Mindfulness is the methodology by which we mentally stay in the present moment. By doing so, we’re able to manage our behaviour in real time.
The first and simplest step to developing genuine presence is to tune in to the senses.
Walk through a quick exercise with me to experience for yourself how many new things you can notice when you become present through the senses.
Breathe slowly through your nose. Focus on nothing but your breath. Notice that the temperature of the air is warmer when it comes out your nose than when it entered; the body warms the air up. Have you ever noticed this? Most people haven’t, yet it has literally been right under their nose their whole life. Now tune in to your feet. Feel the pressure of your shoes on the floor. I’m betting this is the first time you’ve actually consciously tuned in to your feet today.
This simple exercise shows how tuning in to our senses makes us aware of things we’ve never noticed before. It’s not really about breath or feet; it’s simple proof that, through connecting with our senses, we can truly begin to see into every aspect of our experience: our body, mind, emotions, behaviours, habits and relationships.
And once we can perceive our habits and thoughts objectively we are no longer ruled by them; we no longer blindly follow or believe them. This new insight enables us to manage them and our behaviour.
Tuning in to the senses is a powerful way to develop presence because the senses are experienced only in the present. You cannot smell two seconds from now or listen to a sound from ten seconds ago (the lingering memory of the sound is not the sound itself). The senses are immediate, alive, here now. It is impossible to be anywhere other than in the present when we are fully and completely connected with the senses. And we can usually be present only with one sense at a time—we may hear, then feel, then see, all in a sort of seamless dance in the present.
Michael von der Geest, a senior executive and consultant with the professional services firm Ernst and Young in the UK, explained to me how tuning in to his senses has helped him develop emotional intelligence in his work. When he focuses on his senses he feels like things slow down, which gives him greater clarity. Michael feels this is particularly important for him because he is conceptual and intuitive, and his mind moves fast, which can harm his relationships by preventing him from listening closely. When people start talking to him he’s already thinking ahead to his reply. By tuning in to his breathing and grounding himself, he’s able to sit and really listen.
More than just teaching him to listen, the process has taught him empathy, a critical leadership skill, as Michael explained: ‘You can’t do anything long term through a position of authority. You can only get people on board when you empathise with them and take them on a journey with you. You have to get people together and get a consensus, and my job is to influence that outcome. I can’t just shove my vision down from the top of the ladder. Without empathy, people will resist and I won’t be able to accomplish the goals.
‘For me, the key to developing empathy has been mindfulness. Before getting into mindfulness work I had no idea how to develop self-awareness. But mindfulness taught me simple breathing exercises that allowed me to become more aware of my body and senses, which provided the pathway to even greater self-awareness. So any time I feel tense, like I’m entering a zone in which I could start losing self- management, I tune in to my breath and it calms me down. I always come back to that in my leadership.’
When we sense the ‘self’ in self-awareness, the first and most obvious aspect of ourselves is our body. When we tune in to our bodies we are primarily engaging our sense of touch. This is why breath (touch) and the body scan meditation are such a big deal in all mature mindfulness teaching—they are a sense practice that allows us to tune in to the most obvious and easily experienced part of our selves, our body.
Tuning in to our bodies and senses sounds so simplistic and insignificant, but it is in fact a very big deal. It is the gateway to full awareness.