What does it mean to be present?
What exactly is the now?
Being present means noticing things as they are happening. And responding to those things as they happen, without thinking about it.
Presence is a state of being where you respond to what is happening effectively, but without thought. Thought is a state of mind that works against being present. But this doesn't mean that thinking is a bad thing.
To explain how this might work, I'll use Google as an example.
Google spiders the web regularly. They categorize and rank websites for each potential unit of meaning. Then what is stored is not individual pages, but ranked meanings with a link to each relevant website.
When you enter a search term, it breaks it up, again into units of meaning, matches the pieces to what it has listed, and sends back a response, instantaneously, or as instantaneously as possible given transmission speeds and the distance between where you are sitting on your computer or mobile device and the place sending the information.
Because google spiders the web before hand they can respond instantaneously to search results.
Spidering the web requires what could be called discernment. How do we break this website and its web pages meaningfully? What are the meanings it contains? How much does each page actually relate to this meaning? What other websites point to this website? Ah, we'll rank accordingly.
As the web changes, the things that a page is ranked for (and the way it is ranked) will change also. And so the web has to be repeatedly re-scanned so that google can give up to date responses. But as the internet is large, there's only so much that google can do, and so it scans the web bit by bit, like a radar beam sweeping around a circle, updating its database regularly.
When google responds to a search request (we'll focus on one single search request) this could be likened to being present, in the now or, in the flow.
The term "flow" or "being in the flow" is particularly useful because it can infer the flow of energy. The medium could be water, but it could also be electricity (or electromagnetic radiation) or even sound.
Energy carries information. Energy is either change or the power (or potential) to create change.
As an example of this, plug your iphone into your computer. You can recharge the battery which is a change, but also creates the potential for future change when the iphone is unplugged. Now you can take calls, send and receive texts and play games. Plugging the phone in to a USB port also provides the option to transfer information, you can load songs, photos and other information via USB.
All of these represent change of differing degrees. We take in these changes as information.
As an example, we can check the current state of the battery. A change in the battery's charge registers as a change in information on the readout. Some signal has to flow from a sensor within the battery to the actual indicator. Without that signal we have no way of determining whether there is a change or not. We also have now way of determining the current state of the battery (change or no change.)
Assuming that there is a sensor, and the indicator is active, light from the indicator moves outwards. This is potentially information on the state of the battery. But until we see that information, it is not being used. The second we see the information, we take it in, we become aware of the state of the battery.
Sometimes information that the battery is low is sent more obviously, a chime, or a flashing light. Again we aren't aware of this change in state until we actually see or hear the warning.
Energy carries information. Information tells us when change has occurred (or hasn't.)
Being present means noticing changes in information as it happens.
Entering text into a search box is creating a change. Press enter and that information is then sent to google, another change. Google processes the request, another change. Then it sends search results back to you, another change. You actually read the search results, yet another change.
Now if, for some reason google was turned off, you could send the information, but google wouldn't receive it. Five minutes later google is tuned back on again, it gets the request, processes it and then sends the result. But you've been waiting for so long you've wondered off to grab a coffee. So even though now the information is on your computer you aren't there to notice it. You come back, coffee in hand, ah, there's the search results!
Now if google had been turned on, if you had stayed at your desk, you could have got your results and acted on them with little or no time lag.
Lets say that google was turned on when you sent your search request but was busy. Perhaps resources have become limited so not only does it answer search requests but the same resources are now used to canvas the web and categorize what it finds. So it's busy doing that (thinking) when your request comes in, but it doesn't notice it and is too busy to do anything about it anyway. Then it finishes, notices your request and then answers it.
This is more or less what the process of thinking does. It slows things down. Or more properly said, it diverts resources that could otherwise be utilized for taking in information on what is happening now.
If we are present in the flow of energy, we notice information as it is received. Not thinking, we can respond to that information as it is received.
Now imagine that energy, or change, ripples or flows outwards from its source. We might be able to get a sense of when information is about to be received so that we can act on it when it is received. An example of this is driving.
Let's assume that we know how to drive, we've learned all the necessary actions so that we can operate the controls of the car without having to think about it. As a result we can practice being present by noticing the road and what's on it, particularly what's going on around us and ahead of us.
Road traffic could be likened to an energy flow. Sure it's solid vehicles that are moving, but they are moving along a predefined channel or meridian, the road. Each car is driven by an intelligent (or semi-intelligent) individual. Each responds, chaotically but with purpose. We can't know what is going to happen but we can make good guesses. If we are present, at each moment in time, we can see what direction any car is going in. That direction can have a speed associated with it. The two quantities, speed and direction together create a vector. Watching the flow of traffic around us and seeing the different vectors, we can see when potential gaps are about to open up. As a result we can control our own vector so that we get to gaps as they appear.
Instead of looking for a gap, seeing it and then driving through it, we appear at the gap as the gap appears. We become simultaneous with the flow of what is going on around us.
This is an example of the advantage of being present.
