The Importance of Being Present

Birdsong fell like raindrops all around me. The sounds of many cars on the motorway coalesced into one perpetual roar, making the forest seem shy in comparison. I focused on my breathing, in and out, like waves lapping on a shore. The tiredness I had been struggling with moved down my body and dissipated. I opened my eyes, ended my meditation and looked around. I felt fresh to the world. Half a metre from my head, tiny mushroom spores climbed up the branch of a tree. The ground was covered in brown and yellow, autumn seeping from the leaves. A squirrel leapt heroically between fragile branches, then scampered off into the green. My mind was clear.

This was what I experienced on my walk today, and every time I leave the house I try to have the same intensity of sensation. It comes from being present. There are so many things to focus on when you step outside. Robins flitting across rooftops and calling out cheerfully for a mate. The buzz of electricity from a Chinese restaurant spilling into the streets, followed by its sweet and smoky aromas. A passenger plane high above, piercing the clouds at breathtaking speed. The world is in motion, bustling from the microscopic scale to the gargantuan. Our senses only detect a fraction of the total stimuli. Think of a dog that goes on the same walk every day for years, does it get bored?

Photography by Henry Small

Presentness is not just for walks, I’ve found it incredibly useful for mental health. If you have a panic attack, an effective treatment is to verbally describe the objects around you. White pillow, green chair, fluffy dog- you get the picture. This technique forces you to leave your distressed mind and project your awareness outwards. Most of the time, reality is far less stressful than the scenarios you were imagining. If I’m feeling depressed about the pandemic or the future, I turn my intention to today instead. Instantly it takes the pressure off, and I can focus on doing things that make me happy instead of trying to be a “better” person. You’re not a top trumps card; sometimes you have to stop playing the game of life and just live.

You can make a conscious choice to be present right now. Feel your heartbeat. That constant, determined pounding reminds you of your mortality. Everything you have and will ever experience is made possible by that beat, and it is fragile. Focus on your breathing too. Every breath of air is essential, and in no way guaranteed. Remind yourself of death and you will feel truly alive, grateful for every passing second.

It doesn’t end there. Look at an object near you. Really stare at it, like you have laser eyes and you’re trying to burn through it. Look at the textures and the colours, and imagine what it would be like to touch. Now do a similar thing with the sounds around you. Perk up your ears like a rabbit listening out for danger. The creaky boiler, the whir of a computer, music from outside your window. Open your senses to everything. Forget yourself for a second and feel it all.

When you are present, life is richer. This is important to remember, as the world is becoming more digital. We are glued to our phones, constantly absorbing information to feed our dopamine addictions. We end up missing what’s in front of us. I see people walking through the nature reserve with noise-cancelling headphones, and I want to grab them by the shoulders and shake them. “Look around!”, I would exclaim. Don’t be that person.

You only have one life, so savour it. Engage with the world instead of just observing it. Bask in the sunshine, stroke a puppy, chat to a stranger. You won’t regret it.

Photography by Henry Small

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