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May I ask, where is your mind right now?

Are you focused on the words you’re reading or has your mind wandered somewhere else? If it has, don’t worry, you’re not alone.

Psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert studied five thousand people and learned that about 50 percent of our time is spent thinking about something other than what we are doing. That means that only about half our time is spent in the present moment!

In addition, they found that 80 percent of the time we are thinking about something that is actually more stressful than what we are currently doing; which means we are often the originators of the very stress that we are trying to avoid!

Research shows that we are happiest when we are aware of what we are doing – even if what we are doing is unpleasant or boring. We tend to feel calmer when we are present for our activities rather than thinking about something else. Interestingly, our mental and physical well-being is improved when we are present regardless of whether our activity is exciting, boring, enjoyable, or unpleasant.

Why is that? Because when our mind wanders, we tend to go backward or forwards. We can easily play re-runs in our mind to process and perhaps even get stuck in ruminating over the past. Or we can fast forward trying to prepare for the future by pre-thinking, worrying, and even catastrophizing about what’s to come. You may notice that your mind wants to either race ahead to predict and prepare or look backward to process and integrate what already happened. Whether racing ahead or gazing behind…our minds seem to prefer anything other than the present!

Presence is defined as “being with another” or “in the immediate vicinity or proximity.” We know that the opposite of presence is absence. The curious thing about presence is that even though you could be physically present with someone right now, your mind could be somewhere else. This is not new information, yet our digital devices have radically increased the ability of our minds and bodies to be in different places at the same time.

Ideally, presence is a state of “receptive awareness” which helps us pay attention to what’s happening right now. It means being able to choose where and how we will intentionally focus our attention.

Being present and maintaining a sense of presence sounds like it should be easy, but it is challenging for many of us. We are easily distracted.

How do we achieve a ‘be here now’ lifestyle? What skills support us in being mindful and present? There are formal mindfulness practices to help us such as yoga, meditation, tai chi, qigong. And there are informal practices such as feeling the sun on your face, being fully engaged in a conversation with a child, pausing to enjoy the sunset, or a bird in flight. If it seems hard to you, start small. I recommend that you begin with your senses. Our bodies are the perfect tool to ground ourselves in the present moment. Pause to notice what you see, smell, taste, feel, and hear. Check in with your emotions to linger and savor them a moment longer than you usually do. Is that joy you’re feeling? Savor it. Are tears in your eyes? Treasure them. They connect to your heart. Notice what your body is telling you and let it guide you to the present moment.

There is good news; we can train our brains to be more present, and science proves it.

Since the 1970’s there has been a growing recognition of the benefits of mindfulness, which is another word for focused attention or presence. Findings show that mindfulness practices have an impact on the structure and function of the brain through what is known as neuroplasticity. Neuro refers to our neurons and plasticity describes the brain’s malleability in response to experience. It means our adult brains can be transformed by experiences. This is big news because prior to this information it was believed that our brains didn’t change after puberty. This is encouraging news for those of us who want to experience more presence.

The more we can inhabit a mental state of presence, the more likely it will become a familiar baseline. Then when we are under stress, we will more easily tap into that familiar capability. With intention…and attention…we can cultivate the ability to more readily connect to the people we are with, the activities that we do, and even to our own inner landscape.

Personally, the more I practice presence the more peaceful I feel. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all sunshine, rainbows, and unicorns all the time but I can tap into a peacefulness even when stressful things are happening around me. I discover a sense of calmness when I focus on my breath and notice something to be grateful for at that moment.

I find that practicing presence leads me to an inner spiritual place. When I pause to notice my surroundings, attend to what I’m hearing, or really see what is before me, I’m often filled with gratitude. Appreciation seems to naturally flow from being present. Mindfulness leads me to feel God’s Presence and I can find my Self reflected in that mirror. I feel one with the Divine when I take time to slow down and be present for the experiences I am having.

When I more fully inhabit the body I’m in, feel the emotions I’m experiencing, and the breath I’m breathing, I am in the moment. Such connectedness with my inner and outer landscape draws me closer to the God of my understanding. Faith grows as I intentionally develop this muscle of connection and love.

I’m curious to know how you experience presence. How does it connect your heart, mind, body, and spirit? What does spiritual presence mean to you?

The next Wholistic Woman Retreat and Academy program on June 30th will discuss this topic. Be sure to check the details here and register.

References: M.A. Killingsworth and D.T. Gilbert, “ A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind,” Science 330, no 6006 (2010):932 The Gift of Presence, A Mindfulness Guide for Women by Caroline Welch