I learned a variation of this principle while skating. I used to skate in packs with friends. When I first started I'd constantly have to work to keep up with the person in front, else I'd lose the draft Then I'd have to slow down to stop myself from bumping into them. This usually meant sticking my head up. Because I wasn't sensing change soon enough, and wasn't quick enough to respond, I'd soon get so tired of repeatedly working hard to keep up, then slowing down, that I'd drop out of the group and the next person behind would have to work hard to fill in the gap that I'd left.
How did I learn to sense change earlier? By keeping my eye on the leader. As the leader of the pack changed speed or direction I could watch the change ripple through the pack and then be ready for it by the time it got to me. I could now stay with the pack, enjoying the advantages of the draft, with ease.
A friend who does bicycle racing wrote about watching the hand of the person beside him. They'd agreed the finish order of the race, and just to be sure the guy wasn't lying, my friend kept his eyes on the guys hands. Why? Because that is where any change in gear would originate from. If the guy was going to try to accelerate away, the first thing that he'd do is move his hands to change gear.
So where is thought necessary?
Going back to Google, from google's perspective, any request for information could be viewed as a change in what is happening now. Because the web has already been sorted and categorized, thought is not required with respect to processing that request. Where thought was necessary was sorting out the web in the first place.
Spidering the web (taking information in) and then processing it, that is the equivalent of thought. If a change is made to a website while google is categorizing and ranking that website, it doesn't notice that change.
Combine the two steps, instead of segregating them, make them one. Now google has to parse the search term, then search the web, then decide which website is better suited, then it gives the results, some time later, back.
This is a lot slower process.
This would be the of having to use a language dictionary to figure out what someone is saying to you and what you want to say in return as opposed to already knowing a language so that you can understand what is being said and respond, without having to think about how to use the language to respond.
Learning to ride a motorcycle, the equivalent of spidering each website is learning to brake, steer, accelerate and change gears to the point that we can do them without having to think about, for example, "how do I stop this thing?"
Initially we might learn in an empty car park so that we can focus on learning those things, turning them into habits, but then we get out on the streets. Now we can use those skills in response to what is happening now. Because braking, steering etc are all habits, we don't have to think to use them.
Those habits have been installed in our mental (or "conscious") database.
Does that mean the learning stops there? I'd say no.
We can only learn so much in riding school and so the learning can be ongoing. Now after every ride or at the very least, when things go wrong, we can look back and ask ourselves what went wrong. We can then train a desired response so that should the same situation arise again we can handle it better, without thinking.
Amazon is another large scale entity that uses a version of this basic set of processes in its warehouses. Instead of storing particular items in a fixed location, they are stored where ever there is room. The items and their location are then indexed in a database. When that item is ordered, because its location is mapped, amazon can even give a route map to one of its employees and they can go and retrieve the object for delivery. The person doesn't have to search for the object, he or she knows where it is. They can simply go there and pick it up. And they even have a map so that they don't get lost. So instead of thinking/wondering/searching they can get on with the task of retrieving the object.
Habits, the things that we do without having to think, could be likened to employees.
Learning is the process of training these employees how to respond effectively to particular changes. Ideally what we give these employees is guidelines to make them as effective as possible. The manager, our overall consciousness, when in the flow state, lets them get on with their job. All management does then is keep their eyes on the big picture, or give an overall clear direction to all of these subconscious habits.
Sticking thinking into the mix, when we are trying to flow, is a little like a meddling micromanaging manager gumming up the works.
That isn't to say that management is always aloof, sometimes it steps in to give employees tips on how to better handle particular situations. But on the whole it lets them get on with what they are doing.
One way to think about what is happening now is in terms of change. When we are present we sense change as it occurs and if we've trained well enough we respond to it in such a way that we continue what we are doing and we continue to remain present. We continue to notice new changes when they occur. We become part of the flow of change.
When we stick thinking into the process, there is a delay between receiving information and responding to it. There is a time lag between the receipt of information and the response to that information.
Bruce Lee said "Be like water…"
Water doesn't think. It flows. Pulled by gravity it flows into the shape of whatever container it is being pulled into.
When we ourselves are flowing we might not have gravity to pull us. Instead we can have an idea, riding a motorbike, providing search results, getting a product to a customer within a short time. That goal can be used to pull us towards it and as we are pulled we can use our senses and respond to what we sense in such a way that we get there
One of the things that confused me when I first started to contemplate what it meant to be present was looking ahead while motorcycling.
If I was looking ahead to see what was going on up the road ahead of me I thought that this wasn't being present, because I was looking ahead of me. The point I was missing was that I wasn't looking ahead in time, say 10 seconds down the road, even if that was the amount of time it took me to get there. Instead I was looking ahead in space.
Because of that I could see change before it affected me. Or because I could see it, I could take action earlier. So it was affecting me but in such a way that it was easier to handle the change because I was sensing it earlier.
And that was the case with skating in a pack and keeping my eye on the leader.
When driving (or riding a motorbike) It's possible to look far ahead of the road and see beyond corners or dips in the road. The trouble with this is that there may be surprises hidden by those dips or corner. And so the focus should be on the road up to the point it disappears. Or if that is too far, then slightly closer. That way if something is hidden in that dip or corner, then the moment it is possible to see it you can see it and respond. And this leads to another idea, that of getting the best view of the way ahead.
