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What is Practical Presence?


Article by Hannah Echols

Photography by Hannah Echols

If you’re anything like me, it’s hard to keep your mind focused in one place. I’ve heard it referred to as S.O.S.: Shiny Object Syndrome. This lack of focus sneaks up on us in many ways, stealing us from one activity to the next and taking us from one open tab to another. 

At first it can seem harmless, even dressing up in the guise of productivity. But, if we’re not careful, we can go weeks, months and even years without being present in our own lives.

I know you’ve been there—sitting at your kitchen table, fantasizing about when things will be different or when you’ll finally “arrive” at your ideal job/house/living situation, etc. As someone in my 20s, I spend a lot of time dreaming and planning for the future. It’s a part of life. However, I know that my current life is somewhere that younger me dreamed to be and future me might long to go back to. I owe it to my past, current and future self to be in the here and now. 

Being present is a battle. And like every battle, strategies are needed. I have developed a list of 15 survival tactics that I have had to cling to throughout my own fight toward presence. They are categorized into Mindful, Active, Sensory, Technological and Communal practices so you can have a method to combat the madness no matter what your day looks like. 

Mindful – practicing presence through reflection and thought.

1. Journal

Journaling, whether or not you proclaim to be a writer, can be extremely helpful when it comes to finding peace and centering yourself. All you need is a writing utensil and a notebook! If you don’t know where to start, take a look at something I like to call the journaling spectrum.

I’ve found that there are two extremes to journaling. The first is the chronological approach, where the writer simply lists events from their day or week. This is a great place to start (or return to) when you’re at a loss for what to write about. In an effort to practice presence, I would caution against writing for memory’s sake. You know the type—feverishly trying to squeeze every event into the lines of a notebook with the purpose of having something to look back on in the future. I have found this to be more exhausting than life-giving. Plus, its focus is having something for the future, not relishing on a present moment.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have the emotional side. Rather than writing about tangible realities, you write purely about the intangibles: your emotions, feelings and senses about life at the current moment. If you’re more of a poetic soul, this practice could be quite cathartic. I tend to sway more toward this side of the pendulum, though I have found that when I return to my journal pages, it is often unclear what the heck was actually going on in my life at that time because my headspace took over my actual space.

What I’ve been trying to get to is a middle of the road type of journaling. Simply put, it entails writing about actual events that occurred during the day and linking them to feelings or overarching themes in my life. In this way, we can become present mentally, emotionally and physically. Self-actualization, the realization of our talents and potential, occurs with this kind of writing. I’ve truly found that it makes me feel more human.

2. Pray/Meditate

Taking steps to empty your mind is a great way to relieve stress and ground yourself in the present moment. I am a Christian, so I often combine prayer and meditation together. When I empty my thoughts, I invite God to bring His thoughts into my head. Or when the voices in my head are far too loud and numerous to silence, I try to clue God into the conversation. Prayer allows you to realize and find peace with your lack of control.

A [former] monk by the name of Andy Puddicombe has a TedTalk on meditation that is well worth the watch. He discusses meditation as a practice that is a balance of focus and letting go.

“Most people assume that meditation is all about stopping thoughts, getting rid of emotions, somehow controlling the mind, but actually it's quite different from that,” Andy says. “It’s more about stepping back, sort of seeing the thought clearly, witnessing it coming and going, emotions coming and going without judgment, but with a relaxed, focused mind.”

3. Make a Gratitude List

This has become one of my favorite practices to cling to whenever I feel like the world is falling apart (not to be dramatic or anything). It may sound cheesy, but all you do is list out what you’re grateful for. It usually starts with something simple, like “I am grateful for this sunny day,” and ends with something from the deeper parts of you. The list evolves the longer you write and search. It almost always grounds me in the season of life I’m in and gives me vision for what I want to pursue in the near future.

Here is an example from right here, right now in the moment I’m writing this:

I am grateful for the flowers on my table.

I am grateful that they are still alive, almost after a full month when I got them on my birthday. 

