The Power of Being Present

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Stones that reflect the power of being present

I’ve recently been writing about “becoming,” one of the three core principles of living a joyful life. I define becoming as growing into a more mature human being, someone able to bring your best self to the situations and challenges of life. Although there are many ways you can grow yourself spiritually and emotionally, today I want to talk about the power of being present.

Definition of Being Present

Being present is a state of “wakefulness” in which you are aware in this 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 reacting 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. While talking with your spouse, you let go of distractions to really see him or her and hear what he or she is saying. Attending a staff meeting, you engage in the conversation rather than continually checking for new email on your smart phone. Doing the dishes, you are awake to the sensations of the water, the feel of a plate in your hands, the motion of washing and rinsing. As you do something as routine as brushing your teeth, you are paying attention to the sensations and motions of brushing rather than letting your mind wander to your plan and schedule for the day.

But What About Unpleasant Tasks?

Of course, sometimes you may fail to be present because a task seems unpleasant. Going to a different place in your head seems like a way to avoid a disagreeable experience. But, as Thich Nhat Hanh writes in his book At Home in the World, “To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you aren’t doing them…If I am incapable of washing the dishes joyfully, if I want to finish them so I can go and have dessert or a cup of tea, I will be equally incapable of enjoying my dessert or tea when I finally have them…Each thought, each action in the sunlight of awareness becomes sacred.”

Benefits of Being Present

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 o distracted. 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.

Although bringing awareness to the present moment is an ancient practice, it has been well-researched since the 1970s and is used as a form of psychological treatment. The practice is being used, with positive outcomes, in the treatment of pain, anxiety, depression, addictions, eating disorders, etc.

Research on the Power of Being Present

Let me mention one study that speaks to its power. A Harvard researcher by the name of Matt Killingsworth created an app to answer the question, “What makes us happy.” The results are eye-opening. According to his study, we are happiest when mindful of the moment and least happy when the mind is wandering.

His study took a large sampling of 15,000 individuals from different levels of education, age, occupation, income, marital status and across 80 countries. His premise was simple: throughout the day, at random times, participants were contacted through their phones and asked to rate their current happiness level, what activity they were involved in, and whether or not their mind was wandering from the activity.

As it turned out, what made people happy had far less to do with what they were doing and significantly more to do with whether their attention was fully present in the moment. People who focused on their present moment experience were significantly happier than people whose minds wandered away from the moment.

Happy Thoughts vs. Staying Present

Wouldn’t you think that people who let their minds wander to happy thoughts would have been happy?  And it is true that people whose minds wandered to happy thoughts were slightly better off than those whose minds wandered to worries or regrets. But people letting their minds wander to pleasant things were still not as happy as people who kept their minds in the moment. Incredibly, even if the activity at hand was deemed unpleasant, people were still happier when they engaged their attention fully in the here and now.

According to Killingsworth, the average person’s mind wanders around 47% of their day—and when the mind wanders, we don’t feel happy. Spending so much time with the mind wandering makes us vulnerable to depression, stress, anxiety and other negative emotions.

This study by Killingsworth supports the growing body of research on the powerful effects of being present. The data shows us what wisdom traditions have long taught – that the keys to happiness – to true well-being and fulfilment – depend not on the external circumstances of our lives, but on the state of our minds and the quality of our consciousness.

How to Become More Present

So how do we train ourselves to become more present? It’s hard to think about in our busy schedules. So, I like to schedule it into my day. I set the alarm on my smart phone to go off every 25 minutes. At the sound of the alarm, I take stock of myself for two to five minutes. I start by paying attention to my senses—what do I see, hear, smell, touch? Then I focus on my breathing for a few breath cycles. Then I look inside—what are my inner sensations? Feelings? Thoughts? Then I go back to whatever I was doing.

The value of this pause is to take me off automatic and keep me connected to my inner being, the source of satisfaction and fulfillment. It also keeps me refreshed and able to work for longer hours. It helps me become more emotionally aware and intelligent. Furthermore, being present alerts me to stresses and negative thoughts and feelings that can inhibit my effectiveness and, thereby, gives me options about how to manage them.

Now I have to admit that I can do this because I’m working from home and usually on big projects. You may not be able to do it on the same schedule as me but you could still modify the practice. Take two minutes following a meeting or as you get off the phone or at other intervals during the day. It is powerful.

People Don’t Want to Feel

Some people have a hard time doing this because they don’t want to feel—their boredom, loneliness, or agitation or any type of emotional discomfort or pain. But avoiding these feelings does not make them go away. You’ve heard that what you resist persists. By avoiding, you become more alienated from your inner self, leading you to being more reactive and away from feeling happiness and joy.

Just Notice

The idea, during a pause, isn’t to fix your emotions. You just notice what is going on inside and by so doing reconnect with your inner self in a way that can allow you to enjoy the moment or even have a moment of emotional healing. If something painful comes up you actually lean into the pain. In other words, you don’t resist it but allow yourself to experience it fully with compassion and nonjudgment. By noticing the pain and even staying with the pain for a few minutes, you allow it to flow through you. It will, after a time, begin to dissipate or diminish in intensity.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Being present is not natural. If you are like most people, your mind likes to “split” away from the present moment and go off on all kinds of side trips. So every time you notice, you simply bring it back to this moment. Then you do this again and again and again (to the 10th power).

Learning to be present in the moment is not about perfection or even mastery. (Kind of like when I practice meditation. My minder wanders and then I bring it back to my breathing.) But you will get better. And as you get better, you’ll notice more joy and contentment sneaking into your life.

And please share your thoughts and experiences with the power of being present in the comment section below. We can all learn something from each other.


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 “The Power of Being Present”

  1. TODD says:

    Surrender the how and when the answer will come to you. Become aware of any feelings that arise as you surrender and magnify those feelings of love, peace, and joy.

  2. Steve Hitz says:

    Wonderful insights. I wonder if we can be present while at the same time our mind is “prepared” to receive what is before us? I’m thinking of listening to good music, having a prayer in our heart always, knowing our dependence upon our higher power—in other words, preparing a foundation to be present and asking those outside influences to become a part of our “now” or present experience.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Steve. I agree that our here and now experience has many sources of influence, including spiritual sources. I think I’m most deeply in tune with those influences as I quiet the noise around me by being present (seeing and hearing more deeply).

  3. Ed Engel says:

    I also feel a calming influence and a better sense of happiness and contentment by letting go of current concerns for a portion of each day and really listening to certain kinds of music – being present in the music. I was in high school in the 70’s, so 70’s love music most often works for me. Just today I rediscovered “Let’s just kiss and say goodbye” by the Manhattans, “Feels so right” by Alabama, “Have you seen her” by the Chi-Lites, and others.
    Great article and advice again Roger!

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