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Trying to Be More Present Isn’t Enough

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A million years from now, when alien anthropologists begin gathering evidence about what humans were like, they will definitely want to dig up the Self-help and Spiritual/Religion sections of our bookstores and libraries. There they will find direct evidence of what we yearned for and struggled with.

One thing that might surprise them is that we really wanted to be more present, and we struggled to do so for some reason. Our visitors will find no evidence that other earth creatures – cats, fish, protozoa – suffered any such difficulty.

Humans though, the aliens will note, spent most of their adult lives distracted from what is happening around them by thoughts of what happened earlier or could happen later. This problem was so great among the human species that returning to “the present” became a central element of both their religious practices and popular culture.

People designed mental exercises to get better at residing in the present moment, involving listening to mountain streams or patiently watching candle flames. Others wrote poems and stories about achieving a fabled state of calm abiding — in which one was lucid, engaged, and at ease –- with such fervor that some of these stories mutated into religions.

Authors wrote books like Be Here Now, Wherever You Go There You Are, and The Tao of Pooh, and gave talks in university auditoriums and monasteries. Musicians wrote songs about the primacy of being present in life, including wistful appeals like Do You Realize?? and tragic warnings like Cat’s in the Cradle.

Being present, just like being in love, was such a ubiquitous subject for human art and conversation that it was hard to get away from it, especially as new handheld technologies made the problem worse.

Tried to warn us

Today, we’re at the climax of this struggle, which is why almost everything you can say about “being present” is a cliché. It’s commonplace to say things like, “Life is what’s happening while you’re making other plans,” and “Stop and smell the roses,” in order to remind ourselves of what we already know: that life is always ticking by, evaporating by the second, as we worry about how certain parts of it might go later.

We each do what we can to remember to be present. At this moment, someone somewhere is writing a haiku about the stillness of early morning hours. Someone else is taping an Eckhart Tolle quote to their bathroom mirror. Someone else is hanging a decorative faux-rustic plank in the hallway of a suburban home, hoping it will remind them to Live, Laugh, Love before it’s too late.

Working Against Gravity

Being reminded does seem to help. If I tell you to look away from your screen for a moment, and pause to take in the ambient sound, light, and mood of the moment, whether you’re in an office, a library, or a Dunkin Donuts, you might notice the familiar, sublime sense that life is indeed happening now –- happening live. The great machine of the world is humming and moving, and you’re a part of it in a way Napoleon and Ben Franklin and Marilyn Monroe no longer are. Ah, right! Life! This is what you’re here for. This is what you worry about losing. If you want to live your life intentionally, it can only be done from here, in moments like this.

However, chances are good that later today, or even three minutes from now, you will no longer be feeling this potent sense of presence. You’ll still be doing things, but a subtle screen of preoccupation will have descended. Most of life will pass this way.

The solution seems to be to try harder to remember. You must resolve now and forever to be more present! You must never forget to stop and smell the roses, seize the day, and Live Laugh Love as much as you can.

One potential future

I’ve been writing about being present for years now, in the most angular and unclichéd ways I can think of, in the hopes that these ideas resonate despite the ubiquity of the basic message. I’ve recommended, for example, observing your surroundings as though you’re a visiting alien or time-traveler; carefully “tasting” elements of your sensory experience like a sommelier would wine; viewing the room you’re in as though it exists but you don’t, and many other eccentric practices — anything but another admonishment to just be more present.     

I do that because the admonishments don’t work. After twenty years of reading, writing, and reflecting on this topic, I can tell you that you cannot become more present by resolving to be more present. Hanging cross-stitched mottoes on your walls and intermittently reading Ram Dass might trigger the occasional moment of presence, but will not significantly change how much of your life you spend being present and how much you spend preoccupied.

