Each Day a Call to Presence

"To meet the day before it begins means that you are present when it is born… Because there are not yet any events, the infant day is open, fresh, and new. It could turn into anything… [It’s] like being present for the beginning of a baby’s life.

- Deepak Chopra

Being present means being aware of, and awake to, our lives, just as they unfold day-by-day. How present are you to your life? For example, were you fully present to the tastes and textures and aromas of the food that you ate for breakfast today? If not, don’t worry; you are not alone. But rather than seeing this as a problem, you could choose to see it as an opportunity for stitching presence into your days.

In fact, you could start, right now, by bringing your awareness to your breathing. What do you notice? For example, are you breathing through your nose…? Through your mouth...? Both? And what is happening to your belly as you breathe? Is it mostly stationary or does your belly expand outward with each in-breath? If it happens that you are just reading these words without pausing to bring presence your breathing, you are missing out on an opportunity to awaken.

Your Body's Call to Presence

By the time you finished middle school chances are you were no longer breathing naturally. Do a check on yourself right now. Take a deep breath. If you are like many people, you will draw your belly in and tighten your abdominal muscles, while lifting and inflating your upper chest. This is what Gay Henricks, author of Conscious Breathing, calls “upside-down breathing”. In natural breathing, by contrast, the breath begins as the muscles of the diaphragm expand downward prompting the belly to expand outward, allowing space for the lungs to fill with oxygen, all the way to the bottom.

When our breathing is upside-down, we deprive our bodies of oxygen because the air we take in comes into contact with fewer capillaries in the air sacks of our lungs. Think of it this way: Each minute only about ½-cup of blood flows through the top portion of your lungs—where many of us confine much of our breathing. When our breathing extends to the middle of our lungs, the incoming air has access to about two cups (instead of just ½ cup) of blood each minute; and when breathing extends all the way to the bottom of our lungs, 4-5 cups of blood are available for the uptake of life-giving oxygen each minute (i.e., about ten times more oxygen-uptake potential as compared to top-lung breathing).

You can get a quick refresher on proper breathing by taking in this short video:

Now, if you would like to experience some techniques that help to ensure healthy breathing, check out these two teaching videos:

It is by bringing presence to our breathing that we can begin to become present to both our bodies and our lives.

Nature's Call to Presence

When was the last time your attention was called to the sounds of gurgling water in a woodland stream… or the tangy taste of wild blueberries plucked from a highland meadow… or the spectacle of a flock of starlings, splintering the sky at dusk? If it has been a while, that’s not surprising. After all, to the extent that our lives are mostly enacted indoors, we miss out on nature’s invitations to presence. But all is not lost! It is still possible to awaken our senses by engaging in simple field studies like the two below.

Field Study 1 - A Circle of Twine:

Have you ever had the experience of walking in a natural setting, and wondering about the lives of all the plants and animals that live there? You could bring your attention—your presence—to all that you might be missing in the natural world by making a date with yourself to visit a nearby patch of forest.

Prepare for your date by gathering your journal, along with a ten-foot length of twine. Once you arrive to the forest, locate a trail and after walking fifty paces stop and place your left hand on your belly and your right hand over your heart. Then, with full presence, breathe in, to a count of five, and out, to a count of five. As you breathe in this slow and deliberate way, take in the forest for the wondrous miracle that it is!

When you are ready to move on, walk off the trail a few paces and use your twine to demarcate a circle on the ground before you. Then, from a standing position, slowly take in all that you see within your circle of twine.

After several minutes of observation, you might conclude that your survey is complete, but consider that, maybe, you are only 1/5th done! After all, aside from your eyes, you possess ears for hearing; skin for feeling; a nose smelling and a tongue for tasting. So, with the intent of employing all of your sensorial equipment, get down on all fours with the mission to fully presence the dynamic, living world within your circle of twine. Think of it as going on a safari into the micro-world, right at your feet. During this adventure, have your journal handy so that you can record your observations, discoveries and questions, and perhaps even make a sketch or two.

Field Study 2 - Less is More

As a means of activating our non-sight-oriented senses, author and Buddhist scholar, Joanna Macy, has created an outdoor, partner-based, activity that she has dubbed the “mirror walk”.

The protocol is simple: One person puts on a blindfold. Then, this person’s partner, acts as a guide, by taking him/her by the arm or hand, on an excursion, offering a medley of sensory experiences—e.g., smelling crushed pine needles, tasting a wintergreen berry, touching tree bark, listening to the sound of leaves being crumpled, feeling the gritty texture of soil… along with anything else that might stimulate the senses, tickle curiosity, and/or bring delight.

The entire walk is conducted in silence, except in certain moments when the guide stands behind the one being guided and gently focuses that person’s head in a specific direction—e.g., toward a large boulder or a spider web or a towering pine tree—and says: “Open your eyes and look at yourself in the mirror.” Upon hearing this, the person being guided opens their eyes and takes in the sight, considering the possibility that they are, literally, looking at themselves in the mirror. After ten or fifteen minutes, roles are switched so that the person who was previously being guided becomes the guide.

After both parties have completed their mirror walks, they share their experiences, including what they learned about themselves, as well as about each other.

Taken together, these two exercises underscore how nature can serve as a catalyst for awakening, provided we are willing to be fully present.  Mary Oliver points the way with this poem.

The Summer Day

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver

"Connecting intimately with nature, I felt like a kid again, bursting with aliveness and creativity."

- Samylda Charles, Steppingstone #20 Guide

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