Learning To Be Present Even When Life Is Hard

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Why it’s important to be present

A few years ago, I was in Morocco with my husband on a spiritual pilgrimage of sorts after my youngest brother passed away. He’d spent a semester abroad there, perfecting his Arabic and French (as one does). I wanted to follow in his footsteps and immerse myself in the culture. It was a mixed bag.

There were so many powerful experiences on that trip, but there was one afternoon that really stands out even now. And it has everything to do with the importance of learning to be present.

We were at Cafe Clock in Fes (they have a recipe book – linking here) where my brother had spent a lot of his time with friends. I had seen all of his pictures from the trip so many times I pretty much had them memorized. Sitting in the highest point in the restaurant, I suddenly spotted and immediately recognized a few levels down the exact table my brother sat at. I even knew which chair he’d sat in based on the pattern in the marble on the table. I was able to go sit there for a while and just imagine him there having so much fun.

That’s why it matters to be present – we have no way of knowing what we’ll miss otherwise. What if I had been on my phone or taking my own pictures or wondering where to go after lunch? I would have totally missed it.

I came back up to my table and my husband said “you know, if you take away the concept of time, which is an illusion anyway, Thomas and you are both here.”

Be present, everything you’re looking for is already right here.

What makes it so hard to be present

So we know why it’s important to try to be present – but it’s already crazy hard even when things are going well (or neutrally). So when things are tough, forget about it. 

Why is that? 

I think we all know it has pretty much everything to do with technology. We have such powerful access to any information we could ever want or need. But it comes with a price – the devices and apps we use to access information are designed to be addictive. And we learn that if we’re uncomfortable, we can distract ourselves.

Our brains literally get a tiny dopamine hit every time we check our phone. It’s like gambling – it doesn’t even matter if there’s actually a notification or not when we check, the effect is the same. Do that enough times (some estimates put American compulsive cell phone checking at 250+ times per day), and you’ll carve a new neural pathway in your brain as the new habit forms.

So it’s going to take a concerted effort to retrain ourselves to be present in our lives in a way that would have come naturally to our parents’ generation. That is, before our devices took over…our parents aren’t safe either. The good news is we know about neuroplasticity now, so those neural pathways we carved with compulsive phone checking can be un-carved. Or rather, used less often, as we learn to be present to other more meaningful areas of our lives (like our relationships).

How we can learn to be present even if our lives aren’t perfect

The easiest way to start to learn to be present is in scenarios that are generally pleasant or at least neutral. Building up a skill in a more controlled, predictable environment makes it easier to fall back on that skill when we’re called to be present to difficult thoughts and feelings.

So to start, just make a note to try to be present to physical sensations when you’re doing something routine and repetitive that you do every day. Maybe every time you wash your hands you notice the aroma of the soap and remind yourself I am here. Maybe when you’re walking your dog you listen for the farthest-away sound you can hear and try to be present to what that might be.

You may notice physical sensations that feel unpleasant – like feeling rushed or agitated – but the more you practice, the more you train your brain to realize that physical sensations are not the end of the world, and don’t always require an immediate response. 

In mindset coaching we say all the time that feelings are not facts. Feeling anxious doesn’t mean there’s actually a reason to be anxious. It’s just our brains doing what they do (probably withdrawing from cell phone dopamine).

Practice makes it easier to be present when things are harder

The number one thing that derails people when they try to be present is they give up too soon. They feel a feeling that’s uncomfortable, panic, and bail. There’s nothing quite like retreating and scrolling Instagram when your father-in-law says something offensive at Thanksgiving, right? But if we choose instead to be present to whatever is here – even when it’s hard – we can get to the root of what we’re actually looking for. Maybe it’s not an Instagram heart, maybe it’s a compassionate and firm clarification of boundaries. When we already know how to be present when things are easier, it’s easier to be present when things are hard. It just takes consistent practice.

Speaking of neuroplasticity, sharing some of the books on my reading list on this topic! And if you’re like … who has time to read actual physical books? Try Audible instead!

1. The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, M.D. (one to re-read – I read it years ago and was like WAIT WHAT?? It’s wild)

4. Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

5. The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.

The bottom line

This is an exciting time to be alive, with all of the resources available to us and connecting us to the rest of the world. It’s also a difficult time to truly be present to what’s here in this moment. And this moment is all we have, so it matters more than anything.

Photo of Emily Shutt wearing red scarf

Emily is a mindset coach and writer specializing in the habits of Millennial and Gen Z high achievers in the areas of money, relationships, lifestyle and travel.

She holds the PCC designation with the International Coach Federation and has been featured in multiple media outlets.

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