Staying Present Again

Meditation can be a very pleasant experience.  We focus our attention, breathe with a regular rhythm, allow our bodies to “stand down” from the events of an often stressful day, and experience the body’s relaxation response.  The alert and relaxed body/mind feels great.  So what’s wrong with that?

Nothing!  We need the relief, and knowing that relief from stress is a breath away is a tremendous form of resilience.  Sometimes my day’s demands become overwhelming, and I can feel the fatigue encroaching like fog on San Francisco bay.  My neck gets sore and stiffened up, my stomach growls and I get a bit cranky.  It can be quite unpleasant!  But awareness of this depleted state arises and I take a mindful breath and feel relief.  My body lets go of “vigilance mode” and I begin to respond to my world instead of react to it.

Sometimes the pleasantness of the relaxation response can become seductive.  Considering how difficult life can get, that’s understandable.  Sitting in stillness, feeling very pleasant, your breath, your thoughts, your perceptions flowing along, not clinging, continuously noticing; it can be better than any narcotic.  But this is when you have to exercise caution and wisdom, because now it is so easy to make your meditations about getting something, getting that “good” feeling and getting rid of those “bad” feelings, and that can really throw you off.

That’s not what our mindfulness work is about.  Put simply, mindfulness is about staying present with whatever body/mind state we happen to have in this moment.  It may sound paradoxical, but simply having the intention to stay present with whatever IS in this moment, whether pleasant or unpleasant by our estimation, allows our body/mind to find its own equilibrium.  Right effort is often no effort, simply mindful awareness and attention.

Listen, I know that life is rough and each of us can get overwhelmed even on a good day.  And if you’re carrying the body memories of abuse, the pain of anxiety or depression, the encoded behaviors of addiction, the desire for relief can become enormous, and very difficult to resist.  That’s when your training must come into play.  Go back to the very basics of your practice.  Sit, sit with attention, follow your breath, notice the sounds while you breathe.  Mind will wander; that’s what minds do.  Notice the wandering, accept yourself as you are, breathe.  Notice the breathing.  Notice the sounds in the background, then mind wanders again.  Notice the wandering, come back to the breath………

And so it goes.  Our practice doesn’t come to an end point.  There is no end point.  There is only now.



Staying Present

I am supervising Masters level students this semester who are doing their initial clinical counseling internships at community mental health centers.  This is a very stressful experience for these student-interns as most of them have never worked with people suffering from emotional, cognitive, and behavioral disorders.  The people who we work with have suffered terribly from any number of injuries to their bodies, minds, and spirits.  While it is true that there are a number of medications that can be helpful, it is rare that medication alone can resolve psychiatric problems.  And it is also true that there are a number of therapeutic interventions that can be helpful, but it is also rare that a particular form of therapy alone can resolve psychiatric problems.

The outcomes literature in our field provides insight into how we can help those we are called to serve.  The strength of the therapeutic relationship, often called the therapeutic alliance, is critical.  It turns out that most studies endorse that the most important predictor of good outcome in the treatment provided to people with psychiatric disorders is the extent to which our clients report that they felt connected to the therapist.  That connection with the therapist is best understood as an empathic, non-judgmental, authentic alliance.  This alliance is one in which the therapist seeks to deeply understand the inner experiences of the client (empathy), accepts the client as a person unconditionally (non-judgmental), and is personally transparent in ways that allow the client to know the therapist without the encumbrance of knowing the facts and situations of the therapist’s day to day life (authentic).  For those reading this essay who are in the mental health field you recognize the three core conditions of person centered counseling as articulated by Carl Rogers.  It turns out that Rogers was right; these core conditions are necessary for treatment to be successful.

Late in his life Rogers added a fourth condition, which he referred to as “presence.”  In one of his final articles, published in the Journal of Counseling and Development in May of 1985, he discussed this characteristic at length.  Here is an excerpt:

When I am at my best as a group facilitator or a therapist, I discover another characteristic.  I find that when I am closest to my inner, intuitive self, when I am somehow in touch with the unknown in me, when perhaps I am in a slightly altered state of consciousness in the relationship, then whatever I do seems to be full of healing.  Then simply my presence (italics in original) is releasing and helpful.  There is nothing I can do to force this experience, but when I can relax and be close to the transcendental core of me, then I may behave in strange and impulsive ways in the relationship, ways which I cannot justify rationally, which have nothing to do with my thought processes.  But these strange behaviors turn out to be right (italics in original), in some odd way.  At those moments it seems that my inner spirit has reached out and touched the inner spirit of the other.  Our relationship transcends itself, and has become a part of something larger.  Profound growth and healing and energy are present.

Rogers’ original three core conditions provide a roadmap for the experience of mindfulness meditation.  When we meditate, we are called to be authentic.  Our work is with the actual inner experiences that come into our awareness.  It is the opposite of denial; we face thoughts, feelings, images, sensations, perceptions etc. exactly as they are.  And in facing our inner experiences authentically we develop a deep empathy for those phenomena.  In a sense, when I meditate I truly “get” my self, I develop deep self awareness.  And my response to this authentic, empathic understanding is to be non-judgmental, even compassionate with my self, unceasingly willing to work and be with my self exactly as I am.  I believe that our mindfulness meditation is a form of person-centered work that we do with our selves, and the irony is that in so doing we transcend the “person” and learn to let go of clinging to the needs and drives of the ever voracious ego.

I believe that Rogers was right about this idea of “presence.”  I have come to experience that when I can sit in meditation authentically, empathically, and non-judgmentally, that a new awareness emerges.  And what is perhaps most precious about his awareness is that it is not in any way an extraordinary experience!  It is actually the most ordinary experience one can imagine, yet we fail to imagine it because we fail to allow ourselves the birthright of being authentic, empathic, and non-judgmental toward ourselves and those around us.

So come, sit, notice your breath.  Distractions arise and minds wander; so be it.  That’s what minds do!  Notice thoughts, feelings, sensations; all the things that run through the mind spontaneously.  Notice these mental phenomena authentically; simply “see” what goes on without any filter.  And then “get it;” come to understand the nature of your own mental phenomena.  And whatever it is, don’t judge it, and whether it’s painful or pleasant allow yourself to feel compassionate for your self.  And as you deepen your person-centered connection with your self, notice something else emerging.  At first slowly, but in time quite palpably.  You are fully present!



PS One additional thought, please.  As we experience presence in our meditation lives, then the people we meet in the ordinary encounters of the ordinary day will begin to experience our presence as well.  And if that encounter is an ordinary counseling session, then the person with whom we sit will feel our presence.  And from this presence can emerge the healing actions, whatever they might be, that are needed at that particular moment.