Whew, that’s a relief. Now let’s get into some specifics as to why.
Mindfulness is a buzzword craze that has turned into a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide. The basic idea is that we spend most of our life being unmindful of what we are doing and automatically going through our day, and if we are able to be fully present we will have more joy, health, and well-being.
There are some valid points here–most of us rely on habits to carry out the many complicated, coordinated activities we go through on a daily basis, and with the prevalence of technology, it is easier than ever to coast through your day without engaging in much internal or external life.
However, the flip side of the coin is what I am going to call ‘competitive presence’. We notice the time we aren’t being present and beat ourselves up for it. We post selfies of us meditating and doing yoga and articles about the possibility of ‘what if we were present in everything we do’. This creates an expectation that we ‘should’ be present and are doing something wrong by not being in this state. This can lead you to a lot of effort and you end up being like this guy:
Part of the problem is being fully present all of the time isn’t possible, and the other part is that it isn’t really desirable. Let’s science it, shall we?
One of the most interesting books I have ever read is ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman. In it, he discusses the relationship between 2 sides of our brain–the fast, unconscious , and habitual part and the slow, conscious, choice driven part (the reality is much more complicated and interconnected than this, which Kahneman acknowledges, but he uses it as a simple way to accurately characterize a complex thing). One of the central themes of the book is that the conscious part of our brain takes a tremendous amount of energy to engage, and therefore we use our unconscious brains in order to operate efficiently. The conscious brain is so energy consuming, in fact, that using it constantly is extremely uncomfortable and tiring; and once it quickly wears out we actually tend to have no willpower left and end up going deeper into unconsciousness than before. So, because of the finite nature of the conscious mind, it is not possible to always be present; because of its discomfort it is not desirable. So yes, take the pressure to be overly present off of yourself.
Now for the good news. I do think that it is possible to improve the efficiency of engaging our conscious minds through practices like meditation and **cough cough** Alexander Technique. By repeatedly catching moments when we are not conscious when we want to be and practicing engaging our conscious minds at these moments (I call it ‘practicing the pause’), we engage our choice and are able to resist being drawn into our unconscious at crucial moments. What’s more, I believe that over time enough of these overrides end up creating new habits–there is research in ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ that suggests the conscious mind has an ability to form new habits over a period of time. However, if you do too much, you use all of our willpower (which is finite no matter how much you train it) and you don’t end up applying the work with the consistency to make real change. If you apply momentary ‘taps of consciousness’, I believe this is what allows the possibility of entering a flow state, an optimal balance between the conscious and the unconscious mind (which also is not ultimately sustainable and will fade, as do all things).
When I work with students, one of the things I tell them in the first lesson is not to over do it. If you try to be conscious of your movement habits all of the time, you will drive yourself crazy and not want to do it anymore (or perhaps turn into what one my teachers called an ‘Alexandroid’). But if you pay attention at key points, for a series of small moments, or perhaps 5 minutes a day, people are surprised at how little work can create major change, and how much more present they will feel in their own body. Perhaps this is the ultimate goal, not to be present all the time, but to always be able to be present when you choose to be.
I am going to leave you with a bit of video advice from one of the best Alexander teachers I know: Mr. Ron Swanson.
‘The training I was able to do with Jeremy in the Alexander Technique has inspired new confidence, ease, and creativity in my acting. […] Whether you want to ignite a deeper sense of mind-body connection or refine your philosophy on storytelling, Jeremy’s classes are transformational and will help you expand your sense of self. I think I even grew taller!’