What Difference Can Being Present Make?

An old friend who is in town recently shared with me, “I look back on life and can’t believe the amount of time and energy I’ve put into events that never even happened.” His observation, which I think more of us identify with than we’d care to admit, was testament to the massive power of self-talk and the endless tributaries it sweeps us down. “What about this?” “How would that work?” “What if x, y or z happen?” The infamous tides of when, where, how, and if drag us through the currents of hypothetical conversations, speculative planning, strategizing retorts and other means of conjectured insanity – most of which lead to total dead ends, blatant non-occurrences. Over time, many of us realize, as my friend did, that we’ve spent enormous amounts of effort and anguish living for these non-starters. Likewise, it may be the external obsessions as much as the emotional rabbit holes that snatch us away – the lure of gadgets and overworking among many others. In a culture where the mundane is viewed as undesirable, we’re convinced we need all manner of distractions just to tolerate much of everyday life, and so we absorb and increasingly apply the practice of checking out. Whatever the source of our diversion, what are the real implications of this mental absence? On the flip side, what’s possible when we can operate more fully in the moment?

Distraction of various sorts can be a self-sabotaging undercurrent for all of our endeavors. In fact, it’s entirely possible to live an entire life that almost continuously hovers in some parallel plane, directed by the same old narratives, typical roles and emotional agenda regardless of what’s in front of our faces. We take up residence in this plane when we decide what’s in our heads is more real than what’s happening in the moment. The more distraction we identify with, the more we come to inhabit the deliberately imposed or internally playing static – and the less we take in of the actual events, people and settings around us. There’s the real tragedy, I think, (and the rather obvious evolutionary cautionary tale). We can lament the effort wasted on our inner shadow boxing or useless habits, but the sadder part is what we’ve missed as a result – all that’s been and gone while we were wrestling with the conditional and trivial.

To imagine an opposite scenario, I’ve heard it said that being present for all the tasks of our lives allows us to make a meditation of everything. Folding laundry can simply be folding laundry. (Wow – there’s a concept.) Apply the idea to the broader, (arguably) more significant dimensions of life and well-being, and we’re looking at some interesting possibilities. What can being more present in your workouts offer? What are the results of being fully in the moment while eating? What about being more present for your sleep routine (a seeming contradiction, I know)? What can “being there” mean for personal relationships?

Is Your Exercise About Engagement?

In extreme endeavors, such as serious surfing or competitive sports, presence is obviously crucial. It’s part of the discipline, in fact. When we have our “heads in the game” we’re really moving with the flow, that time bending force of pure, enjoyable focus. How many of us get this on a regular basis? How often are we one of the grim, sweaty faces slogging it out on a piece of gym equipment? I fully get that some days it’s enough to just get the job done, but how often do we honestly end up bringing this mindset to our physical activity? There’s a difference between “working out” to put in your time and participating with full mental engagement. (Which would you rather do and keep up over a lifetime?) If we have to put ourselves in zone out mode to fulfill our workout goals, are we shortchanging ourselves?

Endurance athletes who obviously do the same activity for extended periods collect their mental tricks – homing in on the aspects of their environments, gauging progress by the details of the route, etc. Yet, it’s not an out of body experience either. There’s even a new area of exercise science research that affirms the importance of mindfulness and acceptance (PDF), suggesting the practices can take us farther (literally and figuratively) than denial and distraction. Being fully conscious of the body’s sensations (however unpleasant) and emotionally assimilating the stress, burn or even pain can boost resilience and performance. Even if we’re not operating in the athletic arena but just trying to build personal Grok-worthy fitness, what can we do to get into the “heart” of our activity and fully back in our bodies. Trust me, replaying the day’s stress to get your mind off your exertion won’t get you far. The same goes for using anger as fuel. Instead of using a workout to “process,” we’re better off being with the immediate process (activity) itself. Reaching for music, I think, can be a unique exception and is often less a true distraction than an added layer or additional energy source playing parallel to the rhythm of physical motion.

Present Eating: Take a Seat.

Eating is unfortunately one of the most mindless things we do in our culture. Mindless snacking fodder inhabits whole rows of grocery stores. We’re often expected (or believe we’re expected) to scarf down lunch at our desks. We eat while we’re driving, while we’re watching T.V., while we’re holding meetings, while we’re doing laundry, loading the dishwasher. None of these scenarios hold much comparison to the simple or celebratory social practices that traditional peoples are known to apply to eating.

