Back in the 60s and 70’s there was a great emphasis on living in the present. Ram Das’s book Be Here Now was very popular. And Fritz Perls, in his workshops for therapists at Esalen also stressed being present-centered as a way of cutting down on the obsessive style that one found in therapists who were trained in Freudian analytic therapy. The Freudian approach emphasized thinking about one’s problems in living, the therapist’s main activity being the making of cognitive interpretations. Although Perls didn’t spell it out, what he was really getting at was being in the sensory present.
I was one of those obsessional types that he was trying to help get out of their minds, more into their senses. I remember having lunch with him at a deli in Beverly Hills. He had come to LA to do a fundraiser for a growth center I was helping to establish called the Topanga Center for Human Development, sort of a miniature Esalen Institute. I was a bit intimidated by the great man and was always monitoring my thoughts before I spoke to him. He was sitting across from me in the deli and said, in his heavy German accent: “Steve, you are still thinking too much.” He was, of course, right, but I realized later that, if he weren’t so confrontive, I might have been more spontaneous with him.
In an important sense, we’re never in any place but the present. The past doesn’t exist any more and the future is not here yet. What Perls meant when he said that people were not experiencing the now is that they were lost in their cognitive present and not in their sensory present. This style prevents those people from savoring the activities they’re involved in, even those that are pleasurable.
I find the ability to spend at least some time existing in the sensory present lacking in many of my clients. The result is a relative inability to find deep satisfaction by sensory immersion in any activity and, as a consequence, a relative lack of self-awareness and experiencing of joy. The current emphasis on mindfulness, particularly among CBT therapists, and in those exploring spirituality, shows that being aware of oneself in the present is currently seen as important in many ways: for self-grounding, awareness of bodily sensations and emotions; and literally seeing, hearing, smelling tasting, what’s present to them. Being sensorially aware is very important for people who are addicted to substances, shopping, sex, gambling, etc. because they tend to avoid their emotions and plunge quickly into addictive activities as a way of avoiding the feeling of emotion. It is probably even more difficult for people in general to exist in the present now than back in the 60’s and 70”s because of the very negative events occurring in the US and the world in general.
How to increase present-centeredness
Meditation can be helpful in increasing the ability to experience the present moment. I prefer a type of Vipasana meditation called Noting. This entails attending to one’s body by just noticing the body part where one is receiving sensations. I find when I meditate in this way, it’s most helpful for me to say out loud what I am noticing. When I’m aware that I’m getting lost in a thought–e.g., what I’m going to do during my day, thinking about some issue I’m struggling with, thinking about some future activity–I just say the word “thinking” and then get back to my body. I have found that the type of meditation where one uses a mantra that one says over and over again can actually lead to less sensory awareness, not more. I often will spend a few minutes with clients in our therapy sessions helping them learn how to to do the Noting version of Vipassana.
I also sometimes do a couple of exercises with clients to help them become aware of their sensory awareness avoidance and learning to be more in their sensory present. I suggest that they just look around the room and say what they literally see. Some clients will just note things in the office–pictures on the wall, books in my book case, the trees and plants outside my window–without getting immersed in any one thing they see. It’s as if they’re reciting a grocery list and, when I point that out, they are often amazed at how little time they spend in their visual sensory present. I suggest when I notice that, if they see anything that piques their interest, they should experiment by delving into their visual experience by spending more time with each thing they see.
Another activity that I sometimes use is one I got from Perls. I ask the client to say what he or she is experiencing and to preface each statement with “Here and now I’m aware of …………….” and then saying what they are noticing. This can seem a bit stilted but gives clients the opportunity to absorb themselves in the experience rather than just skipping over it. If they begin to veer off in thinking about what they’re saying, I instruct them to say, “Here and now I’m aware of thinking about . . .. . .” I also note what they were experiencing just before they took a detour into their thinking. It’s often some observation that triggered anxiety or a painful memory. Sometimes it occurs when they’ve looked at me and feel reluctant to say what they’ve observed. They may be fearful about saying they see my bald head for fear that I would be annoyed with them. Or they may feel that’s being too “personal” to say what they experience when they look at me.