The beginning of a new year is when many of us consider how we might improve ourselves and our lives. In search of a bit of inspiration, I listened to a talk by Buddhist meditation teacher Susan Piver on the topic of discipline. She offered a wonderful perspective on discipline which I might write about another time (better yet, listen for yourself here), but what struck me most was a point she made about how being present is required if one is to behave in a way that is “sane, upstanding, and decent”.
Personal Revelation #1: “Sane, upstanding, decent behavior” is a great goal!
It’s too easy to gloss over this one—to think “I’m not crazy, and pretty darn honest,” check the box and move on. However, an honest personal assessment reveals that I might occasionally react to situations in a way which is not exactly 100% “sane”. This includes, but is not limited to, jumping to conclusions and projecting my thoughts and emotions onto others. In other words, not getting the facts straight prior to reacting. For example, a loved one says something innocent that sounds an aaawwful lot like that thing he/she said that one time (or many times!) about __x__, that was so insensitive! Next thing I know, I’m dishing out some totally unwarranted hostility. We’ve all done this now and again, right? Yet when I imagine being a “better person” for the benefit of those around me, vague fantasies arise involving heroic interventions or emanating buddha-like peace and calm. Hmmm…maybe it’s better to start with the basics: making a day to day, moment to moment commitment to being sane. Really sane—meaning lucid, rational, and balanced. As we’ll see in a moment, the key to this is simply being present.
Revelation #2: Improving our ability to be present greatly benefits others, too!
There is a natural calm that arises when the mind is present, which feels good. By contrast, it feels crappy when the mind is distractedly darting to and fro, ruminating on a transgression (“how dare that driver cut me off!”), or worrying about the future (“what if I lose my job/spouse/home?”). Practicing being present is one way that yoga and meditation help us feel less stressed and happier. These effects also benefit others in that it is nice to be around happy people. However, the effects on others run much deeper than that: Piver’s lecture offered the idea that being present is the foundation of offering the best version of ourselves to others.
(Being present is) the willingness to be aware of yourself, others, the present moment no matter how difficult it might be, or how much you might want to retreat into self-interest.
Self-interest…yes, we need to make sure our own needs are met, but unless we are struggling with a dire situation, this generally does not need to take up a lot of mental real estate. How often do we really need to think of our problems/worries/et cetera at the expense of being aware of others and the present moment? What important things might we miss during those moments? We might miss noticing a child about to wander into traffic. We might not see that behind our loved one’s complaining is a desire to feel appreciated.
How can we be present more often?
Last week in classes I shared the first two sutras (“aphorism,” literally “thread”) from the ancient text The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The first sutra is:
It means “Now an exposition of yoga.” It was common practice to begin a text by announcing the topic. Nevertheless, some interpreters suggest that Patanjali is also implying that yoga has to do with grounding oneself in the “now”, or “being present”. Either way, the next sutra has that covered.
The second sutra defines yoga. It is:
Yogah cittavritti nirodhah
This means “yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind”. Through the practice of yoga (which includes meditation), we learn to quiet the mind. We train ourselves to quiet these “fluctuations” by turning our attention again and again back to the present moment. We use asanas (poses) and pranayama (breathwork) to practice keeping the mind focused on the present.
In the final pose of every class, a sweet resting pose called savasana (corpse pose), this is our one and only challenge: to let go of thoughts and keep turning our attention back to the present moment. As with any new habit, it becomes easier and more automatic with practice. Soon we start noticing when we “tune out” during times of stress or conflict or busyness. Simply noticing brings us back to the present. Then we have to choice to either try to maintain our focus, or indulge the whims of our distractable minds.
This takes effort. It goes against our natural desire to do what is easy and comfortable. Yet our ability to be of highest support and service is contingent on this one task.
The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
These words can as easily be applied to day-to-day interactions as to broader socio-political issues. It’s one thing to be present in yoga class, and quite another to be present during moments when someone is pushing your buttons. I like to think of myself as a sane, calm, loving person, but does it count if it is only during “moments of comfort and convenience”? Thankfully, the prescription is simple, even if it is challenging: Breathe. Come back to the present, even when it’s hard. Generously gift all your attention and faculties to who and what is in front of you right now.