We Can All Use the Gift of Presence
In her new book, The Gift of Presence: A Mindfulness Guide for Women, Caroline Welch provides a timely, practical way to move from chaos to calm. She shares the wisdom from the lives of over 100 women whom she interviewed, together with the latest science made accessible to show how presence—being mindfully aware— can contribute to our well-being.
We spoke with Caroline about how we can pave a pathway, especially during these especially challenging times, for living with more presence and meaning through an approach she calls the 3Ps of Purpose, Pivoting and Pacing.
1. What are the “3Ps?”
The 3 Ps of Purpose, Pivoting and Pacing comprise an approach I created for making presence an integral part of our daily lives. It organically grew out of my teaching and the interviews I conducted of dozens of women exploring their relationship to being aware of what’s happening as it’s happening—being present or living mindfully. Being present lays the foundation for all 3 Ps.
Research confirms that having a Purpose in life (that is, an intention to accomplish something meaningful to us and impactful for the world beyond us as individuals), makes us happier and builds resilience. Even in the face of a pandemic, knowing our Purpose and keeping it handy can keep us going especially during our most discouraging days.
Pivoting reminds us that before, during and after any significant change in our lives, we have our experiences, skills, and relationships by our side to support us in making decisions on how to respond and move forward in life. This can give us the needed courage to overcome our fears that are inherent in making changes.
No matter our age or stage, Pacing is key because many of us tend to try to “do it all, all at once.” While we often associate this with our 20s and 30s when we are trying to figure it all out, I learned in my interviews from women of all ages, including in their 50s and beyond to 90 years, that we can become overwhelmed with demands from grandparenting to caregiving to starting a new career or volunteer effort at any time in our lives.
2. How can mindfulness help us deal with the coronavirus pandemic and the threat of acquiring COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019)?
While we cannot control the world around us, we can shape how we respond to the new and challenging conditions life presents. In situations such as the coronavirus, which is facing us now, the learnable skill of being present can provide a solid foundation for reducing our risk of falling ill and feeling stressed. How? Presence enables us to prepare and protect, not panic; to respond flexibly, not react impulsively. The first step in staying healthy is being aware, throughout as much of our day as possible, of the small but important measures we can take to protect ourselves and those around us. One measure, for example, is not touching our faces given that epidemiologists suggest transmission occurs at least in part by exposure from our potentially contaminated hands to our mucous membranes of the nose and mouth. This is a simple but not easy step to consistently take since touching our faces is a mindless behavior, something we do often and on autopilot. One study found we touch our faces up to 23 times per hour. So, setting our intention to limit the times we touch our faces is an informal mindfulness practice that can strengthen our attention and increase our chances of remaining as healthy as possible.
The challenge and uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic can be reframed in our lives as an invitation to become more present as we strengthen our mindfulness skills each day, moment by moment.
Other measures to undertake mindfully include washing our hands frequently, practicing social distancing, and limiting our travel. Mindfulness makes taking these steps much more likely. And when our minds wander, which they are prone to do about 50 % of the time—often to the worst case scenario which can quickly become the only scenario, causing us to feel fear and panic—we can gently bring our attention back to the intention we have set to prepare and protect, and to be more present.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying, just mindfully take these measures and it’s all going to be fine. Scientists are suggesting we are in for a marathon, not a sprint, when it comes to the challenges of the current pandemic. Mindfulness is not a panacea, whether dealing with a pandemic or anything else we can’t control. What I’m suggesting is that we hold in our experience both the gravity of the current challenges, the fear we naturally feel, together with our intention to mindfully take steps to prepare and protect ourselves and those around us. The more we can find ways to prepare, protect and be present, without getting lost in worrisome, catastrophic thought loops about the future or regrets about the past, the less panic and stress we will experience as we come to live more and more in the present.
3. Why is being present so important for our well-being?
In these challenging times, whether from pandemics, politics or planetary changes, we all can benefit from knowing what science now shows us: being present builds resilience in the face of difficulties. Resilience means that a stress can be a stimulus for growth, rather than making us feel overwhelmed, full of fear, or in despair. Amazingly, research now confirms that being present–that is, having an open, receptive awareness, seeing clearly, not denying or distorting what’s going on—strengthens our mind and creates health in our body and relationships. For example, the gift of presence includes: reducing stress, strengthening our immune response, reducing inflammation, and even optimizing the enzyme, telomerase, that repairs and maintains the important protective ends of our chromosomes. Studies also reveal how mindfulness practices strengthen the connections in our brain that are the basis for resilience and well-being.
