Being Present

Being present is a state of “wakefulness” in which you show up and live in the moment. It is becoming conscious of what is happening within and around you so that you can participate fully in life. It can be thought of as a powerful mental context that allows you to be responsible for your life and make deliberate choices about how to respond rather than simply react to events in a preprogrammed way.

When present, you focus on what you’re doing rather than what you’re not doing. When putting the kids to bed you’re “with” them rather than preoccupied by a situation at the office or the ball game on TV. When talking with your spouse, you hear what he or she is saying. When attending a staff meeting, you engage in the conversation rather than continually checking for new email on your smart phone. You are awake to what is going on in the moment. You participate in the relationship you have rather the one you don’t have. You seize the opportunity within this set of circumstances rather than hoping it will somehow be different tomorrow. You live in this moment, rather than the past or future, and recognize choices available now.

In short, being present is a powerful mental state in which you:

  • Show up in the “here and now”
  • Pay attention to what is going on within and around you
  • Face reality squarely • Recognize choices
  • Act rather than reacting

Being present is a powerful way of living which results in two benefits. First, you enjoy life more. You notice simple pleasures that emerge from your moment-by-moment experience that you miss when you’re unconscious. And second, you become more effective in dealing with life. You face it squarely. You step up to situations and, by so doing, tap into your inner resourcefulness. You learn to respond rather than react and gradually develop confidence in your ability to handle life.

Being Unconscious

The opposite of being present is being unconscious or on automatic pilot. You’re having a conversation but wishing you were somewhere else. You’re tackling a project but waiting until you can go home and turn on the TV. You’re driving but mostly unaware of the traffic around you. Your body is present but your mind, attention, and energy are somewhere else entirely. You go through the motions but your heart isn’t in it. You’re acting from habit rather than intent. And before long that defines your entire life—living in a rut, following the same routine day-in and day-out but sensing that something is missing, although periodically escaping the mundane through a momentary excitement or pleasure.

When unconscious you avoid the reality of the moment, either because it seems boring or threatening. You distract yourself by tuning out, going on automatic pilot. You end up spending much of your time enduring, wishing, hoping, regretting, worrying, etc. At best life feels boring. Sometimes it feels like a burden. But you feel safe, at least most of the time.

In short, when unconscious, you:

  • Deaden or distract yourself from the moment
  • Avoid reality
  • Resist life
  • Get locked into automatic ways of responding
  • Play it safe

There are reasons you go unconscious. Today, it’s probably more habit than anything. But there have been many times when it helped you avoid a painful or uncomfortable reality. I recall being lost in a class in middle school. It would have been embarrassing to raise my hand and ask a question so I muddled through on my own, avoiding thinking about the class as much as possible, doing the minimum to get by and eventually got a “D.” That experience taught me to go unconscious when a task got hard.

Or I recall watching my parents argue on one occasion. I hurt inside and so learned to distract myself or go on automatic pilot when feelings got tense. I recall feeling very impatient putting my kids to bed. Of course I was distracted by something else I wanted to do that evening. However, being with them and their demands brought up feelings for me, so I went unconscious and got through the chore as quickly as possible.

We have many experiences in which the best response available seems to be to go unconscious. We survive, we make it through, we minimize the discomfort. But we also set up an avoidance routine which becomes a vicious cycle. The more we avoid the moment, the more we disempower ourselves, the more likely we are to avoid and so on.

Although we live unconsciously to avoid what seems to be the pain or burden of reality, the more unconscious we become the more control we give to events and circumstances. We take ourselves out of the driver’s seat. The consequences of this include making mistakes, getting into accidents, being inefficient, communicating poorly, reacting rather than choosing, letting habits run our lives, etc.  Our lives become more and more constricted, less joyful and effective.

The Price of Being Present

Being present is not easy. It requires great mental discipline and sometimes courage. You have to train yourself to pay attention. You have to face realities you’d rather avoid. You have to become more aware of your feelings. You have to act when it would be easier to side-step.

On the other hand, it is a powerful way to live. It simplifies life greatly as you recognize that the present moment is all there is. The past, quite literally, does not exist. Likewise, the future. This is the only moment that is real. Be present. Step up. Make the best choices you possibly can and you’re on your way to creating a beautiful life. Of course, you then have to step up to the next moment. And the next. And the one after that. But as you train yourself to be present it becomes a habit, a way of life.

The truth is that the game of life is already going on. You have no choice about that. And, it includes a myriad of experiences from joy to sorrow.  Being conscious does not change the nature of life. However, it allows you to be in the driver’s seat and responsible for your experience and handle what comes up. To be present is to wake up to either enjoy the little splendors of life or face squarely and deal with its challenges head on. The good thing about it is that it is available to everyone (doesn’t matter how smart or beautiful) and it is a source of great personal energy and power.


About Roger K. Allen
Roger K. Allen, Ph.D. is an expert in personal transformation and family development. His tools and methods have helped tens of thousands of people live happier and more effective lives. To learn more, visit www.rogerkallen.com>.

6 responses to “Being Present”

  1. Seth Jenso says:

    Love it Roger!! Thank you!!

  2. David says:

    Thank you for the very powerful article Roger! It made me realize that I keep avoiding and putting things off because I know it will all be over eventually. Like you said, life is going on whether I participate or not. I might as well step up, be courageous, and face my challenges head on. Then and only then can I live by my rules and make my time here beautiful.

    • Roger Allen says:

      Thanks for your comment, David. You are exactly right. You might as well–little to lose and tons to gain. Roger

  3. Vince says:

    I heard someone who taught a tactile awareness class speaking of how we spend most of our lives in a “white” state – meaning, we are kind of drifting through everything subconsciously. They said that you are even while you are driving! It is not until something drastic happens that we “wake up.” But what a way to go through life.

    • Roger Allen says:

      Exactly, Vince. Most people are unconscious most of the time. If we’re going to live meaningful lives we have to, as you say, “wake up.”

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