The discrepancy suggests an issue with time and attention as well as our relationship with food itself. Yes, it’s ultimately fuel to burn, and not every day can be a Norman Rockwell moment. That said, how we think about food impacts how our bodies processes it. How we enjoy it influences the satiety we experience. How healthy can our relationship to food be when the majority of eating happens while we have our nose in a phone or our mind on making the next exit? (No wonder we make the eating choices we do.) There’s something to stopping the car and sitting at the park to enjoy your lunch even if it’s just a hard-boiled egg and some cut vegetables. Go off automaton mode long enough to look at that tea you’re drinking. Ask yourself if the tiff with your spouse earlier in the day is at work in how much or what you reach for throughout the day. When you slow down and differentiate hunger from emotion, you can better appreciate the food you eat. Yet, it’s also about valuing yourself and the act of your own nourishment.

Being There – for Yourself and Others

Experts frequently bemoan the lack of communication and emotional skills in the younger, tech-dependent generation. Yet, how many of us would recognize our own behavior let alone feel good about it if we were flies on our own walls? How much do we let external distractions and personal moods influence our exchanges (or lack thereof) with those we love? Do our partners or children give up trying to get our attention as we respond to one more work email? Do we really hear what a friend is trying to tell us about her day as we decide a phone conversation is the perfect time to multitask as many household chores as we can? Do we stay in touch with what our physical bodies and emotional intuitions need from us at a given moment, or are we too hell-bent on powering through our days that we end up suffering the effects of chronic stress? Do we approach bedtime with a similar “zone out” mentality of consuming entertainment until our brains give out?

Being more present and fully accounted for to ourselves and others lends a different rhythm to life – one much more natural to the human operating system. My experience is that it unexpectedly slows down time. Less gets lost in the shuffle. There’s an intricate link between mindfulness and compassion for good reason. In fact, it can be rather shocking what we attune ourselves to and wonder how we got along without it – how our kids or other loved ones could’ve gotten along without it. We get to re-familiarize ourselves with the softness of our toddler’s hair, the contours of our partners face, the subtle hints our teenager drops about his/her interests and life questions these days as well as the shifts in ourselves – our own needs and evolving interests. (Ever feel the need to just catch up with yourself?) In being present, we stop simply responding. We turn off the auto-pilot. Instead, we open up space for interaction and observation that too often gets closed down in the thick of modern hubbub and mental chatter. It’s the space where intuition operates and intimacy flourishes – two of the most essential human instincts. Being present, in fact, puts us squarely in the immediate moment but accesses something of ourselves that’s evolutionarily fundamental. When we think about living with ancestral wisdom, being with the immediate moment taps us into one our most powerful Primal patterns.

Thanks for reading today, everyone. What does being present mean for your Primal journey? When/where have you noticed it working most in your life? Have a great end to the week.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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55 thoughts on “What Difference Can Being Present Make?”

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  1. It’s an ongoing struggle for me to be present in daily life and appreciate the now. Being out in nature helps, if only for my early morning runs. Since being paleo/primal my eating consciousness has definitely improved and I always sit down and slow down when I eat, although I’m not always really present especially when eating with my kids and focusing more on how they’re eating/behaving. I also agree that it’s necessary to slow down in order to give to and be there for the people in our lives.

  2. I couldn’t agree with this article more. Being present seems like something that will become extinct if we keep living our lives the way that we are now. Being present is the best gift we can give to ourselves and the people around us.

    1. So many of us are only present when there’s an electronic communication device in front of us, and then, we’re only “present” online.

      I have neighbors who had a baby, then got smart phones, then pretty much threw their cats outside to fend for themselves. Now I see the mother trying to push a stroller around the block with one hand, while the other hand tries to type on Twitter–this tells me she’s not paying attention to her kid
      or where she’s walking.

      Hubby and I joke that she needs turn-by-turn directions just for going around the block. I swear that phone is always up to her face!

      As for the cats, we’ve taken in one of them, and another neighbor has taken in the other. I fear if there’s another baby in the future for this family, that Baby #1 may be thrown out to fend for itself as well.

      I am seeing iPhone 6 is now being released…batten down the hatches and get CPS on speed dial.

      1. I’ve walked out on friends who take cell phone calls while we’re out eating or for coffee. I find it very rude. Take a stand people. Don’t let inattention take over our lives.

  3. #2 is a great reminder- I know I’m guilty of eating on the run, standing up, at my desk, etc. Exercise is my way of finding the moment, and being in said moment.

  4. To be honest I think 95% of the time we are looking for mindlessness. I seem to remember some study that said people would rather inflict pain on themselves than be alone with their thoughts. I think this may fall into the same category most of the time. It sounds good but that’s why Netflix does so well!

