May 20th, 2014

Cultivate Presence

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The last 5 months have a been a whirl-wind. Since January 1, 2014 I’ve founded a corporation, attempted to launch a 500+ person workshop in the Bay Area, failed to publish a book, begun ballet and achieved triple pirouettes, spoken at Stanford University, UCSF, and Ignite SF, and more.

Today I’m going to look at something I’ve been exploring as a part of all of these projects, and probably the single biggest factor that keeps me sane. I have been cultivating presence. First, though, let’s look at this presentation which I gave to a group of professional runners.

So much of our day-to-day is spent in a state of judgement. As an example, just one time bend down and touch your toes. About 98% of the population has self-judgements about not being flexible enough. When I ask almost anyone to bend down and touch their toes, they immediately begin to judge themselves for not being flexible enough.

Every one of the runners I was working with in the video noticed differences after doing the second series of exercises. Why? Simple: they were much more present during the exercise. They were curious about what they were doing. Without former knowledge of the activity they didn’t have as many pre-held judgements. I gave the instructions slowly and carefully. And I gave very different instructions the second time. I had participants notice themselves and pay attention to their environment. We did a lot of variations. But most of all I didn’t put the runners in a situation that triggered all of those self-judgements they had about their flexibility. I had them put their hands on your knees and round and arch. This isn’t a series of movements that most people have ever trained, and it certainly isn’t one that most people have judgements around.

Being present is a seemingly simple concept with vast implications. People who practice being present have more (to quote Martin Seligman) self-reported well-being. Athletes who take presence to an extreme in flow states are exponentially more effective. I write better.

What Worked?

In the movement sequence above, here are some of the aspects I employed to help people notice a difference:

  • Slow down
  • Check in with yourself (or someone else)
  • Take breaks
  • Practice small bits in situations that aren’t already stressful

Why do these elements impact the runners’ flexibility? Simple. They are some of the simple building blocks that allow for increased presence. By slowing down the nervous system, reducing fear and stress, and allowing time for learning, change happens much more quickly. But what are specific ways that we can use being present in our daily lives?

Slow Down

Let’s take a specific scenario. You and a co-worker have a conflict of interest. You want to get a report out, and your colleague wants to wait and talk the situation through with a higher-up. It is easy to imagine the clash that results from this encounter. Cue: fight or flight. You want one thing, your colleague another: stalemate. In contrast, think about the physical stretching exercise. While the runners forcing themselves to reach towards their toes may result in more flexibility over time, it isn’t the fastest way to change. Instead, when they enjoyed the process, and tried subtle differences, it was much easier to get more mobile, more quickly. In doing the second series of rounding and arching movements, the runners dropped all of the judgements and self-criticisms and concerns. In short, they were present.

Check In

In the midst of an office conflict, it would probably be strange to take a moment to stretch, per se, but the principles are easy to transfer. Instead of engaging head on with the colleague, consider where they might be coming from. Just the simple act of wondering about their current state, brings us to be more present (and thus more compassionate) with their experience. Maybe the aggressive colleague is scared they will be blamed, or tired. Another option: instead of being present with the other person try being present with yourself. How are you feeling in this specific moment? Scared? Frustrated? Angry? The simple process of noticing how you are feeling and acknowledging it bring much greater mental flexibility into play. The brain is wired such that in times of stress there are less connections available. The act of checking in with yourself literally frees up more of your brain to solve the problem in front of you.

Take Breaks

During the movement exercise above I had the runners take breaks. Breaks are one of the most useful tools for expediting new ideas. And, as the video exemplifies, breaks don’t have to be long. In the office setting, it could be as simple as taking a sip of water to reset yourself and think more clearly through the conflict.

A final piece that can make a world of difference is small, daily practice.

Daily Practice

Here are a couple of habits that I’ve adopted in the last 5 months:

  • Gentle movement for 5-10 minutes upon waking
  • 5 minutes breathing meditation before sleep
  • Reading in the bath every night before bed
  • Writing 500 words every day
  • Dancing ballet 1.5 hours each day

I imagine myself at 13 saying something like “how boring” but this schedule (and it certainly requires scheduling!) gives me a sense of freedom that I have never felt before in my life. Freedom to accomplish thing, to get things done. Meditation is perhaps the most common aspect of my recently daily rituals. When I meditate, the process is merely the act of regularly bringing back my wandering attention to the simple act of breathing. Some days I have to bring myself back once or twice. Far more often I have to bring myself back 60 times. By practicing outside of a stressful situation the little steps towards remaining present, I have been much better able to focus on being present in stressful situations.

So here’s my advice. Practice being present, in some small way, today.


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