Being present, that is ‘being in the place in question’, or being exactly where you are, could be viewed as the antithesis of change. In its nature, it implies no movement or action. However, if we look at being present, what is actually happening? Sitting writing this now, if I pay attention for a moment this is what I notice;
I feel the tingling and excitement of writing down my thoughts and ideas. I sense my sit bones against the seat of the chair. I feel my lungs rise and fall and the weight of my arms hanging off my shoulders. My breath deepens for a moment, my shoulders relax a little; I look up, look around, feel inspired, then continue to type.
When I’m at the computer, I often get tense and uncomfortable; I love writing, though equally I can try to hold on, keep going, when my body is crying out to change position. Here, I’m explaining what it’s like to resist change, ignore it. However, in my paying attention for a moment (as with my experiment above), something else happened. Through just stopping and observing my body (not through trying to change it), two small changes occurred. Firstly, my breathing relaxed and deepened, secondly my shoulders relaxed. This did not come from forcing change, working hard at it, judging it or trying, instead all I did was observe and accept how I was in the moment and change naturally followed.
All I did was observe and accept how I was in the moment and change naturally followed
This was not a moment that I manifested for the purpose of this blog, it was a spontaneous response to being present. In fact, that shift towards feeling a little more relaxed is still staying with me. On another day, change may not be so obvious, or a feeling may become more intense rather than subside, though notice that this is still change. Indeed, notice that change is happening all the time, whether is small or larger ways, perhaps it’s your breathing, your posture, or anything you may notice.
Using body awareness, and taking time to notice feelings and sensations can be useful tools for change. Feeling and sensations are what is happening and changing in the present moment. Of course there can be judgements about what is happening, or not happening in your body or life, though, as with the principles of meditation and mindfulness, if you can, kindly acknowledge judgements as part of your present experience – rather than deny or judge yourself for judging.
As Christina Feldman, an experienced meditation teacher and co-founder of Gaia House Retreat Centre in Devon says– being attentive to the present is, in its very essence a process of assisting change with great care and kindness;
‘Through attention we learn the skill of being whole-heartedly present with great sensitivity. Every moment of dissolving habit with clear attentiveness is a moment of fostering sensitivity and a clear connection with the present moment.’ (Principles of Meditation, by C.Feldman).
Dissolving habit; Feldman links being present and attentive to dissolving habit – not just blindly going on as we normally do, instead, using awareness to naturally dissolve a pattern. Feldman is not talking about working at changing, she’s working at being present, and it is this presence that initiates the change.
Similarly, Peter Levine in his book; Waking the Tiger, Healing Trauma, discusses the value of somatically connecting to one’s present experience as a way to transform trauma into healing. Levine identifies the stress response (to traumatic events) of freezing as a place that people often get stuck, where the natural movement towards healing is frozen and change is on hold. By focusing on body sensation and how the body wants to unconsciously move, Levine explains how we can assist the body in its natural leaning towards health. Here, change towards health is again, not forced, directed nor judged, but a process of allowing the automatic body responses to complete.
Taking the judgement out of change
A common belief is that judgement can be a motivator for change, i.e. I feel so bad I have to change. However, I also think that judgement can inhibit change. In the Chinese art of Tai Chi there is a saying; the ‘chi [energy] goes where the mind flows’, in other words, where your mind and attention go, your energy also goes. If I apply that principle to judgements, if my mind is focusing on judging my action, then that is where my energy is going. Judgement, in my experience can take a lot of energy, energy that could potentially be freed up in changing actions. Taken to the extreme, one can also get stuck in the judgement and never move onto changing actions.
On the other hand, the feeling of judgement can feel so intense, that this can lead to avoidance and ignoring the issue, hoping it will go away. The result though is similar; change either doesn’t happen or is inhibited by judgement.
The body psychotherapist John Selwood, through three decades of experience of working with clients has found this;
‘If you let your experience happen, it will release knots and unfold, leading to a deeper, more grounded experience of yourself. No matter how painful or scary your feelings appear to be, your willingness to engage with them draws forth your essential strength, leading in a more life-positive direction.’
Selwood’s conclusion is that the willingness to be present with our experience unexpectedly brings real strength and change; a progression brought about by truly being present, in an embodied way, with what is going on. This is in comparison to thinking or judging what is going on – a subtle difference that has can have an immense impact on sustainable change.
Forcing change verses allowing change
Sustainable change is key in this discussion for me, sustainable means having long lasting benefits that outweigh the effort to create it. As an alternative, I’ll place the spotlight on forcing change for a moment. For me, the word force conjures up images of strength, hard work and power – qualities that definitely have some appeal! Concurrently, I have associations with breaking, violence and disrespecting, which have no appeal at all. So what happens in the body and mind when force is used? I imagine pushing through at any cost (which strikes me as the opposite of listening), keeping going, hurting and possibly collapsing with exhaustion, or at least having to stop because all my effort has been used. If I apply this as an approach to change, I imagine saying ‘I can’t go on!’, change doesn’t seem sustainable and the repercussions could outweigh the benefits of the change.