    1. That study! They asked grown adults to do one of two things: simply sit and think, or press a button that would give them a shock. I’m fairly certain most of them couldn’t go more than 5 minutes before they pressed the button–they were bored or antsy or whatever. It’s kind of crazy that we don’t have the ability to just sit and be with our own thoughts…

  5. I am a newly-proclaimed minimalist and am finding ways to declutter my life of the unnecessary so that I can focus on what adds value (relationships, health, my passions, etc.) This really jives with that I’ve been learning so far. Thank you so much for your insight.

  6. Instead of passing acquaintances with a wave and a hello I’m going to try and stop and ask, ‘How are you?’ (and listen to the reply!)

    1. Honestly, I don’t like people asking me how I am because I know they don’t really want to know. I either say fine or don’t answer or possible something bizarre and they never notice.

      I don’t remember, growing up, that people always asked how I am as a greeting. I don’t know if it is a local custom or how wide spread it is but everyone always asks how I am as a greeting. Even at the doctors which seems really odd to me since the nurse or assistant really isn’t asking how I am in a health inquiry sort of way. I really don’t know why this annoys me so much. I should just let it go.

      I would be interested to know how your new greeting works out. I’m sure there are some people you’ll regret asking how they are….

      1. I used to work for doctors and we were trained not to ask “how are you?” We would always say “It’s good to see you.” I do that all the time now instead of ‘how are you’ no matter where I am.

        1. Yes, there are always some you regret asking but my thoughts were that I have a habit of waving to friends as I rush on to the next thing and my days are not so full that I can’t stop and interact a bit more.
          So far it’s going well – a cup of tea I wasn’t expecting and a good chat.

        2. That makes so much more sense. My husband, an Optometrist, says…How are you seeing today? as his first greeting to a patient.

      2. When I immigrated to the U.S. 20 years ago I was surprised by the amount of people that would pass me during a day and say ” Hi, how yer doin? ”
        I’d stop and start to tell them when I notice that they ALL just kept walking after asking me how I am. I thought it was quite rude and I was more than just confused.

        Americans don’t put much meaning into what they say. A lot of sentences are random, predictable and just words that fill a present void that are meaningless to everyone but the one flapping lip.

        Where I’m from people simply wish a “Good Day” to those who pass them by. No more, no less, just a Good Day.
        If someone asks ” How are you doing?” it so happens that they really want to know!

        Hard to believe in America.

    2. It has been obvious to me for some time now that people don’t listen when passing by. I tend to say “Howdy!” as a greeting and people answer back with “good” or “fine”. It’s because they hear the “how” and immediately assume I’m asking “how are you?” or “how’s it going?” BUT I’M NOT! Take time to listen, people! Be in the moment. (Not that I don’t want to know how they are doing, it’s just now what I said/asked)

      You can learn something from every single person you meet…if you just take the time to listen.

      1. I could have done with my friend being more present yesterday. I was picking blackberries in the lane when she drove by. She blew the horn and waved, I turned to wave back and fell over in the ditch! She was long gone!!

  7. I know about chronic worry. I lost a brother to suicide who couldn’t stop worrying about everything. It was only after his death that I discovered the link between gut health and brain/mind health. Now I feel it probable that his situation was physical. Dr Ayers (cooling inflammation blog), who synchs tightly with this site, was the major catalyst for my investigations into mental health and gut health.

    Consider the possibility that your mental health issues, even little stuff like excessive ruminating, a little too much anger or just feeling blue all the time, or being excessively “multi-tasking” or for that matter being excessively fitness obsessed, are directly connected to gut health.

    Don’t “try” to be “mindful”. It is my experience that if you get the gut healthy, mindfulness will happen to you.

  8. This reminds me of the book: The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle. Picked it up on a whim as a bedtime reader, and it’s actually very good.

    1. Erok,

      Eckhart Tolle changed my life. I have been following his teachings for some time now, and nothing written in this post was new to me. I actually preferred one of his other books called A New Earth. It took me a long time to change my perceptions and ways of seeing myself in this world, but slowly and surely, a change began to take place for the better. actually, it is very much like what happens to a lot of people on the primal diet. Michael Singer is another great thought leader.
      Surrendering to what is, and never saying no to the present moment will take you a long way toward a peace of mind beyond imagination.

