The Gift and Power of Feeling in the Present
Mindfulness seems to be everywhere. Touted as the new-age solution to all of our problems, the messages to be ‘mindful’ and ‘in the present’ are liberally plastered across all forms of social media, self-help blogs, magazine and books. But what does it even mean to be ‘in the present’ or ‘mindful’?
The other day a lovely client was telling me about how she had invested in a Mandala Colouring book. She was busily colouring away when her husband walked in to the room and asked her what the hell she was doing in that typically direct and judgemental tone that husbands seem to have. While she wanted to reply that she was ‘mindfully colouring’ in order to relieve worry and stress, achieve blissful levels of inner peace and present-moment nirvana, she felt the pang of a panicked reality check as she looked down at her pencils, it was a good question – what was she actually doing? And why? Was she mindfully colouring or colouring mindlessly?
The thing with attempting to be ‘mindful’ and in ‘the present’ is that it can be so easy to miss the point of it. What is the intention of being present? I believe that the point is to discontinue thinking incessant thoughts about the past or future so that you can focus on your experience of what is happening right now. I diligently tried to do this for many years, once I was trying so hard to be ‘present’ while perusing the aisles in Coles that I rammed my trolley into an unsuspecting pensioner. Somehow I don’t think that my ‘mindfulness’ had achieved the desired effect. Staying present all of the time is basically trying to live your life as a meditation, which is bloody difficult! As usual, I set about investigating why it is so difficult to stay present and live life mindfully.
I realised that becoming mindful or present is very similar to that annoying habit of going on holiday and getting sick. When you finally give yourself permission to stop, relax and let go, all of a sudden, your body feels the time, space and freedom to process all of the emotional stuff you’ve been avoiding or too busy to attend to and it all comes to the surface. I’ll have a sinus infection with that poolside cocktail, thanks! I think the same goes for becoming present, when you stop and pay attention to what is going on for you in your body, the risk is that you may not like what you feel.
In essence, mindfulness is actually supposed to pave the way for you to feel, to truly experience the flow of energy and aliveness in your body and in what you are doing in the present moment. How cool is that? Mindfulness is designed to help you behave like a proper human being, who feels alive and experiences a continuous flow of life-giving source energy! (Might need to remember that the next time I am colouring in a paisley-patterned peacock!) However, if you’re not aware of this intention to be present to your experience of energy, you run the risk of doing mindfulness activities which simply give more ‘air time’ to a shitload of incessant thinking about disaster scenarios.
Embracing the present moment doesn’t require you to accumulate more opportunities (i.e. more time or space) to be mindful, nor does it require you to adopt more techniques or methods to be mindful, it simply requires you to be willing to be present to your own experience. That is, to be willing to feel whatever it is you are feeling in that moment.
The real reason it is difficult to be mindful is not because you are lacking in time to yourself or lacking in apps or colouring books, it is difficult because you are, like all of us, in the mindless habit of finding ways to avoid being present to the experience of your own energy and emotions. You have been programmed to resist emotions, particularly ‘negative’ ones. The reality of living in the present moment is that you need to be willing to experience the energy of happiness as well as sadness, or the energy of peace as well as chaos. While you may be prepared to become present to more joy, contentment or relaxation, the moment that anger, disappointment or anxiety show up you want to get the hell out of the present ASAP! All in all, your inner child is most likely pretty confused when you shove a colouring book in front of its face, because for years you have been finding numerous ways to escape your present emotional experience rather than embrace it.
Which brings me to somewhat of a ‘blind spot’ in emotion-escaping techniques – the use of ‘time’. When I ask clients that question (you may be familiar with it!): “What would you need to know to be at peace with this anger/sadness/pain?” The answer is invariably – “that it won’t last forever.” This is true, emotions are transient, they are ‘energy in motion’ and when you become truly aware of this and come to trust that “this too shall pass” there is a great sense of relief, release and liberation. But hidden in that little gem of “it won’t last forever” can also be an implicit resistance to the present experience of that emotion. You might be seeking relief by escaping to the future. Let’s tweak the question and see how it feels: “What would you need to know to be at peace with this anger/sadness/pain for the rest of your life?” When the ‘promise of the future’ is removed from the equation, how do you feel now?
I stumbled across this knowing when I was experiencing a bout of fatigue years after I had recovered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. When I had been in the thick of ongoing fatigue, I was most often distressed by it because I had no idea when it would end nor what I could possibly do to end it. This distress was pretty understandable given that the fatigue lasted for years. But over time I learned that it did pass and that I did eventually stop feeling that way. So, when a bout of fatigue came back from time to time, I knew and trusted, at least intellectually, that it wouldn’t last. But even though I knew this, I found that this knowledge didn’t actually give me much relief and I would still feel stressed, helpless and resistant to the fatigue. In other words, I had the ‘promise of time’ but it wasn’t helping me to truly cope with my present moment experience.
I realised that there is a big difference between ‘tolerating’ your experience by knowing that you won’t have to endure it forever, versus knowing that you have whatever it takes to tolerate or live that experience on an ongoing basis. The removal of the ‘future’ option reveals much more bluntly how empowered you truly and honestly feel in relation to your emotional or physical experience. While I felt more empowered to trust that my state of fatigue was a transient one that would shift, I was somehow also waiting for time to take it away. It was like saying: “Time, you’re responsible for taking away this fatigue, so I’ll wait for you to do so” – it seemed like I was asking time to rescue me from my present experience and I didn’t feel completely empowered by this. I wanted to know how I could possibly maintain my feeling of power in the very present moment, without an escape.
Time does heal. Of course the passing of time can lessen the intensity of your emotions. However, you might also completely hand responsibility for your healing over to time. In doing so, you can become disempowered and possibly delay the healing that is available to you in the present moment. I believe that the true ‘power of now’ lies in being willing to be present to your emotions and maintain your power as you experience them – without waiting for time to take them away. When you can sit comfortably with an emotion, with your present experience, without needing to change it nor wait for the future to change it, you are truly present and truly powerful. You have dropped all resistance to your emotions, you have let go of the need to fix or change them and you are not even getting impatient in waiting for them to move. True presence is a declaration that you are never powerless to your own emotions, it is the embodiment of your power.
Being present enables you to claim, retain and maintain your power in any situation, despite what is happening externally. But it can be easy to forget that this presence begins and ends with your ability to maintain your power in relation to what is happening internally – with your own emotional state. Your ability to stay present to your surroundings then, means taking responsibility for your own emotional experience regardless of how much you are tempted to escape.
In a recent session, a beautiful client was struggling with how to support her best friend who was dealing with the death of her 4-month old baby. How can you begin to help someone deal with that amount of pain, sadness and grief? What can you say or do to help? The answer is nothing. Sometimes there are no words. We both agreed that no amount of “it will get better with time” could possibly bring her friend any relief in the moment of intense grief. What she could offer however, was her presence. She had flown halfway across the country to be with her, to be present to her experience, and that we agreed, was the most healing thing she could do.
When you truly show up for yourself, when you stay mindful of the experience you are having in your body and you are willing to feel whatever is coming up for you, you own your power. Being present to your human experience is the gift you give to yourself. But if you find yourself wanting escape to the future to delay your emotional processing or healing, it might be time to ask yourself, why wait? And pick up your coloured pencils. There’s no time like the present.