Being Present, What it Means
When you are present, you aren't thinking about the past or the future. You aren't worried. You aren't even being critical. You are focused on what is happening now.
If you are with your partner, a friend or friends, your kids, your enemy, then you are focused on that person. You are noticing what they are doing and you are responding.
If it's a conversation then you are listening to the words they say without thinking about what you want to say. If you are playing catch then you are focused on the person throwing the ball and the ball as it leaves their hand.
If you are cooking, riding a motorcycle, driving, then you are focused on that thing that you are doing now.
With riding a motorbike and driving in particular, especially when driving fast, you focus on the things that can affect you.
The more you pay attention the safer you stay. That's assuming you know how to ride a bike in the first place.
Riding a motorbike on Laguna Sega, I slipped and fell in a corner called the cork screw. It was the last lap and the flag had been waved. Why did I fall? I did the left turn at the top of the corkscrew, waited for the apex to become visible then flipped right. There's a dip and then I was on the uphill. As I was on the uphill I wasn't focused on what I was doing. Instead I was thinking about how nice it would be to get off the bike and rest. As a result I was looking down and not up ahead. And that's where the bike went, down.
Luckily I wasn't going that fast.
Had I not been thinking about unrelated things, had I been looking ahead, then I would have been present and in all likelihood I wouldn't have fallen.
It took a lot of processing to figure out what went wrong. I had to think back to what I was doing before the fall. And that's how I figured out what I'd done wrong.
Thinking isn't a bad thing. It's just that there is a time and a place for it. And that time and place is never when you are trying to be present.
Being present generally means focusing your whole attention on one task.
Talking with a long distance girlfriend, on one occasion I could "feel" a drop in her attentiveness. Until that moment every conversation we'd had we'd been fully focused on listening. But this time she was clipping her nails while we talked and I could feel the drop in attention.
As an aside, one way to practice being present is when you are bored. Can you accept the boredom?
The Next Day
Back on the race track the day after falling, you might not be surprised to find that I was scared to be back on a bike again. Each time I went around a corner I felt like I was being dragged to the outside of the corner. I was going to give up but I decided to try one more thing.
Up until that point, each time I went around a corner I was looking towards the outside of the corner. I was looking at where I didn't want to go. And so I chose to look up ahead, at where I wanted to go, into the corner, as far ahead as I could see. As a result, the fear went away, the bike actually went where I wanted it to go, and riding became fun again.
Something similiar happened while learning to snowboard. My very first day of snowboarding ended with a backslam which put me off snowboarding for a long while.
When I did go again I took it easy on a kids slope.
My tendency was to lean back and as a result I found that I couldn't steer the board very well.
I eventually figured out that I needed to use the front edge to steer and in order to do that I needed to lean forwards. And so despite my fear I tried leaning forwards and low and behold now I had control. I could steer the board. And then I couldn't get enough of it.
It's hard to be present when you are afraid. Often times fear drives you away from doing the very thing you need to do in order to get control. Often, once you have control you may find your fear disappears.
Changing Your Mind
Sometimes the only thing that you have any hope of controlling is your mind.
As an example of this, doing a standing side bend I had the thought: "that's it, that's as far as I can go". And as a result, my body literally felt stuck in that position. I noticed my thought and as an experiment decided to change the thought. I focused instead on the idea of going further, or lengthening. As if by magic the "block" turned off and I found that I could actually go further.
Part of learning to control your mind is first noticing how you are using it. What type of thoughts are you thinking? Are they helping you or hindering you.
If you find yourself thinking about what you don't want to happen, try flipping your thoughts and instead focus on what you do want to happen.
If You Can't Feel Your Body You Aren't Doing a Yoga Pose
On the topic of yoga (since standing side bend is a yoga pose), while doing yoga, being present isn't simply doing a yoga pose. Lots of people do a yoga pose and think they are doing yoga, commenting on how easy it is. Meanwhile, stiff people try to force themselves into a pose. And they aren't necessarily doing yoga either, but at least they are a little bit closer.
Why are they closer?
Because their stiffness makes it easy for them to "feel" the yoga pose. Unfortunately it also tends to make them want to run away from the pose too. And so they'll hide in thoughts like "I can't wait for this to be over" or "I hate my teacher" or in the case of ashtanga "five breaths, I can do this for five breaths…"
If you are thinking, you aren't doing yoga. You aren't being present. How then do you become present? I've devoted an entire website to the idea. It's based first of all on understanding your body. Of having instructions that are based on an understanding of the body. But from there, guiding your awareness within your body, or turning particular muscles on and off so that you have something to focus on feeling within your body. But it first helps when you can recognize when you are mentally running away.
Mental Running Away
I was working with a personal trainer once, and she was making me do cable crunches. And I was hating her. My mind was full of a dialogue of how much I hated her.
But then I had a satori, I asked myself, while I was doing crunches, why I hated her. I was the one who wanted sexy ass abs. She was helping me to get them. I realized I was mentally running away. I then turned off the thoughts and got on with doing the crunches.
They weren't fun, but they also weren't as difficult because I wasn't adding mental friction to them. I became present. I became present by turning off my thinking mind and focusing on what I was doing.
