Being Present, a Non-Critical (but critical) State of Mind

(That's often more fun!)
by: Neil Keleher
Published: 2019 07 19
Consciousness, Being Present

Being present means you aren't thinking. Instead you are absorbed in what you are doing.

I've experienced it riding motorbikes. And I've experienced it playing video games with a friend. I've even experienced it staring off into space. And on one occasion I experienced it after being dumped by a girl.

What does it mean to be present?

Being present means you aren't thinking. Instead you are absorbed in what you are doing.

I've experienced being present answering simple math questions as quickly as possible. I've also experienced it doing slightly more complicated calculus and trig problems. I've experienced it playing ultimate and various games of catch. And I've experienced it on the firing range. And I've experienced it while having deep conversations with family, friends, loved ones. I quite frequently experience it while teaching yoga, (and doing yoga) and even before that during my stint teaching aerobics. I experience it while practicing Tai Ji. And I've experienced it both while practicing calligraphy and working on "presentation" pieces of calligraphy.

I've experienced it riding motorbikes. And I've experienced it playing video games with a friend.

I've even experienced it staring off into space. And on one occasion I experienced it after being dumped by a girl.

Getting Dumped Sucks

Generally when I get dumped I can mull over a girl for months thinking of all the things I've done wrong and what I can do to get her back.

I went skating in this state of mind and was practicing a one sided speed skating drill and when I finished I realized I'd actually stopped thinking about that girl. Of course as soon as I realized that I'd stopped thinking, I started thinking again, but that's the thing about not thinking. You have to move in and out of the "not thinking" state to recognize that you've been there.

The Absence of Thought

There may be various levels of "not thinking" or "being present", and I'm not going to bother trying to define them here. The most important thing about being present is that it is the absence of thought. And I'm going to talk a little bit about what that is, how you can go about getting there, and how you can go about getting into that state of mind a little more easily.

A Non-Critical State of Mind

Perhaps one of the best ways to define being present is that it is a non-critical state of mind.

As an example of this, one way I learned to be present was doing simple math questions as quickly as possible. This was all part of a Train Your Brain program.

Each day I would practice answering a hundred questions as quickly as possible. Then I'd score myself by time taken.

One of the nice things was that I found I felt pretty good afterwards.

After some time I thought it would be interesting to see if I could go for the gold. Bronze was under 2 minutes. Silver, 90 seconds. Gold under 1 minute. I tried writing a hundred numbers quickly. Just writing one hundred numbers in under a minute was hard enough. I wondered how I would actually answer questions?

Going for Gold

What I started to do was to look a question ahead. As soon as I finished writing the previous question I moved my eyes to the next question. I didn't think about the answer, I just let my hand write it. And more importantly, I did not worry about whether my answer was right or wrong.

As a result I got into the moment. I was being present. And suprisingly a lot of my answers were right. And that led me to the idea that instead of figuring out the answers, what I was writing out was remembered answers from having practiced so many simple math questions as a kid.

What About those Wrong Answers?

So what about those wrong answers.

If I was really worried about them, I could practice them individually and then the next day, if I came across them, ideally I'd get them right. But if not, all it meant was that I needed more practice.

Focusing on the Short Term

I use a similiar process to learn Chinese characters. Instead of practicing the whole character I break it up into parts and practice a few brush strokes at a time, over and over again. In this case I'm working from short term memory. This seems to hold about four to five items max, and a good hint that you've exceeded this max is that you have to think about what comes next.

So with three or four strokes loaded, I can repeat them over and over not worrying about whether they are wrong or not. I simply practice them till they are uploaded to mid term memory. And while practicing I am not thinking, I'm simply focused on what I'm doing.

And generally, it feels good. I then practice the next few strokes, and then the cool thing is I can generally do the whole character as an assembly of all of these smaller practiced parts.

I had one teacher who used a similiar technique to teach me a martial arts fan form. One of the really nice things about it is that it is relatively stress free and it feels good to learn. And the main reason for that is that you are allowed to make mistakes.

The mistakes don't matter.