    2. I’ve been Buddhist for the past 34 years. It wasn’t until I read “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle that all my suspicions about Buddhism were confirmed. I’d read the words of Buddha and realized that all the sects were creating little religious niches that worshipped their particular forms, including certain rituals and ways of dressing. I’d always wondered why I can’t be present all the time. Soto Zen said I could only be that after so many hours of sitting and only during the rituals. Eckhart cleared it all up when he said that most Buddhist traditions said enlightenment wasn’t for us in this lifetime, when in fact the only time to be present is the present. Finally it all made sense. I cannot recommend this book enough. It literally opened my eyes and took away my monkey brain. Oh, and I love MDA. I’ve managed to go off my blood pressure meds. My only problem now is I’m exhausted most of the day. I need to fast then add foods one at a time to see which is the culprit.

  9. Great post! Eckhart Tolle talks about living in the present moment and not dwelling on the fictitious future, “an idea in the head” and focusing your attention on the “here and now.” Both of his books are great, The Power of Now and The New Earth.

  10. Nice to strike a balance with what’s in our head. I agree that excessive concern over things that are not going to happen (being hit by a flying pig) is a waste. However, I work in a field where things can happen quick and unexpectedly so we take classes to prepare our mind to act on those types of things. Many people are stuck like a deer in headlights and do not act, simply going on the assumption that this can’t be happening to me, it’s just too absurd. Those types of things require a bit of thought – a person with a gun (yes, that has happened where I work) tries to take over, what are your exit possibilities, doors that can close and lock, getting people out of the room or to safety, speaking with the out of control person or refusing to, etc. However, too much concern can stress you out. A good balance in dealing with the situation and then moving on.

  11. Of course we cannot actually be anywhere but in the present moment. If you try to be in it, you will fail, yet not fail.

    : )

    1. What about day dreaming? Or having your body absorbed by the roots of a Heart Tree while possessing warg abilities? Or other any other forms of transcendence…

  12. This begs the question…what does it mean to be present? How does one become present? It’s something I’ve always struggled with, especially since I exhibit some OCD tendencies. Anyone else in the same boat?

    1. I think being present means being consciously conscious. Meditation is a powerful tool.

    2. In a nutshell, it means focusing your attention on what you are doing. It’s simple, but “simple” doesn’t mean “easy.”

      So if you are listening to a friend talk, you are listening – not thinking about the anecdote you are going to tell next, or sorting out your grocery list in your head, or trying to remember if you sent off that important email to the right person, or…..any of a few thousand thoughts that can pop up randomly. I can usually manage it only for about 30 seconds at a time if I concentrate. Monkey-mind is a chatterbox!

      1. I love that explanation. Thank you. Simple and concise. I am only focusing my attention on your response 🙂

  13. A great post and wake up call on how it is so very easy to get caught up in the whirlyness of life. Get up, read email, check news, drink tea/coffee, shower,dress, eat breakfast at breakneck speed, jump in the car and go to work. Only to find the same story happening there, then repeated when you get home.

    I am facing a hip replacement next week with a longish recuperation, I see this as a fantastic gift to get off that conveyor belt set at full speed and spend time just being!

  14. I feel SO much better when I put the technology away for awhile and just be in the moment; visit your favorite social-media sites for a few minutes, but don’t feel like you have to linger and return there all day long!

  15. I am having a big issue with this right now. I am so distracted, I can not seem to finish a book or an article anymore – or when I do, I don’t remember it enough to tell a friend about it! I’ve watched movies and then forgotten that I watched them until I get that sense of deja vu half way through… I just cannot seem get myself to focus on anything! It is a real problem at work for obvious reasons. I sometimes have to put my headphones on at work – not so much to listen to the music, but to block out the distraction of other people talking. I’ve developed ADD as I age it seems! After reading the comment above about the gut-mind connection, I am very interested. I think I’ll embark on a Whole 30 and see if it helps. I have been eating not-so-well lately and I am very off track, primally speaking, I wonder if that’s it.

    1. KeriVery – I have this problem too and have also wondering if I’ve developed an attention deficit as an adult because of all the fun stuff available on the internet. I work from home so unless there’s a pressing deadline I constantly struggle with “finish this powerpoint” and “but I haven’t seen THIS cat video, look at that!” I use the Pomodoro technique, which helps make concentrating into more of a game, but even then it is difficult. And I second Andrew’s comment on the Headspace site! It’s practical, straightforward and helpful. I’m trying to train my brain to focus and be more present.

  16. I recall once being totally “in the moment” when crossing the Bitterroot River on the back of a horse in western Montana. It was the first spring day when the winter snowmelt runoff was low enough to safely traverse the river, but still high enough that it came more than halfway up my thighs on a horse that is over 16 hands high.