If these were the outcomes of taking a given medication, we would call it a miracle drug. Who wouldn’t want these benefits, especially in the midst of our current life’s challenges? The good news is that these benefits are available to each one of us by learning the skills of being more mindful.
4. How does one make mindfulness an integral part of our lives without placing something more on our already too long “to do” lists?
One effective way for making mindfulness a part of our daily lives is to “staple it” to something that we are already doing. One of my students made a commitment to take three mindful breaths (and an extra moment or two as her schedule allows) each morning when she turned on the light for her pet lizard, Ruby, and each evening when she turned the light off. Another way is to repurpose time. One of my students devotes 15 minutes of her hour-long commute by train to work to focus her attention on the sounds around her.
5. Your book shows why Presence is so important in our lives and how it can be strengthened with meditation. For how long do you recommend we meditate a day?
Professor Amishi Jha’s research consistently shows that a minimum of 12 minutes per day is required in order for us to enjoy the health benefits associated with mindfulness practice. What we don’t know yet is whether it’s equally as beneficial to break that daily dozen into small chunks of time or whether all at once is optimal. Research does confirm, however, that the most important thing is to be consistent, mediating daily if at all possible, even if for only a few minutes.
6. What are some ways we can experience more calm when feeling overwhelmed?
“Selective neglect,” or intentionally not paying attention to certain things, is one powerful way. A practical example is to have a restricted intake of media in these days of data overwhelm and “breaking news” stories that change by the second. It’s also helpful when things have been requested of you, to ask yourself, “Is this something that can wait?” or “Am I holding anyone up by not doing whatever is being asked of me?” Wisdom lies in knowing what not to do, as well as what to do—and when. It’s also helpful to look at what’s making us feel overwhelmed and determining if it’s a “pebble, rock, or boulder.” If you’re like me, you may be prone to charging full speed ahead on several things without pausing to ask this basic question which helps us to assess what is required of us at any given time.
7. Our human nature is to resist and avoid change. How do we pivot in a way that is mindful, rather than reactive and stressful?
When we are present while Pivoting, we can keep in mind that we are still grounded (and have alongside of us our skills, experience, and relationships), as in basketball when one foot remains in place. It’s easier to overcome the fears often associated with change, such as fear of failure and uncertainty, when we are mindful of our support system. It can be helpful to reframe change and an experience of being unsuccessful as one gateway to growth – the only way to learn and grow is to try things. The only real failure is in not trying.
8. What do you mean by “setting the pace” and how do we manage that on both routine days, and uncontrollable days?
By setting the pace, I mean that we set a general intention each day—and as we make our calendars—to allow a buffer for the unexpected in any given day. It’s what the Japanese call “yuutori,” or having a transitional time between commitments, which can translate to arriving on time, or even early. Of course, some of our days are filled with emergencies, and we can’t even get to one of what we thought were our priorities for the day. But having committed to a general intention to build in more buffers more often is a solid start in setting a pace that can bring us more calm.
9. You call comparison “the thief of all joy”; how do we navigate that tricky word in the age of social media?
We are generally content with a vacation we just took or a dinner party we attended until we have a look at one of our social media platforms and see something shiny that appears better or somehow more fun than what we just experienced. Then all of the sudden we don’t feel so great about what we thought was a wonderful vacation or dinner. We can best navigate this by practicing gratitude for what is present in our own lives, without regard for what we might see or hear about another’s experience. I know this sounds simple, but I recognize it’s not easy. Many of us may be prone to FOBI, a feeling of being inadequate. We are social beings, and these are natural worries exacerbated by social media. However, the more we can be mindful each day of even two or three things for which we are grateful, over time it can bring us more contentment and less anxiety from distracting comparisons.
10. Can you give us just one key takeaway from your book?
Yes! Change is constant, and while we can’t change world events nor others, we can change ourselves in how we relate to both. Presence is a state of mind that can literally change our brain thanks to neuroplasticity, our brain’s ability to change continuously throughout our lifespan. Repeated states such as Presence, clarity, and joy can become enduring traits, a new baseline way of being over time.
This Q&A was featured in the March 15th edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.