Dr. Jon Caldwell
Over a decade ago, in the early stages of my own process of awakening, a colleague intuitively noticed that I was having a particularly difficult day and suggested that I “try to stay in the present moment”. My mind was reeling, my emotions were on overdrive, and I’m sure I was focused on some temporary, self-destructive fix. He caught my frantic, darting eyes with his and gently implored, “Just try to be right here, in this moment, just as it is… being present for our own experience can be pretty cool.”
Needless to say, I really didn’t understand what he was talking about. I had heard about “transpersonal meditation” and “being in the now”. But these phrases typically brought to mind images of bald guys in flowing robes chanting “Ooooommmm” in a remote hill-top monastery. These notions, naïve as they were, seemed to be completely at odds with my hectic, restless, and discontented existence at the time. I remember thinking, “Who has time for the present moment?!”
As I progressed in my self-reclamation journey, I began to recognize that my incessant running from the-here-and-now was associated with tremendous suffering. The constant busyness and perpetual mind-motion was probably meant to fill some void within myself. Yet, despite my frenetic void-filling behaviors, I still felt a lot of emptiness inside. Eventually, the pain of my situation was enough that I decided to try something different; I got curious about what I was running from and what it would be like to stay with my own experience.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this simple inquiry – “what is really here and can I be with it” – has been at the heart of various contemplative traditions for thousands of years. Within the traditions of Buddhism, a style of meditation practice known as vipassana involves training the mind to have greater awareness or insight of bodily sensations, thoughts, and emotions. Today, this type of practice is generally known as mindfulness and can be defined as “bringing attention to the present moment without judgment.” In recent decades, numerous scientific studies have shown that mindfulness techniques can improve relationships, health, and general wellbeing.
Mindfulness can be practiced in formal sitting meditation where the mind is trained to observe or notice what is happening in relation to the brain and body. Mindfulness can also be practiced in everyday activities by applying non-conceptual awareness to the raw experience of life: the sensation of water on the body while bathing, the ebb-and-flow of mental activity while stuck in traffic, or the actual embodied feeling of grief when hearing a particular story on the radio. The daily practice of mindfulness enables a person to become a witness to their own experience.
Becoming an observer or a witness of present-moment experience can foster a profound shift in perspective and consciousness! When we can learn to take even a small step back from our experience, and observe it with less judgment, we can gain valuable insight into how the mind and body are connected. We can begin to see what sort of situations trigger us into self-defeating thoughts and emotions. We recognize that we don’t have to completely believe our thoughts and that our emotional landscape is constantly changing. As we become more adept at observing our moment-to-moment experience, our human tendencies for mindless reactivity can gradually give way to wise responding.
Sounds great, right? But how do we start to circumvent our strong conditioning to leave the present moment – usually by avoiding what seems uncomfortable or clinging to what seems pleasurable? This is certainly our natural human tendency, but it isn’t necessarily our destiny. Greater awareness and presence is possible! Our brain is a thought-secreting organ… over eons of evolutionary time it has learned to plan, scheme, ruminate, control, avoid, repress, and deny. However, our brains also have the profound capacity for neural plasticity. That is, humans have the unique capacity to use their minds to literally shape the structure and function of their brains.
Interestingly, the brain-sculpting capacity of the human mind relies heavily on the body. That’s right, the body is the quintessential guide to greater mental awareness and progressive neural plasticity. Strengthening the connections between the brain and body is a powerful way to bring our awareness into the present moment and experience relief from self-limiting patterns of thinking and feeling. Gently bringing our attention to various sensations in the body – literally coming to our senses – awakens us from habitual patterns of reactivity into the rich and dynamic experience of the here-and-now.
At this point, you may be feeling a bit lost… like I felt when my colleague encouraged me to, “stay in the present moment”. Let’s talk practicalities: how do we come home to our own experience? Well, I think it has to start with a sincere intention to welcome the life that is here, just as it is, with as much acceptance and compassion as possible. For example, we might start each day with the words of Rainer Maria Rilke, “I want to unfold. Let no place in me hold itself closed, for where I am closed, I am false.” Carrying in our hearts a commitment to unfold, to truly open to all aspects of our experience, can flavor each moment and each interaction in a way that fosters greater mindfulness.
With our sincere intention in heart, we can then establish and sustain a regular practice of present-moment awareness. This practice might take the form of sitting meditation, yoga or Tai Chi, contact with nature or animals, or simply moving through daily life more mindfully. Many people find that a regular contemplative practice within a community of similarly-intentioned individuals is extremely useful in establishing healthy patterns. Regardless of the method, it will take practice! Our human conditioning to trip off into the non-now is so strong that practicing re-mindfulness is the rule, not the exception. With practice, we can remember the pathway back home to presence. We will inevitably trail off into thoughts and feelings, so we lovingly invite ourselves back home… again and again.
Whatever our pathway to presence, the body is a reliable companion for the journey. In any given moment we can let the mental chatter fade to backstage as we bring the rhythmic sensations of our breath to the forefront of our mind. We can simply allow our awareness to ride the waves of inhalation and exhalation, no need to change or control it… just letting it be, as it is. In those precious moments of presence, we can rest in an embodied awareness and centeredness of being while observing the dynamic flow of sensations, feelings, and thoughts. We can touch into a deeper sense of who we are – something more than our habitual fears and cravings – an awareness of presence itself, complete and whole.
There are other practical ways to let our body guide us back to the experience of now. When we have the good fortune to notice our mind has wandered, we can nonjudgmentally refocus our attention back to our hands, letting them relax and feeling them from the inside out. We might try cultivating more awareness of the textures and flavors of our food – slow the process down and mindfully savor each bite. During a heated discussion with another person, try scanning the body for areas of tension (i.e., raised shoulders, clenched jaw, hard belly) and allow the body to soften with each outbreath. When gripped with strong emotions, let go of the storyline stay with the sensation of the emotions in body: notice the prickly heat on the skin, the tightness in the throat, or the ache in the pit of the stomach. Listen to the body – it knows the way.
Of course, after more than a decade of practice, I still have difficult days when I appreciate a reminder to “stay in the present moment”. However, now, instead of feeling lost by such a suggestion, I often try to pause, notice my breath, and let the corners of my mouth turn up. Over time, the body-brain connections supporting mindfulness and compassion have been reinforced and those supporting mindless reactivity have diminished to some degree. My body has become a valuable companion and guide on the pathway to greater present-moment awareness. The hectic, restless, discontented existence that was so familiar has shifted to one with many moments of calm centeredness and wondrous awe. Unexpectedly, moments of precious presence have become a form of spiritual awakening… a homecoming to true nature. It’s been right here all the time.
About Dr. Jon Caldwell
Dr. Caldwell is a board certified psychiatrist specializing in the treatment of adults with relational trauma histories and addictive behaviors. For a number of years he has taught students, interns, residents, and professionals in medicine and mental health about how childhood adversity influences health and wellbeing.
Dr. Caldwell's theoretical perspective is heavily influenced by his PhD graduate work at the University of California at Davis, where he researches the affects of early childhood maltreatment and insecure attachment relationships on cognitive, emotional, and social functioning later in life.
Dr. Caldwell's clinical approach has become increasingly flavored by the timeless teachings and contemplative traditions of the mindfulness meditation practice.