

Mar 07, 2019
Misty mountains reflected in a lake water with title Reflections on Inner Peace, Outer Peace

I hope we all ask ourselves that question on occasion, and venture to answer it for ourselves.

For some there may be histories of trauma (big or little) that have imbedded “leaving” as an automatic coping strategy. One day we may notice that we haven’t fully been here, fully experiencing life, for days, weeks, months, or even years.

But for many there’s simply the being lost in the autopilot of the day-to-day that has us walking around a little disassociated, a little not really here some or much of the time. Perhaps you have driven somewhere and realize you can’t even remember passing the various roads and mileposts because you were so lost in thought! Perhaps that’s what the popular trope of zombies or the living dead refers to.

Thich Nhat Hanh often breaks it down quite simply: we are present when our minds, hearts, and spirits are here with our body, right at this current moment in time. We do this through our attention. Other mind-body practices and traditions hold this view as well. Yoga literally means “yoke” - to tie the mind, body, and breath together by doing some challenging asanas - that’ll make you present and pay attention, otherwise you may hurt yourself! Similarly, qi gong is a practice of uniting mind, body, and breath.

The most basic practice of presence is breathing, and knowing that we’re breathing. We notice the sensations in our body. We may notice ambient sounds around us, such as birds singing. And we do this again and again, perhaps several times a day, to help us remember to be here, now. So we don’t miss out on life. So that when we eat an orange, we are fully here to taste it and receive it. So that when we take a walk, we can sense the life in the flowers, trees, and sky all around us. So that when we see our beloved, we can remember what a miracle it is to be here together.

You may or may not have a daily meditation practice. But you can pause - once, twice, or many times a day - to close your eyes, and pay attention to the sensations of your body, of your breathing, of the smells and sounds around you - even if it’s just for one minute. Open your eyes, and voila - congratulations, you are officially present! Enjoy it!

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