Flexibility of the Mind: The Present of Presence

In Part 1 of this webzine series, we defined psychological flexibility, asked some hard-hitting questions to see if we lean more toward psychological inflexibility, and began to explore how our thoughts, feelings, and ongoing pursuit of happiness may leave us feeling disconnected from what matters to us most – here, right now. If you need a refresher, don’t stop reading! Notice what you are feeling, what sensations are showing up in your body, press your feet down, and notice your feet on the floor. And remember that you can always go back and review Part 1 of this series here.

In this Part 2 article, we will be introducing two of the six concepts of psychological flexibility, and ideally help you learn tangible tools to use in your day-to-day life. It is important to preface and remember throughout this webzine series that psychological flexibility is NOT a step-by-step process, but rather a new way of interacting with our internal and external worlds and connecting with what matters, regardless of what we are thinking or feeling.

Disconnection from the Present: What Gets in the Way

We’ve all had times in our lives when we’ve been distracted, and for the life of us could not pay attention to something, even though we really wanted to! Think about all of the things that get in the way of paying attention to what you want to. Off the top of my head, I can immediately think of some common things that distract me and pull me away from the here-and-now. Things like construction noise, a bad headache, worrying about an important meeting, or my trusty phone that I keep about an arm’s length away from me at all times.

All of these things, both external and internal, can and do quickly pull us out of the present, even when it’s not what we want. And yet, so many of us find that it is also very difficult to be present when these distractions occur. How frustrating! One assumption that psychological flexibility makes is that our brain is evolutionarily designed to attend to and inadvertently become distracted by various stimuli, both internal and external (Harris, 2009). This in turn automatically pulls us out of the present moment without us even trying.

Confused? I’ll break down a quick example: if I hear a loud BANG outside my window, my brain immediately attends to this sound and attempts to make sense of it, identify what it is, and keep myself safe from whatever the “threat” may be. It essentially “zooms in” because the sound could be so many things! It could be someone trying to break into my home; it could be an elderly neighbor who has fallen down; it could also be…construction noise. And all of this happens without my conscious awareness…and it does this to ensure my survival. So the next time you catch yourself judging yourself or saying to yourself “just be present!” remember that you are fighting against literal human nature! For more information about the evolution of the human mind, check out this video.

Present Moment Awareness – The Noticing Self

Regardless of what is pulling us out of the present, it is important to be aware that we all have a part of ourselves that has the ability to notice and observe everything. Everything that we can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. This part of us can also notice what we are feeling and what we are thinking at any given moment. This part of us doesn’t have one specific name in the English language, so it is often referred to as the “observing self” (Harris, 2009). For the purposes of this article, we will call it the “noticing self” (Harris, 2021). The noticing self is what enables us to contact the present moment.

Confused again? Think about a newborn baby. Babies have no language to communicate what they’re feeling, thinking, or needing. However, infants have the ability to notice when they have a wet diaper, feeling hungry, or craving cuddles, even though they can’t speak with words. This is the “noticing self.” It has been there since before you were born, and will be there until you take your last breath. However, most of us don’t even realize we have this part of ourselves at all.

The following exercise can help you tap into your own noticing self:

For ten seconds, look around the room and notice what you can see.
Now do that again, only this time, as you notice what you can see, notice who is noticing. There is a you there behind your eyes, watching all of this as you experience it…a you that is different than your experience. This is the “noticing self.” There is this you, and then there is your experience. Continue to notice what you can see from this perspective for a few moments (Exercise adapted from The Big Book of ACT Metaphors, 2014).

Another way to understand the noticing self is to think about the sky and the weather. The noticing self is like the sky, and everything that we can see, hear, touch, taste, smell, think, and feel are like the weather – constantly changing. And no matter how bad the weather, how turbulent the thunderstorms, how violent the wind, rain, and hail – the sky always has room for it, and cannot be hurt or harmed by it in any way. Even hurricanes and tsunamis, which may wreak havoc on the land are unable to hurt or harm the sky. And as time passes, the weather will change, while out beyond the weather patterns, the sky remains as pure and clear as ever (Harris, 2009).

Contacting the Present Moment

Now that we’ve laid out the foundation of our own innate ability to notice everything we experience, it’s time to practice! This concept is known as “contacting the present moment” (Harris, 2009). As mentioned before, it is not human instinct to be present at all times, so it is important to keep in mind that the goal is not to “be” or even “stay” present, but more to notice when our mind has wandered somewhere else, and intentionally bring it back to our “anchor,” no matter how many times we are distracted!

The “anchor” is anything you are trying to notice or “stay present” for at any given moment. This is where psychological flexibility incorporates the “flexibility” piece, in that we are noticing where our minds are at any given time, and flexibly redirecting it to what we want to pay attention to.

Ten Deep Breaths

1) Take ten, slow, deep breaths.
2) Focus on breathing out as slowly as possible until your lungs are completely empty —and then allow them to refill by themselves.
3) Notice the sensations of your lungs emptying. Notice them refilling. Notice your rib cage rising and falling. Notice the gentle rise and fall of your shoulders.
4) See if you can let your thoughts come and go as if they’re just passing cars, driving past outside your house.
5) Expand your awareness: simultaneously notice your breathing and your body. Then look around the room and notice what you can see, hear, smell, touch, and feel.

Drop Anchor

1) Plant your feet into the floor.
2) Push them down — notice the floor beneath you, supporting you.
3) Notice the muscle tension in your legs as you push your feet down.
4) Notice your entire body—and the feeling of gravity flowing down through your head, spine, and legs into your feet.
5) Now look around and notice what you can see and hear around you. Notice where you are and what you’re doing. (Adapted from ACT Made Simple, 2009)

You can also practice contacting the present during any “mindless” activity. The challenge is to direct your attention to whatever it is you want to, or paying attention on purpose, regardless of what you are thinking or feeling.

The next time you’re in the shower, notice the sounds of the water as it sprays out of the nozzle, as it hits your body, and as it gurgles down the drain. Notice the temperature of the water, and the feel of it in your hair, and on your shoulders, and running down your legs. Notice the smell of the soap and shampoo, and the feel of them against your skin. Notice the sight of the water droplets on the walls or shower curtain, the water dripping down your body and the steam rising upward. Notice the movements of your arms as you wash or scrub or shampoo (Exercise adapted from ACT Made Simple, 2009).

In short, psychological flexibility is not a goal or achievement, but rather a new way of relating to and responding to the world around us and inside of us. In Part 3 of this webzine, we will discuss psychological flexibility as it relates to our internal experiences: our thoughts and feelings.

Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple: A quick start guide to ACT basics and beyond. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Harris, R. Evolution of the human mind. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kv6HkipQcfA
Harris, R. (2009). The happiness trap: How to stop struggling and start living. Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications.
Harris, R. (2021). Trauma-focused ACT: A practitioner’s guide to working with mind, body, and emotion using acceptance and commitment therapy Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Stoddard, J.A. & Afari, N. (2014). The big book of act metaphors: A practitioner’s guide to experiential exercises and metaphors in acceptance and commitment therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Productions.