    Our guide was very specific to fix the eyes on the one point of the riverbank on the other side where we planned to come out of the river, to NOT look down into the water no matter what, and to have full trust in the horse. I had enough riding experience, but I was not prepared for the sensation that was caused by the river flowing by the lower part of my peripheral vision. I stayed fixed on the exit spot, but the river flowing what seemed to be right under my nose made my mind bonk. For a few seconds, all that existed for me was the river, the horse, and the river bank on the other side. I’ve never experienced such an intense feeling of being aware of only “right now” and nothing has even come close since then.

    It was my Norman Maclean moment when everything merged into one and a river ran through it. I want to go back and do it again some day ….

  17. Lovely post, thank you! This is one to bookmark and re-read several times.

  18. I take annual trip to Canada for a softball tournament, and I think one of the reasons our team has become so close (and why we have such a great time) is that no one uses their phones. They either simply don’t work or the users don’t want to rack up international roaming charges. So, when we’re doing non-softball things like hanging out at the beer garden or having dinner together, no one has their face buried in screen. It’s probably one of my favorite things about going–feeling completely unconnected from the outside world, and enjoying the moment with friends who have become family.

  19. I needed to hear this. I’ve become a total ADD case over the years, and I need to be more present when I do things. I’m always distracted by the Internet, always distracted by the smartphone, and never able to concentrate on anything for more than a few seconds.

    Any strategies for exactly how to improve one’s concentration? I know I didn’t used to be like this, and it scares me.

    1. First of all, everyone in the developed world should read Thoreau’s Walden.

  20. Do we really think think that Thoreau had a still and present mind? I do believe he was fully present in each moment, but never truly still…He had not much else to do with that busy mind, after securing food and fire. I have an old big book containing 3 of his works, “Walden”,” Cape Cod ” and “A Walk in the Woods”, I think its called. I tend to revisit it in the fall, for some reason…Maybe because I live in MA and can relate to the locales? It does help to remind me to be more mindful of my surroundings.

  21. A nice post. I’ve recently started a mindfulness/meditation practice at http://www.headspace.com. I have no affiliation with the site, and want to stress that, except for the initial 10 sessions, there are fees involved. However, for anyone looking to have some guidance in a daily meditation practice, I do highly recommend it. After 30+ days of daily practice, I’m strongly feeling the effects throughout my day, and they are very positive.

  22. Mindless eating…. I am always baffled by those who sit in a restaurant, coffee shop, or a parks bench with their meal before them and their fork hanging in mid air, while their ear is glued to their cell phone. I made it a habit to switch my iPhone to “do not disturb” mode (different then silent) and lay it face down, whenever I’m dining. This way, I won’t be tempted to glance at it, nor be disturbed by the sound of it vibrating. Like wise when I go to bed.

    Or the ultimate solution – switch to fly mode (-;

  23. As healthy as it is for the mind, slaves live in the moment, their masters do not.

  24. ‘Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.’

    Beautiful Boy – John Lennon

  25. This is the best article I’ve read on this site. It gets to the very heart of why we decide to become primal; to live a natural (and better) life. It’s not always about what needs to happen on the outside. The inside, the person YOU need to live with for the rest of your life, needs to be both on board at all times, otherwise, you’re only doing it for the person in the mirror.
    Thank you Mark!

  26. I think being present is an acquired mindset, a skill. It requires a lot of practice and effort to reach a point where you are naturally in the moment without having to consciously think about it. It’s much the same as practicing muscle memory in a sport such that you get to a point where what you can do is automatic and without much conscious thought.

    Meditation certainly helps in this. It’s the art of practicing mindfulness. Since I started a residency, I’ve taken to meditating daily (I actually schedule it on my daily to-do list) and it really has made a difference.

  27. This concept of mindfulNess is so important. At our school we teach children not to eat while doing other things especially any screen time.
    And we teach parents to be present while listening to their children.. the other time we find ourselves completely disengaged is while driving. I wonder how many people would be alive today if we all were present while at the wheel? Thanks for the excellent post.

  28. I have been away from screens and phones for a few days. When this post came out I was 40 miles out in the Sea of Cortez surrounded by a huge pod of spinner dolphins. We were both chasing our next meal rich in omega 3. These magnificent creatures are highly social and spend their time hunting and playing. That’s it! They have no possessions, no bills to pay, no ex wife and no saving for collage. I was experiencing their present. Being alone with nature is the best cure for the human soul.

  29. Mark, thank you so much for this post. It is nice to know that I’m not alone in my struggle to be present. Thank you!!