On a bike in particular it is possible to ride to the right or left side of the lane or right in the middle. With curves coming up, it can help to be towards the outside of the curve because then you can see what's in the curve earlier. The other advantage of this is that this positioning makes it easier to actually ride around the curve anyway.
The reason to look ahead, and to be positioned for the best view of the way ahead is to see what's happening as early as possible. Then we can get ready for that change and handle it more easily.
What happens when we aren't paying attention?
Not paying attention we may be surprised when all of a sudden a car pulls out immediately in front of us. We then have to snap on the brakes, and then we are we are so focused on the obstruction, perhaps sweating at the driver, that we momentarily lose awareness of what is continually going on around ourselves. We stop being present. But actually we weren't even present in the first place. Or else we would have noticed the car getting ready to pull out.
By looking far ahead, by being present, we might see that someone is getting ready to pull out. So we can slow down or speed up or change position as necessary. We've prepared for the change and handle it easily with the bonus that we can continue to be alert for new change. We also get the even bigger bonus of not getting angry.
So how does this relate to being more present while doing yoga or any other activity where the main focus is the body?
If we want to be present in our body it's simply a matter of learning what information our body gives us. One of the primary sources of information is our skin. Via our skin we can feel when we are touching something and when we are pressing something. Pressure sensitivity can then help us figure out where our center of gravity is in relation to our foundation. As an example of this, standing with on both feet, if both feet press down with equal pressure then we know our center of gravity is positioned between both feet. If one foot presses down with greater pressure than the other that tells us that our center is closer to the foot with the greater pressure.
This doesn't tell us the disposition of our body. Changes in shape affect the position of our center relative to our pelvis, but it tells us the position of our center relative to our foundation and that can be a great way of making learning to balance easier.
By learning to feel our connection with the earth we actually learn to sense the relationship between our own center of gravity, our foundation and the earth's center. We learn to sense our relationship with the earth. And continuing to be aware we can notice changes in that relationship.
How then do we notice changes within our body?
You may have played with one of those toy drums that you spin around from side to side. Two strings with beads attached then swing so that the beads hit the drum head repeatedly as you twist the toy. If you are sensitive enough you may even be able to feel the force created by the beads pulling through the string. The beads create tension in the pieces of string and that tension is transmitted to the handle and we can actually feel that tension and via it the masses of the beads.
There are two main ways of feeling the relationships within our body. One is via "Large Muscle Activation Sensation". This is the sensation generated when a large muscle or large set of muscles is activated.
A more subtle sensation is generated by smaller muscles. Since these muscles are too small to sense directly we can notice the effect of their activation by the sensation of stretching either in the muscle itself or it's opposing muscle.
This is the type of "relaxed but not flaccid" tension that tai ji practitioners strive for. I'll call it connective tissue tension.
These are the types of sensations we can learn to feel while present in our body.
Finding the right amount of tension is actually very similiar to the process of looking ahead while riding a bike or skating.
In either of these activities, look too far ahead (an increase in viewing tension) and we affect responsiveness. Likewise looking too close (a decrease in looking tension) and we fail to notice change as it occurs. At the optimal look ahead distance we can sense change and respond to it effectively.
We create our own change in response to the change that is going on around us.
With respect to tension, too much tension may limit responsiveness, we are too tight, too muscle bound. If tension is too slack we loose sensation and response is delayed.
At just the right amount of tension we have sensitivity and the ability to respond. We are "tuned in" to the present.
Part of the procedure of learning our body can then be similiar to what google does as it learns the web. We can focus on individual parts of the body to learn it, to the point that we can feel and interpret what that part is doing as well as control it all without having to think about how to do it. Then, like having learned to ride a bike, we can use the parts of our body in such a way that we handle change that is going on around us without thinking.
Why is this a good thing?
Apart from the fact that being in the flow, acting without thinking, feels good, it might help to think of an analogy.
Do you remember when phones they weren't smart. You had to do everything and they couldn't do much. Smart phones came along and the reason that they are smart is that they are responsive to touch.
Because our phones are smart we don't have to be.
There are now haptic yoga pants that tell you when your alignment is correct.
Now, imagine you take the time to learn to feel your body and control it. Imagine becoming sensitive to touch (in a good way) and imagine learning to tune in to tension within your own body.
You'll save a few bucks because you don't have to buy special yoga pants in order to tell you when you alignment is correct. Instead you'll be able to feel for yourself when your alignment is correct.
Now you can buy non-haptic yoga pants purely based on the way that they look (and feel).
Or you can also spend the money you've save from not buying haptic yoga pants and buy my Muscle Control ebook and video instead.
It includes some very simple exercises for being present and learning to feel and control your body.
As a yoga teacher, I'm constantly exploring new exercises, new ways of doing yoga poses.
There is no single "right way" of doing a yoga pose. Instead, there are options. And the better you are at "feeling" your body, the better you can get at choosing the right option for your body as it is now.
For any technique, the point of practice is to learn feel it and to control it, so that it can be used without thinking about how to use it.
And that is more or less the approach taken in all of my ebooks and videos. They help you to feel your body and control it so that you can work towards using it effectively in anything that you do.