Directing Your Awareness
In a friends vinyassa class I was sweating myself through god knows how many variations of warrior, praying for the last pose. Here again I thinking about how hard this was and asking myself when it was going to end. But then I again I changed my mental focus. Since we were doing some warrior pose (which involves using the legs) I focused on making my legs strong, since they where my foundation. All of a sudden the pose became that much easier. I stopped focusing on getting to the end and instead focused on what I could do to make each pose easier.
Focus on Where You Are Now, But Know Where You Want to Be
Another way that we can not be present is by focusing on the goal. As an example, I was on my bike at a red light in San Francisco. I heard another bike pull up next to me. I then became focused on beating this other biker when the light turned green. The light turned green and I twisted the accelerator. At the same time I heard some screeching. A guy or girl going the other way was running the light and I hadn't bothered to check. Luckily, a crash did not occur.
I had been focused on the goal, of beating that other biker at the green light.
Had I been present I would have been aware of cross traffic so that I knew it was safe to proceed when my light turned green.
This sort of thing is common in yoga also.
Forced Yoga Poses, Dealing with Pain
I've forced myself into poses just to get the pose rather than listening to my body and stopping when it has had enough. The result has generally been an injury. And there are no end of people with similar stories. (As a side note, there are some people who are really "flexible" but have difficulty feeling their body (I'd use the term "floppy". They get no feedback and as a result they injure their joints by by pushing themselves too far because they don't get any pain feedback. )
After I had a motorcycle accident that crushed my left ACL (I'm pretty sure it was my ACL, I never went to a doctor) I was very limited in what I could do with that knee. The pain reminded me of what I couldn't do. Eventually my focus in my own practice and in what I teach, was on feeling the body.
A large part of that was so that I could fix the problems I was having with my knee, and other problems as they popped up. But part of feeling my body included learning to control my muscles. Taken together (and it's hard actually to separate them) that meant that not only was I getting a better understanding of my body, I was also learning to become present.
One Way of Being Present In Your Body
In most breathing exercises you are taught to focus on the sensations generated while breathing. These sensations are generated by the muscles that you breathe with. My own practice involved activating different sets of muscles, not just the respiratory muscles.
Muscles generate sensation, and if that sensation is rhythmic, it gives you something to focus on. In addition, since muscles not only move the body, they help you to sense it, muscle activation and relaxation can give you a better "feel" for your body.
Focusing on the sensations generated by muscles is another way of becoming present.
Becoming Present via Muscle Sensation
When a muscle activates, you can feel the activation as it happens. If the muscle is a smaller or thinner muscle what you can feel instead is the connective tissue tension generated by muscle activation. In either case the sensation happens now, and one way to become present is to notice the sensation as it occurs.
Perhaps one of the reasons that it is easier to be present in your body while controlling your breathing muscles, or muscles in general, is you know when the sensation is going to change because you are the one who is controlling it.
Note that this isn't the only way to get present, but it is a good way to practice it.
One reason that you might want to practice it is that as you learn to recognize when your thinking mind is turned off, it becomes easier to turn it off at will.
Another reason is that it makes the journey enjoyable. Instead of focusing on the end point, you focus on where you are now. As a result you get to enjoy the journey as you have it.
Enjoying the Journey
Travelling across the states I wasn't in a rush to get to my destination. As a result when the scenery became too breathtaking, I would stop the car and get out and just allow myself to enjoy it. This was before smart phones. I didn't even have a camera. I just took it in with my senses.
Note that the goal was still there, but it wasn't an urgent driving need. I would get there when I get there and in the meantime I would enjoy the journey.
And that might be the key to enjoying life.
Practice Enjoying the Journey (As Well As Achieving the Goal)
If you are only focused on goals, then chances are you won't enjoy getting the goal once you get it. Instead you are already focused on the next goal. However, if you enjoy the journey, if you practice enjoying the journey, or accepting it, then it is that much easier to enjoy the goal when you get there. So for example, it's taken me a number of years to get side-splits. But in the time that I've been working towards it I've been exploring and experiencing my body. I've been enjoying the trip. And now that I'm actually pretty consistant with my splits, I'm enjoying my splits now also.
Enjoying the Sensations of What You Are Doing
Before I got into yoga I loved Speedskating. I lived in Ottawa at the time and during the winters, the canal would freeze over and we'd skate on it. At other times I went to Lake placid to skate on the speed skating oval there. I wasn't worried about being the best or winning, instead I simply enjoyed the sensation of gliding from skate to skate.
On one occasion, I'd already been for a skate, and thought myself pretty worn out. But some friends were going back out and asked if I wanted to join. I did despite my thoughts to the contrary and it felt wonderful. Sometimes all thinking is is something that separates us from what we can actually do.
The Benefits of Rhythm
Speed skating has rhythm and that is perhaps one of the key ingredients of getting into the present.
On one occasion I was skating at my universities small skating rink. I did a once sided speed skating drill, falling repeatedly on to the same skate, over and over again with the same slow and smooth rhythm. Finishing the drill I realized I'd stopped thinking for a time. I'd stopped thinking about the girl who had dumped me several months earlier. Of course once I realized that, I started thinking about her again. But the point was, that I'd become present for a short period of time by focusing on what I was doing. And what I was doing had rhythm.
It's not always required, but if you can find a way to add rhythm to what you are doing, it is an easy way of being present.