That’s because the human mind is mostly habitual and reflexive. It cannot will itself to be present for more than a few seconds. Whatever mental gravity pulled your attention into idle thinking in the first place will draw it away again, almost immediately. You can, anytime it occurs to you, direct your attention back to the present, to the sunshine on your face, to the sound of distant traffic, but just like a submerged volleyball, the attention doesn’t stay there. I’m almost certain – and maybe brain scientists will confirm this someday – that the part of the brain that directs your attention to something is voluntary, and the part that sustains attention on that something is basically involuntary.

Cannot be overcome by human will

And it’s the sustaining that’s most important. Residing mainly in the present, not just glimpsing it occasionally, is what staves off rumination and worry, makes ordinary moments lucid and meaningful, and delivers the kind of circumstance-independent well-being all those fables and sayings and songs were talking about.

The Missing Key to Being More Present

There is a way to become significantly more present that does work with our fickle, fretting human minds.

You have to leverage the mind’s habitual and reflexive nature. Instead of consciously “trying to be more present,” you gently train your own attention, like you’re training a dog, to locate and be with present moment experience as a normal and natural reflex.

You do this by setting aside a short period every day, say ten minutes to start, and using it to practice pointing your attention at something — some sensation, sight, or sound –- and observing it with a certain kind of alert curiosity.

As I said above, the human mind can only sustain this kind of voluntary focus for a few seconds at time –- certainly not ten minutes –- but those few seconds are enough to work with. You essentially fill that ten-minute period of practice as densely as possible with these 3- to 5-second stretches of aware presence.

After doing this regularly for a few days or weeks, you might notice that your attention simply ends up in the present more often. You’re going about your day, and a certain lucidity descends on the moment as you get a mug from the cupboard or answer the phone.

Note that these moments of presence happen without your having to try or remember to try. Your attention automatically lands in the present because your mind has become more accustomed to it and is inclined to return there.

Typical random lucid moment

What’s happening is you’re changing the mind’s gravitational center. The practice periods develop the same kind of muscle-memory-like familiarity that happens when the fingers of a piano student begin to automatically find the right keys, except that instead of fingers finding keys it’s your attention finding the present moment. The present gradually becomes the resting place. The song begins to play itself.

Shifting the center (in 30 days or less)

This daily period of attentional training is a form of meditation. Anyone can do it –- you already have the basic human talent of focusing on something for a few seconds.

If you want to finally learn to do this, I can show you. I’m about to run the first Camp Calm group since the beginning of the pandemic.

We do a short period of practice daily for 30 days, which is long enough to make it feel more normal and shift that gravitational center. The Camp is all online, and you can do it from any device.

The group start date will be August 1st, 2022. That’s optional though — once you’re registered you can begin the Camp any time it works for you.

I’m also offering a 20% discount this time, if you register before August 1st. (Use the code CALM2022, or the link below to get the discount.)

I designed Camp Calm to be a fun and relatively easy way to become a person who actually meditates on a regular basis. Fellow Raptitude readers will be doing it with you. Camping puns and imagery abound.

[Learn more / register now]

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Photos by Hello I’m Nik, Khaliz Wu, Brandi Alexandra, Miguel Teirlinck, Johannes Plenio, and Jesse Gardner

{ 15 Comments }

Sharon Hanna July 12, 2022 at 11:55 am

No comments? How is this possible??

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Mary July 12, 2022 at 12:43 pm

It only showed up in my feed a hour ago. ;-)

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David Cain July 12, 2022 at 4:24 pm

Normally I send posts out at 2am central so I can answer comments when I get to my desk in the morning. This one I sent out late morning because Camp registration was officially open as of this post and I wanted to be able to handle any issues that came up.

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Séamus July 12, 2022 at 12:48 pm

My first camp calm was that April 2020 one and it was so, so good for me. I ended up meditating daily for a solid year straight, but fell off during a trip away from my home setup (tea, journal, the special window with the morning light) and have been unable to make it stick since. Saying this out loud because I loved that habit and want it back haha. See yas on August 1 .

