Mindfulness and presence are hot buzzwords right now. Everyone from CEO’s to athletes to rock stars to school programs are touting the benefits, and there are many benefits. However, the way these ideas and tools have been interpreted within our current culture and era can sometimes be more limiting than helpful.
One of the main issues I see with the mindfulness movement is the way ‘getting present’ tends to be interpreted only as focusing on our own experience, or ‘going inward’. There are a couple of unintended and potentially negative side effect to this.
The first is that we can get too focused on our inner experience, at the expense of including the external world. Our inner experience is incredibly valuable and we are not separate from the external world—we need both.
To imagine ‘being present’ means only being present to our own experience, our thoughts, our feelings, and our inner world is a limited perspective.
This perspective, while important, can actually create more separation between ourselves and the world around us, as well as other people. Rather than being orienting, when we focus on the inner world exclusively, ‘presence’ practice can actually be disorienting – because, as humans, we orient in time and space.
The antidote practice for this is to widen your awareness.
To notice something in your internal experience, and also notice something in your external experience. Or to move between bringing your attention to yourself (physical sensations and emotions) and allowing your gaze to move around the space you are in and notice what else is around you. This teaches your nervous system that: Yes, your experience is important, but it is not the only experience available, nor is it the only perspective in each moment.
Watch the video for the full story about how widening my presence, from just my inner experience, to also include awareness of my surroundings got me through one of the most challenging times in a past relationship.
The second is that, when we focus inward, we are habituated towards looking for what’s not working: the self-judgment, shame, and pain – and we can get stuck there.
Most of us were brought up within a mainstream culture that taught us that showing the painful parts of ourselves (anger, sadness, shame, etc…) was bad and that we should hide these parts. There is now a big movement towards revealing our vulnerability, and this is, of course, a good thing – I even spent 15 years creating and pioneering work in the area of authentic relating! However, what I see happening now is a swing in the other direction – an over-identification with pain, shame, sadness & anxiety, and believing that if we are not sharing those parts of ourselves, then we aren’t being ‘authentic’. This is sometimes called ‘wound worship’, and I work with many people now, who are more comfortable connecting from a place of pain and are afraid of connecting in joy, pleasure, and happiness – even when it’s what’s true for them!
Because of this, when we talk about getting present, there is a tendency to over-identify with the painful parts of ourselves and our true wholeness – and magnificence – gets lost.
And there is a lot of new data coming out that shows that for people who have experienced trauma – which, let’s be honest, is most of us – this perspective can actually be damaging. The antidote practice to this is notice what is working, what is going well, what feels good, and to ask yourself ‘what else?’
In the video, I go into more detail about this practice, as well as share a personal story about how I used these practices while I was with my children, on a really hard day, after hearing that a long-time friend (my same age) had died quite suddenly. These practices allow us to not disconnect from our true feelings, while also not collapsing in on ourselves when we have deep and powerful feelings.
The world needs us to be self-aware, and the world needs us to be aware of more than just ourselves & our personal pain.