I am grateful for the friends, my fiancé and family that got them for me on my birthday.

I am grateful that, even in a national pandemic stay-at-home situation, when all ideas for a grand celebration went down the tubes, there are people in my life who are mindful enough of me to give me my favorite flowers (which are any type that includes yellow, if you were wondering.)

I am grateful for the two plants beside the yellow flowers. The two plants were given to me by my future mother-in-law, because she knew how much I wanted to have a green thumb and decorate in an earthy way. 

I am grateful that God gave me a [future] husband with a family who genuinely loves me and is fighting for our success, comfort and even our home decor as a couple. Because He didn’t have to do that. Being around my in-laws could be hard, but instead it is a delight and I always learn more about love from their leadership.

I am grateful for my own parents, who raised me in a loving home and set me up for success to start my own marriage and family in two months. 

We could keep going. But wow, would you look at that! In seven lines of gratitude (I promise, that is the unedited or thought-through version) I have come to an awareness of my current season (engaged!) and how God is moving in it to tie my fiancé’s family and my own together. 

Sometimes the gratitude list is hard. Each sentence feels like you’re being super fake and mulling through dirt. But if you push through, you always end with truth.

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Active – practicing presence through movement.

1. Take a Walk

When your mind gets cloudy or overwhelmed, stop what you're doing and take a walk. As you're walking, make a conscious choice to recognize your surroundings. Take note of the trees. What season is it? Take note of the buildings. Is there something you've never noticed before? Pay attention to little things, like cracks on the sidewalk or the shape of the clouds. 

I work at a local coffeeshop in Parker, Colorado. One day, not too long after I moved to the city, I decided to walk rather than drive to work. That walk hallmarks the moment I actually began to feel like I lived in Colorado rather than my former home in Georgia. Something about seeing your community at your pace and at your eye level opens up a new perspective. You become a part, rather than just a spectator, of your current environment.

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2. Learn a New Skill

Working with our hands teaches us patience. Whether it be learning a new instrument, artistic craft, or honing in on those writing projects, focusing on something creative that has a tangible benefit is a great way to cultivate presence. And, you get something to take away when it’s all said and done!

3. Try a New Workout

With the stay-at-home orders due to the coronavirus, there are so many at-home workouts trending on the internet right now. Here are a few favorites from my fellow City Lifestyle bloggers:

HIIT Workout: No Equipment Needed

20-Minute Legs Workout at Home

When you do a workout, pay attention to your body. What do you feel? What parts feel strong? What parts feel weak? Don’t make judgements, and resist the urge to let improvement be the main goal of your workout. Instead, be grateful of what your body can already do. 

This may sound weird, but sometimes I get so lost in my head that I forget I have a body. A mindful workout can help you reconnect your mind, body and spirit, the result of which is having a new sense of ownership about who you are as a whole.

Sensory – practicing presence through tasting, seeing, smelling, touching and feeling life.

1. Eat with a Purpose

Take some extra time to cook (or buy from a local business) a special treat for yourself. Make an event of eating it. Really take in the way it smells, looks and (duh) tastes. Heck, even take a shameless picture and post it to that Instagram story. A part of the reason we like to eat so much is because it interrupts us. Our ability to taste flavor is so strong that it ushers in a type of presence. Our body was made to focus on the delicious, so let’s take advantage of that!

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2. Smell the Flowers

Try not to think I’m (too) corny. But there’s a reason why the ancient adage says to “stop and smell the roses.” As spring makes her arrival, take time to find some flowers. Take in their scent, pay attention to how they bloom, and cultivate a sense of wonder. Spring is full of metaphors, and nature will speak if you let it. 

3. Go Barefoot

This one is a little hippy-dippy. However, going barefoot and feeling the ground beneath you can provide a strong sense of reality. Whether its the softness of the carpet in your own home, the prickly cushion of green grass, or the warmth of rocks that have been basking in the sun, perhaps it’s time to get a little earthy.

