Keep it Happy - Being present in the present…
Deborah Stephenson, trainee Ollie Coach, reflects on the importance of being in the present and how it can help us feel happier, less stressed and anxious, more relaxed, and it can even help us to cope better with pain.
“Be happy in the moment, that’s enough. Each moment is all we need, not more.”
- Mother Theresa
In the last couple of blogs, I’ve written about looking forward and looking back, but what about the bit in between? The present… arguably the most important place we can be, because we can’t really be anywhere else, but I wonder… how often are we really fully present in the present?
Just this morning I went upstairs to get my glasses only to return ten minutes later without them, annoyingly remembering just as I arrived back at the bottom step. Instead of fetching my glasses, I had picked up a stray sock left on the landing by my son, wandered into my daughter’s bedroom and made her bed, and replied to a text. Yes, I had done more than I intended, but not the single task I went to do.
“It’s good exercise,” I told myself as I climbed the stairs for the second time, while my inner critic scolded me for my absent mindedness. In fairness, it was true, my body had obediently taken me upstairs, but my mind had been completely absent.
So where was it?
Well, it certainly wasn’t paying attention, and as science shows that our attention and memory work together, if we don’t pay attention, then the memory can’t code and store the task properly, and it becomes difficult to recall.
While I was exploring all this… fully focussed as it happens… I read about a study that was carried out in Harvard about ten years ago. Researchers contacted people at random times throughout the day via an app on their phone. When the phone pinged, the person noted down what they were doing and what they were thinking about. The results showed that for almost half of the time, people were not paying attention to what they were doing at that moment no matter what the task was.
I wonder what would happen if I set an alarm for random points in my day. What would I be doing and how present would I be? I’m tempted to give it a go. Certainly this morning I wasn’t paying attention, and even when I was doing the things that had distracted me, my mind was wandering off once more, but apart from not actually doing the thing I set out to do, what’s the problem? Why, should I pay full attention to the present, especially when the task is mundane like fetching glasses, making a bed, or cleaning?
Back to the Harvard phone ping test… the study also asked people to note how they felt at the time they were randomly contacted. Interestingly, the results showed that when people were totally focussed on the task in hand, no matter how mundane, they were happiest. Not even thinking about happy things made a person any happier than they were when they were being mindful in the task, and thinking about neutral or unhappy things (unsurprisingly) made people feel worse.
So being present in the present makes us happier, which is well worth bearing in mind, but not only that, there are other important benefits too. Much is now written about being present minded (or mindfulness), it is clear that it reduces stress and anxiety, makes us more relaxed, calms anger, and can even help us cope with pain.
“But…" I hear you cry, “I have my best ideas when my mind is off wandering!”. Yes, and so do I. It’s no cliche about having our clearest thoughts in the shower, it’s certainly true for me, and it was similar when I was decorating recently. Doing mundane or repetitive tasks allows our creative subconscious through, and that’s important, but there is a big difference between giving ourselves time to do that, and our mind just being on auto-pilot.
So don’t just leap on to the next task. If you are in the shower, let the thoughts come and go but then take a moment to feel the water on your skin and notice the smell of the shampoo. When you get out, don’t rub yourself dry while thinking about your ‘to-do’ list… instead, notice how the towel feels, stretch your body, wiggle your toes - the ‘to-do’ list will still be there when you’re done.
It is strangely difficult to remaining the present… we are bombarded with so much in life and there will always be distractions. I wonder how many times your mind has slipped away while you’ve been reading this? I totally understand… even in writing that last paragraph I suddenly remembered an email I have to send (and made a note to do so), wondered how wet my son got in the rain this morning, and made a decision to stop soon for a cup of tea.
Focussing on the breath is a good way of bringing our awareness to the now, just concentrating on the ‘in’ breath and then the ‘out’ breath out can make a difference. Begin notice things you may not have noticed before, like how things feel, colours, patterns, sounds and scent. Appreciate the soft carpet under your feet or an autumn breeze on your face. We don’t usually have time to meditate for hours, but paying attention to our breath and noticing the things around us helps us to be really present and make the most of each moment.
And there’s something else too…
Even thinking about the concept of being present can make a difference as I have found this week.
Since the beginning of term, I’ve walked up the road each morning with my daughter to her new school. Those ten minutes set my mind on overdrive as she checked she had her timetable, her books and her lunch, told me what lessons she had, and I reassured and encouraged her to help her feel confident and happy (while also guiltily paying half a mind to a work meeting or making a note to get more milk).
This week, while I’ve been writing about being mindful, this seems to have changed. Instead of talking about the day ahead I’ve encouraged her to notice things… we’ve stroked a cat, noticed that the moon was still up, and how cold the air felt on our faces. We’ve spotted a little blue flower growing through a crack in the pavement, joked about some older girls hurriedly finishing their homework on a doorstep, and watched the clouds scudding quickly across the sky. What is most noticeable is that although the walk is the same the feeling has changed, and it is a lovely moment.
My daughter doesn’t need me to walk with her, but we set off together and are still chatting right up until she meets her friend, to walk the last part. I know she will soon go on her own, and that’s really great because it’s part of her growing up and becoming independent, but it makes it all the more important that I am present with her while I can be, and I know it has made a difference to her.
How will being more present make a difference for you?
Deborah Stephenson, Ollie Coach trainee
I am an Ollie School trainee and a Director at an Independent Prep School for boys. I am a trained journalist and worked in BBC Local Radio for more than twenty years as a reporter, bulletin reader, news editor and programme maker. It was a great job, but I wanted to do something to support my own children’s wellbeing with a view to taking that on to support others and, in pursuit of a better work life balance, I resigned as the Assistant Editor of BBC Essex last year. Inspired by the Ollie School concept I was excited to be accepted for the training course and it has been a fascinating and enlightening and journey so far.
To get in contact with Deborah, email firstname.lastname@example.org
To find out more about Ollie and his Super Powers and how to become an Ollie Coach go to https://www.ollieandhissuperpowers.com/pages/about-us