It's part of the process of learning.

Back to Being Dumped

And that's perhaps one reason I had that moment of presence when I'd been dumped.

The speed skating drill I was practicing had four steps. And I repeated them. And I focused on what I was doing, balancing on one skate, falling on to the other skate then again returning to balance on the original skate.

In both cases (I'm talking about the calligraphy and the speedskating here), not only did I practice repeating a short instruction set, but the way I practiced had rhythm.

This, finding the right rhythm, I've found is something that you have to vary. But it's something that becomes automatic with enough practice.

The No Flow Yoga Class

In my yoga classes I use a similiar method to help my students become more present. Rather than flowing from difficult pose to difficult pose, we focus on activating and relaxing particular muscles or particular points of contact with the ground.

My students learn to generate and control sensations within their own body using their muscles. As a result they learn to feel and control their muscles and get a feel for their body at the same time.

In this case it's the change in sensation generated by muscle control that can help draw them into the present moment.

But I Thought Being Present Meant Not Being In Your Head

So what does it feel like in your head to become present?

It can be like being in a movie theatre. Waiting for the film to start there's talking, movement as people find their seats. Then as movie time get closer there might be more noise, hurry up, hurry up, but then as the lights dim and the curtains open and the projector projects, the theatre becomes quiet. And all there is is the movie and the accompanying sound track.

Being present feels is a little like that, all extraneous chatter (your thinking mind) shuts off.

And actually for myself, the move from thinking to being present is like my awareness moves towards the back of my head. When I'm thinking it tends to be more forwards, more even with my eyes, as if my eyes are me. But then when I move back in my head, like moving back and up into the rows of a movie theatre, it tends to be easier to shut the thoughts off.

WTF are You Doing?

If I'm doing something, the clearer the task is that I have to do, the easier it is to get on with it, and to be present (non thinking) while I do it.

Recently I was listening to a Tim Ferris podcast with Safi Bahcall. One of the things he talked about was writing. Part of the process was writing without judging. Just get it out. Write fast, write bad, write wrong.

And that is a way to get into the flow, to be present while writing. Only afterwards do you go and nitpick.

Even if you aren't writing, if you are doing something else, if you know what it is that you are doing, you can get on with doing it, and possibly become present at the same time.

Sometimes you aren't going to be able to get present becuase thinking is required. Or sometimes you won't be able to do what you thought you wanted to do, so you might have to redefine what you are doing. And then there's the idea of goals, which you have to work towards gradually (you ain't gonna learn Chinese in a day!) So do be aware of this when you are trying to be present. But to emphasize knowing WTF you are doing so that you can be present, lets look at play.

Hey Play, I'm looking at you!

Nowadays there seems to be a lot of articles on the idea of play. How it can lead to better learning. I'll suggest here that the state of play is actually being present.

How do you define play? When you aren't being critical, when there's no right and wrong. There are rules, and you have to know the rules (i.e. not have to think about them in order to comply with them) but play generally means being focused on what's happening now: Where are my team mates? Who's most open? Where are my opposition? What are they doing?

There's no sense of what's right or wrong, just what is.

The more you think in a situation like this the slower you respond. There are other ways to play, you can be in a playful state of mind trying to jump onto a block of a particular height, but they are all basically the same as being present.

So what is it about playing that we can take into account when trying to be present?

Well you don't have to be doing anything to be present, you can simply be still and taking in whatever is around you or with you. But if you are doing something, what helps when you are trying to be present is knowing what you are trying to do. If you know, and it's a simple instruction set (or straight forward) then you can get on with doing it.

Just Stop Thinking

What is an easy way to think about being present? It and thinking are two different mind states. If you are thinking you aren't present. If you are present you aren't thinking.

If you are worried about doing the right thing, then again, you aren't being present.

To be present stop thinking.

But know what you are trying to do.

If you are thinking you aren't being present. If you are present you aren't thinking. Being present then becomes a lot easier. Just stop thinking. And Don't judge. (But know what you are trying to Do! Neil Keleher.