You may want to ask yourself the same question; how does the word and action of force resonate in your body and mind? What does it conjure up in your mind, your memory and your cells? Can you observe these responses without judgement, just noticing, learning and being grateful for the insights?
Force to me, is something I might use in an emergency situation, when there’s no alternative. Allowing change (through the practice of listening and bringing awareness to the body) offers, I think a valuable and valid advance towards change.
Allowing the process of change to unfold; everything feels more graceful, beautiful and easier. I’m reminded of watching lilies flower and pop open, seasons changing or a sun setting – all this awakens my memory to how beautiful the process of change can be. Just as a child explores their environment and learns to articulate his or her body, perhaps we too can gracefully change, with less pain and more naturally.
(Lilies Budding, Blooming and Disappearing – drawn over a 3 day period of observing lilies), Images by Rachel Lambert, copyright 2006).
As the intuitive healer, author and teacher Caroline Myss writes (she uses the term consciousness, where I might use awareness);
‘Consciousness is the ability to release the old and embrace the new with the awareness that all things end at the appropriate time… Therefore becoming conscious means living fully in the present moment, knowing that no situation or person will be exactly the same tomorrow. As change does occur, we work to interpret it as a natural part of life and strive to ‘flow with it,’ as the Tao Te Ching counsels, and not against it.’ (Anatomy of the Spirt, by C.Myss)
Again, we hear how the experience of being present and change happening simultaneously, and how a fluid presence is required in order to support the process of change.
When change is not happening
In a culture that is used to many things happening quickly, it is easy to want instant change or to think that ‘nothing is happening’. The discomfort of ‘just being’, even for a moment, can feel excruciating for some. It can also bring up fears of what if change doesn’t happen? Or, I could be doing more to change. Though if you take a moment (and a moment is not long to take), you may find surprising results. Change maybe easier than you think, it may be less linear than you thought, it could be more creative, it might even be joyful.
A few common, negative approaches and potential glitches to change, as I see it, are listed below, many of which are unquestioned in our culture;
- Denial (I don’t need to change)
- Forcing change (I must change)
- Berating myself for not changing (I can’t change therefore I’m hopeless)
- Working really hard to change (I can do it, though it’s going to be painful)Again, coming back to the present moment can be a good starting point for enabling change; like preparing a flowerbed to put seeds into, the right conditions can make change easier.
Being present is not the same as doing nothing, or staying still
Though beware, there are a few additional traps you could fall into. Being present is not the same as doing nothing, or staying still. By trying to hold onto a moment, change can be stopped. Indeed, being present is noticing and being able to flow with the changes that inherently want to happen in the mind and body, if we’d only allow it.
Being present is noticing and being able to flow with the changes that inherently want to happen in the mind and body if we’d only allow it.
In an interview with Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen (the Founder of BodyMind Centering®), on presence and being alive in the moment, Bonnie says;
‘Mrs Bobath [her teacher] would say to us that you should feel a change under your hands at every moment. if you’re not, then you should be doing something else’ (Feeling, Sensing, and Action, by B. Bainbridge Cohen)
Here, Bonnie is highlighting how, if we really listen to the body (and in her case through the hands and bodywork), then one will notice that change is occurring all the time. And, if change is not happening, then what we are doing needs to change. In Bonnie’s book; Feeling, Sensing, and Action she articulates the journey from feeling to sensing to action – what I see as an organic process of following change. However, Bonnie warns that at any point in this cycle one could get lost or stuck. Earlier in my blog How Judgement of ourselves can inhibit Real Change, I spoke of a cultural obsession with change (action) and how this implies a non-organic, forceful approach to change, yet Bonnie describes that a fixation on sensing, or certainly feeling (emotion) could also prevent or pause change. How often can feelings or thoughts go round our heads for example, never getting resolved because they are not experienced as sensations in the body? Just as over focusing on sensation can result in shunning emotions, and never fully integrating them, or halting action.
Change according to Bonnie, is a fine balance of moving through feeling, sensing and action that enables the flow of change to exist. Not holding, not staying still, not perpetually acting/doing but flowing through these stages in a real, embodied way.
Final thoughts, feelings and sensations on change
To conclude, in this blog, and my previous blog; How Judgement of ourselves can inhibit Real Change ,I have followed my train of thought on what an unbalanced approach to change might be. Recognising this approach as largely unquestioned in our culture, making life and real change potentially harder. I have looked at judging, forcing, and other ways of getting stuck and inhibiting or stopping change. I’ve also introduced presence, awareness and being present in the moment to feelings, sensations and movement as a way of assisting change. Not only that, but becoming conscious to the fact that change is taking place all the time, and that all we have to do is allow it, and flow with it.
This of course, can be easier said than done. Through somatics, body-awareness and other approaches that give space to the body’s organic movement and wisdom, change can indeed become more joyful, graceful and real. In time, who knows, maybe a cultural shift could happen and real, easier, organic change could grow to be the norm. I wish you all the best with your somatic practice and awareness.