Practicing Presence

The world is going at unprecedented speed but we barely have time to notice. Rather than stop to wonder why, we are addicted to going faster. Maybe some of us get lost longing for the past. Few of us seem to spend much time in the present.

Wise men and women point to a secret to life. It’s that we can only experience now. We can learn from the past, of course. And we should plan for the future. But what we feel – what we experience – only ever happens when it happens. And in any moment of happening, there are a million amazing things worth celebrating.

We have become so distracted and disconnected that we are losing the ability to live life in the moment. I recently read that the average American is spending 11 hours in front of screens each day. This disconnection affects or relationships, decisions, actions and life satisfaction. It’s no surprise really. How are we supposed to do things well when we are somewhere else inside?

I take people into the wilderness and help them make time to stop. When we do this, we share exercises to help open all of the senses. I then leave them, alone in a beautiful place for a few hours… sometimes days. When I return, they beam, as if something deep inside has been switched on again. How do can we keep that glow alive? 

Children and animals are the real teachers in this world. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to glide through life like a cat, easy and purring with senses wide open, ready to react to anything with style? Or how about with the wide open curiosity and joy of the playground – like a five year old – but when preparing meals or in conversation or at work.

I met an Eskimo elder last year, who, as soon as he wakes up, sips a glass of water, and gives a big cheer. You can see the way he tells it – he feels a childlike happiness from sipping the water. You can see it on his smile and the kindness of his eyes.

We need this. The world needs more of this. In our research working with nature and meditation, we see there are so many benefits of slowing and noticing. Going into a forest with a gentle, open mind has a positive impact on many things including stress, our immune system, our memory, empathy, creativity and lots, lots more.

There are folks at MIT working with an idea called ‘Theory U’, which is all about transforming society through ‘presencing’. The idea – roughly – is that we can collectively let go of small habits, attachments and patterns of the past and find a different kind of place from which to create a new future together. The process calls for working with heart and will. I think this calls for a new way of being.

So how do we do this? How do we master the art of presence? Because these things are not about process – not the build-a-house kind of process. Rather, this is about being – and being calls for working with qualities within.

Being happens in many ways – not just in our heads but all of our bodies and hearts. So a first thing to do is reconnect with all of our bodies and human systems. Working with practices such as T’ai Chi and Qi Gong – gentle martial art forms – helps us do this; broadening awareness around the body; to internal sensations; and to dynamics of being such as groundedness, openness and flow. More than think about these things, we can feel them. We can really practice them.

I’ve also come to believe that presence is connected to the skill of taking care of ourselves. I had the fortune of learning from Thich Nhat Hanh a few years ago – an extraordinary person, and one of the greatest proponents of mindfulness today. In so much of his work, Thich Nhat Hanh shows that being in the moment is about bringing awareness to the heart. ‘Hold it like a mother holds a baby’ he says. Whatever is happening in the moment, an aspect of mindfulness is to hold it with care and compassion. There is some kind of alchemy across noticing and caring: bringing us even closer to now.

We can also do much more to open up the senses. John P. Milton, an environmental and spiritual pioneer (and mentor to some folks at MIT and Theory U) says we have nine ‘fields of experience’. These are our sight, sound, touch, taste and smell (as we learn in school) but also motion, thought, feeling and ‘chi’ – or life force. Each field is a window to the world. We experience everything in life through these fields. Yet, in a world where we spend 11 hours behind screens each day, we are losing the skills to notice what is around us. With care and time, we can open up each field of experience, and deepen them to connect with other things around us and the ‘bigger picture’.

Which brings me back to my Eskimo teacher, and the qualities of wonder and appreciation. I have learnt from people like him that it is possible to rediscover feelings of wonder in ourselves and bring them to the forefront of life. We can find these feelings as if they are somewhere in the body but have got a bit lost. A ceremony of waking up, sipping water and cheering helps to find these. Equally, going into nature with a lens of appreciation helps to wake the heart and senses. These little ceremonies are important. They are about feeling five years old again, and they show we can rekindle the capacity to celebrate every moment.

Finally, there is an often neglected friend to presence. And that is relaxation. Again inspired by John Milton – and ancient traditions from Taoism to Tantra to indigenous wisdom – we work with a balance of presence and relaxation. This is because we can try so hard to be present, that we tense up and lose ourselves in trying to be present. The real magic happens when presence and relaxation combine, opening up our awareness in a completely new way.

These are busy and challenging times, when each of us – and humanity – needs to be at our best. So it’s time to revisit what it means to be – and how to take this to the world. And that just needs a bit of practice.

Click here to find out more about my Being & Presence workshop and our Way of Nature Be Here and Present Quest – great opportunities to practice presence.

