Beside Myself: the gift of being present

Photo by Fallon Michael on Unsplash

Quickly I put the dog in the car and drove off to a walkable neighborhood about a mile away.

The last time my now-ex had followed me as I tried to escape to the bedroom, he had continued to rage about all the ways I was useless. I had seen the outline of a window as my mind closed to what it could no longer take in. When I glanced at the clock what I thought was fifteen minutes later, I realized with a jolt that an hour and a half had passed. Time had warped. Faced with his soul-squashing tirade, my mind had taken me away, escaping to an unseeing blankness. My coping strategy from childhood was still firmly in place from a time when I felt I had no choices of how to deal with my terror and anxiety.

I was determined to have some control this time–remove myself physically and walk, try to remain attached to the present. How could I take care of myself if my mind wasn’t with my body?

A good friend once said to me, “It’s like God gave you a place of safety when you needed it.” I like that. It’s a kinder way to look at what was held against me in my marriage as Craziness.

Eventually self-care took the shape of walking away from this relationship for good. But before I did, my therapist started helping me to learn the gift of being present. This is what my walk with the dog was, a way to stay attached and aware, in the moment enough to be in charge of my own safety.

How can we remain in the present when we notice we’re observing from somewhere beside ourselves?

Steps to become present, as walked through by my therapist:

  • Look around the room. Is there a color, a shape, that catches your eye in a pleasing way?
  • Focus on that. Describe it in detail to yourself. Is it sharp edged? Smooth? Big? Small? Cloth? Clay? Porcelain? What about it pleases you?
  • Touch the arms of the chair, or the clothes on your body. How does it feel to your fingers? Rough? Textured? Cool? Warm?
  • Pat your legs, your arms. You are here in this space, in this moment. You have gravity on this earth. You are here.
  • Breathe deeply, from the belly. Slowly. Where do you feel the air as you breathe? Your throat? Your chest? Your nose?
  • Smell. What can you smell in the air? Is it pleasant? Unpleasant?

Another way I like to do this is to walk in a park or neighborhood and observe the flowers and the foliage. I take my time, no rush, breathing in the air, letting my eyes wander over the shapes of the plants, the blossoms, the leaves on the trees. And autumn is the perfect time to observe the broad splashes of color as the leaves change. How many colors and variations of colors can you find on just one leaf? Breathe slowly, tune in to your senses. Smell the air–is is crisp and cold? Warm and damp? How thick is that leaf between your fingers? How smooth is that rose petal? How pungent is the smell of that geranium? Does sound carry differently in this season?

Mindfulness has become a popular topic. It can help us eat better, sleep better, care for ourselves better. Here are a couple of articles on the subject of paying attention to being present:

30 Grounding Techniques to Quiet Distressing Thoughts by Crystal Raypole This article has some great and practical ideas for grounding yourself in the present, for helping your body and mind recognize that You Are Here.

How to Stay in the Present Moment in Everyday Life: 5 Simple Habits
By Henrik Edberg
Some daily practices to help ourselves not get caught up in the past or the future, but be fully present in this moment.

And if you hear nothing else in this whole page of words, hear this: there is no shame in our struggle with mental health. As children we did what we needed to do to survive. As adults those coping mechanisms may not be as useful, but they’re habit. I write because I want you to know there’s hope: hope to replace our old strategies with more useful ones, hope to replace those old lies with truth.

Give yourself the gift of being awake in your life.

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