What does it mean to be fully present?

There’s a line, in one of James Joyce’s books, in Dubliners, and he speaks about a character called Mr Duffy, and he says, “Mr Duffy lived a few feet from his body,” which is a lovely, succinct description of how many of us live, much of the time, when we are on automatic. We don’t tend to inhabit our bodies. Of course, we are inhabiting our bodies; we carry them around all the time and they are us. But the way that we are trained and the way that we are evolved, is for our attention to move up into thinking. Much of our education system is based on this; learn to be a thinker.

When I went to university, I remember clearly, my director of studies told us that the process we were about to undergo was going to turn us into intellectuals and, in some sense, I’ve been trying to undo that process, ever since. That’s not to say that intellect is problematic, but it does become problematic when it’s automatic. Because, actually, that’s not real intelligence; that’s just following the dictates of our mind, as they have been trained and we’re not fully present when that is happening. We’re living more like robots, if we’re just following the tyranny of our thoughts, as I’ve heard the phrase used. We’re just going with whatever our thoughts tell us, which may not actually be the truth of things.

It may be part of the truth of things, but there’s a whole other dimension to our lived experience, which happens not up here, but down here, in our bodies. Those are the realms of body sensation, actually feeling of what’s going on, moment by moment. It’s the realm of emotion and, as it turns out, and this is now understood more clearly, I believe, at least in some fields that, actually, what happens in our bodies, really affects what’s going on up here (in our minds).

So if we can become present, not just to whats going on in our minds (and actually really be present to what is going on in our minds, rather than being completely identified with what is going on in our minds. To actually be aware of our thoughts instead of just in our thinking)
And if we can be present to this domain of being, if I may call it that, this domain of embodied experience, then we’ve got more of the picture. There’s also environment, of course, what’s going on around us, which also affects what’s happening within us.

If we could be present to the sense of things. There’s this beautiful phrase, coming to our senses, meaning to become wise, to get real. That’s a lovely phrase, in itself, to get real. To really be in what’s true, in this moment. If we’re just up in our heads, if we are identified with the train of thought that is happening in our heads, all the time and if you actually stopped to watch your thoughts, which is something that happens in mindfulness practice, you start to see that a lot of what’s going on up there, is perhaps not that helpful. Maybe there are trains of self-criticism, trains of blame, trains of thinking about things that aren’t actually happening at the moment; things that might happen in the future, perhaps threats that we might be imagining that aren’t here yet. Things that have happened in the past, memories, that are also not happening at the moment. We get drawn, in our thoughts, into the future and the past, very easily.

If we can be present to our senses and our senses are experienced in our bodies and, also, the wonderful thing about being in our senses is that it brings us to reality, because we experience much of our reality through the senses. We can’t have tomorrow’s body; we can’t feel tomorrow. You can’t smell tomorrow and you can’t taste tomorrow. If we’re in our senses, we are, by definition, here and now. By coming into our bodies and directing our attention into our bodies, it’s a way of experiencing what’s really here and now, with a fuller presence. Actually, as it happens, by being in our bodies, it gives us a standpoint from which to view what’s going on in our thoughts.

By coming down into our bodies and, if you like, having an anchor in our body, we also get a better view of what’s happening up in the mind. It enables a more skillful understanding and appreciation of the fulness of our experience, if we can practice this. The great news is that you can practice it. It’s a skill that can be trained and it’s a skill that we have, within us, to be trained, a bit like language. We have the capacity, as humans, for language acquisition and, so too, we have the capacity for mindfulness, for self-awareness, or just awareness, maybe it would be best to say, because this includes the environment, as well.

By becoming fully present in this way, by training ourselves to be more present, by returning to the fulness of our senses, then we’ve got the possibility of meeting experience more fully, more skillfully and, perhaps, more wisely.

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