I have a friend named Abbey who often hikes in Birkenstocks. I’ve never understood why, as they are not the most conducive footwear for climbing. However, the semi-nakedness of her feet and utter lack of support gives her a sense of connectedness to her environment. She’s able to feel where she’s walking and slip off her shoes at a moment’s notice. What an easy way to be both adventurous and grounded! 

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Technological – practicing presence through capitalizing on our digital age.

1. Turn Off the Phone

This is an easy one. It’s so easy, it can be excruciatingly difficult. Whether at work or at play, we are all guilty of scrolling through our phones during idle moments. As soon as our minds slow down, it’s as if they need a content pick-me-up. It’s nearly impossible to be present in your own thoughts when you're drowning them out with social media or text messages. 

On the podcast End Hustle, Fight Hurry by John Mark Comer and Jefferson Bethke (highly recommend) they discuss the odd intimacy people have with their phones. Think about it: it is often the last thing you look at before you go to sleep and the first thing you address when you wake up. 

When I can afford to go without an alarm clock, I turn off my phone before I go to sleep and wait to turn it on until I have spent some time reading and praying in the morning. The practice of simply avoiding your phone when possible does wonders to cultivate a sense of presence in your own life

2. Close the Tabs

As someone who largely works from her computer, this one is difficult. How many times do you find yourself with a million tabs open while in the middle of writing something or working on a project? We get lost in a rabbit hole when it comes to the internet. A question prompts us to Google, an article leads us to another article, then that article triggers us to think about a completely different responsibility. Somewhere in the midst of our “research,” we begin fantasizing about dinner and begin drooling over cheap and easy homemade Indian food recipes on Pinterest (just me?) 

One way to maximize focus and minimize distraction is to do a little desktop maintenance. Don’t be afraid to toss old files on your home screen inside of a folder or in the trash receptacle. Keep as few tabs open as possible; there’s no need to stay on your email. Think about your computer as if it were your actual house. Studies prove that a clean, organized workspace increases the productivity and value of work. Why should your digital space be any different?

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3. Connect

This one is a “do” rather than a “don’t.” Like anything powerful, technology can be used to our destruction or our benefit. We have such a capability to be present with people who live far away. The next time someone is on your mind, take the bold step of courage to give them a call. 

I moved to Colorado last summer, but nearly all of my family and friends live in Georgia. Grabbing a mug and having a FaceTime coffee date has become a favorite way to connect. Closing the distance always seems like it’s going to be hard and draining—but it hardly ever is.

Just because you’re not physically present with someone doesn’t mean that you can’t spend quality time together. Listening to your instincts and reaching out as soon as someone comes to mind is a great way to use technology to have intentional moments of presence with distant loved ones.

Communal – practicing presence through togetherness.

1. Be a Friend

Friends come and go. People change with the seasons. Really take note of who is in your life for the now and do something nice for them. Intentionally love them by bringing them a coffee, writing them a note, or watching their kids while they go on a date night. You’ll make an impact on them, strengthen your friendship, and really capitalize on the time you have in their world. 

2. Explore Where You Live

This is the main reason I like being a writer. I have found excuse after excuse to explore where I live and interview interesting people about their experiences. Take a weekend to be a tourist in your own city. Discover new things right in your backyard. Leave no stone unturned, no trail un-hiked, and no local business un-visted. 

3. Serve at a Local Nonprofit

So often our ideas about the community we live in are constructed purely by our own experiences. Unless we choose to educate ourselves, we can be completely unaware of how our neighbors are struggling. Finding local nonprofits or opportunities to serve expand our hearts and our perspectives. We cannot be truly present unless we know what is going on in our communities. Here is a list that includes just some of the many nonprofits in Douglas County.

The importance behind cultivating peace and presence within ourselves is so that we can be present to other people. Ultimately, being present shows us how to love ourselves so that we can truly love and have time for others. I hope these survival tips help you build your own strategy toward fighting for presence!