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David Cain July 12, 2022 at 4:26 pm

Well done on managing a year of practice before your first real lapse! Glad to hear you’ll be back.

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Osnat July 12, 2022 at 2:58 pm

Also, laughing heartily, intentionally or spontaneously, can only happen in the present. A minute a day will clear your head, lifet your mood, wake up your lungs, and give a massage to all internal organs living next to lungs and diaphragm.

Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha…

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David Cain July 12, 2022 at 4:29 pm

Laughter is really one of the most life-affirming experiences there is. Any day where you properly laugh is hard to call a bad day.

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LanChi PHam July 12, 2022 at 5:34 pm

I’ll definitely be joining Camp Calm again this year even though I’ve done it a few times before and I’ve been meditating pretty consistently for a few years now. It’s so worth it.

Side note: I usually meditate for 20 minutes, but one insight I landed upon one day was: I don’t have to meditate for TWENTY MINUTES; I only have to meditate for THIS ONE MOMENT. Now repeat moment to moment. And it changed everything for me.

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David Cain July 13, 2022 at 10:38 am

That’s great. What you’re describing is a major shift in mentality towards meditation. You are only ever dealing with a single experience, which is the experience of the passing moment, whatever it happens to be. Meditation is that act of deliberately feeling and allowing a single moment. It just makes sense to cordon off a contiguous amount of time to do that repeatedly so it becomes familiar enough to do anytime.

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Michelle July 13, 2022 at 2:28 pm

The image of attention like a submerged volleyball is going to stay with me for a long, long time— it’s such a perfect and evocative metaphor!

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RJA July 15, 2022 at 3:27 am

While more often being in the present is something worth striving for, I think the mindfulness “movement” sometimes miss the extent to which not being in the moment can be pleasurable and positive. It’s not all just ruminations, worry and wasting time. I often find myself happy when daydreaming, figuring out various theories about things, making sense of things happening to me and others, planning or imagining the future, analyzing the past. There is great joy and meaning in exercising this very human capacity for not being imprisoned in the present moment, which many other animals seem to be (to a larger or smaller extent).

That said, it also causes much unhappiness and we would all benefit from being more present in our moment to moment existence. But I think it’s important to see that the drifting of attention away from the present moment is not only negative and a cause of suffering, as some on the more extreme side of the mindfulness debate spectrum would have it. Not least because it makes it easier to see why our attention is drifting, i.e. since leaving the present moment can be rewarding to us, also on a non-shallow/deluded plane.

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David July 19, 2022 at 11:37 am

What you are describing is a pretty common misunderstanding on the part of mindfulness critics. I think the issue is that “being in the moment” and “not being in the moment” are not the clearest terms. Being present does not preclude planning or daydreaming or otherwise thinking about past, future, or hypothetical moments — all thinking happens in the present.

The difference between being present and not is whether or not you are aware that you are thinking. If you’re aware, you understand the thoughts are thoughts and you can enjoy them and make use of them. If you’re not aware, then the thinking is driven and reactive, like billiard balls being struck. That doesn’t always create an unpleasant experience, but it does mean you’re simply being pushed along by the emotional tide of the moment — i.e. you are helpless but to be thinking about X, and you may suffer from being attached to or averse to the thought, unaware that it is a mental figment occurring in the present.

When you’re aware, thought still retains all of its utilitarian and sensory value to you, but you are not subject to the same forces of angst that tend to congeal around reflexive human thinking.

In any case, learning to reside in the present means you are constantly returning to the reality of the present moment, and that you recognize thought as thought, not that you aren’t letting yourself think.

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Julia July 18, 2022 at 7:30 am

“A fabled state of calm abiding”.

Dave you are the best. You are a compelling writer!

“A decorative faux plank in their suburban living room reminding them to Live, Laugh, Love before it’s too late!”

I teach guitar in private homes and I see this kind of stuff all the time. How did you come across this phenom?

{ Reply }

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