As ever, and in time old fashion, I’d like to thank the teachers who have helped me learn about these things: John P. Milton, Thich Nhat Hanh, Angaangaaq Angakkorsuaq and all my friends through Way of Nature. If you’d like to know more about Theory U, take a look at


Alone on a mountain and getting free

Time alone in Nature can transform lives. I received the following from a participant from one of our Wild Nature Quests last October…

(She writes this as if it were synopsis for a story about her life, so it’s in the third person.)

‘Sitting naked, totally alone, on top of a deserted mountain, eyes shut, feeling the warmth of the sun on her skin and hearing the swoosh of the wind as it passed through the eagles feathers flying above her, she realised for the first time in her life… Like really realised, properly, felt, understood, connected with the undisputable fact that we, it, everything is all just made of the same stuff. The rock that she sat on for hours at a time, the butterflies that entertained her during her 24 hours alone, the sun that warmed her in the day, the moon and stars that fascinated her a night. The realisation felt calming and relaxing and comforting and as she pondered on this a little bit more she felt totally and utterly irrelevant .. And that was humbling and gratifying and embarrassingly obvious. She was utterly irrelevant and she would try to never forget it ..’

Months after the event, having sent this to me, she told me how she has taken a leap of faith in life. Her world has changed and she is happier. There are answers in the wild, and they point to our own wildness inside.


Reclaim your right to relax

I have started to take relaxation very seriously. Not just as something to do at the end of the day, or as leisure or luxury. I mean relaxation as a guiding beacon to life: as a fuel inside us; conduit for relationships; DNA to business and society.

There is a website that gathers information about how things have accelerated in the world. Since 1950, it is scary how things have increased in speed. Everything from communications, infrastructure, agriculture, economic measures and so on. But contentment is not measured in speed,. Neither is health. Or love. This acceleration of everything is turning us inside out, and while we race around in blind panic we are bringing our own world down.

You can feel it everywhere. We talk about busy-ness everywhere we go. Relationships are commoditised. We are addicted to information on devices. When we are not on our devices we are bombarded with information anyway. All our measures are about speed and growth and strange notions of advancement that are completely at odds with natural cycles of life. There is a constant chase to somewhere else and we never get close to arriving.

Many of us are in a state of denial about it. Many of us go along with a tide of consumption, ownership, status and so on, but we wouldn’t dare to say these things are causing us hell. We don’t dare to say it out loud because then it would be true, and then what would we do? We could not possibly turn things around now. We could not possibly U-turn a whole life of hard work and trials and milestones to our destinations unknown. But of course, bottling it all up churns us up even more.

I’ve been training with a master in relaxation. He exists. He doesn’t call himself that – he is actually an ecologist, author, spiritual teacher and more. He is definitely a master in relaxation though. He learnt his trade from Taoist sages in China, Tantra gurus in India, Indigenous elders from all over the world and now John P. Milton is one of the coolest elders we have.

John says that the first stage of relaxation is about noticing tensions. Many of us barely touch the tip of this iceberg. We hardly ever stop to sense and feel what is blocked – in us or in people or in structures around us. When we finally do this,then we can learn methods and tools to relax.

But it doesn’t stop there. There is a deeper level of relaxation; one where we begin to relax the stuff behind uncomfortable memories and emotions. The stuff that makes us shrivel in certain situations. I’ve come to believe that nothing in the world has a right to do this to anyone, but still we all carry these things inside us. The more we fight them or hide them, the more they burn inside. But there are ways of releasing them.

And then, there is another level. It’s the level of complete surrender. In a world where we have got used to everything on a platter, instantaneously, in any colour form or shape we want, the most miniscule idea of letting go of something is terrifying. But we might never feel freedom without letting go of control.

How would our world look if our structures and policies and decisions were directed are relaxation? What if measures of progress pointed us to balance and integrity and form instead?

Relaxation is not about weakness. The sprinter practices deep calmness in parts of the body in order to exert awesome power directed to the right places. The monks of ancient times practices gentle martial arts in order to direct raw energy to the right places. Each and every system needs space and openness for movement. Every push requires equal pull somewhere long the line.

In a world in which we are still perpetuating violence, inequality and disharmony, we must find new ways of being and growing to nourish a world that can hold all of us. Wisdom points to the fact that this starts with the individual; each person cultivating the right to peace, belonging, kindness, and contentment with life itself. These things are the basis of relaxation and they come freely packaged inside our hearts.

We all have a right to ease and peace in the modern world. Reclaim that right for yourself, and will be armed to take the relaxation revolution out to the world.

Note: In 2016 we will be running a couple of relaxation focused retreats with Way of Nature. If you’d like to go deeper into the art of relaxation – do take a look!