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How to Stay Present by Martin Aylward

How to Stay Present: The Four R’s

You know how it is. One minute you’re boiling the kettle for tea, and the next you are miles away in some distant memory, or vague daydream, or new anxiety. The precious resource of our attention is so easily seduced – and sometimes consumed – by the demands, defenses, and distractions of the mind. Yet each time we find ourselves ‘lost in thought’ we are given a new chance to wake up to this pattern, to drop the drama, and to return to presence. This takes real practice and patience, but the good news is that our minds give us so many opportunities every day to develop this skill.

How we unhook our attention and establish real presence can be best explained by what I call the 4 R’s – Resting, Recognizing, Releasing, and Returning. This is how we stay present.

1 – Resting 

Resting is the basic foundational skill of meditation. Without it, we are hijacked by every passing thought and emotion that comes up. By settling our attention into the feel and rhythm of breathing, we are cultivating this key skill of resting. And even if you feel that very little of your meditation time is completely restful, the potency of developing this skill over time shouldn’t be underestimated. Gently, continually cultivating this quality of rest – even for a few moments at a time – is powerful. We become more steady, focused, grounded, and relaxed.

2 – Recognizing

The more you are able to rest, the more quickly and easily you recognize when the mind is taking you off track, hijacking your attention and pulling you away from where you are. Recognizing is the manifestation of the miracle of mindfulness – the moment where you see your thoughts is the moment you see that you are not your thoughts. You recognize your power to stay present. Life’s immediacy keeps reasserting itself, the daydream (or nightmare!) collapses, and you break the cycle of habitual mind-wandering. Again and again and again. In the moment of recognition – no matter how lost you have been or for how long – you are lost no more.

3 – Releasing

The more you learn to rest, the more you nurture an inner environment where recognizing happens on its own. Naturally and more frequently. But then what? Releasing is the art of letting that thought go. You see how you’ve been down that mind road so many times… and you drop it. No drama, no fuss, but also… no more! And you begin to know the wisdom that sees both when to let go, and how. How to drop the story so you can feel and release the emotion behind it. How to free yourself from the familiar, circular dramas and anxieties. How to consciously turn your attention gently from something stressful, like frustration or judgment, towards a more kindly, forgiving, compassionate attitude.

4 – Returning

Returning is about re-establishing a way to stay present here and now. Not by doing anything, because you are ALREADY HERE! By seeing and feeling that, you reconnect to the feel of your body sitting and breathing; to the natural flow of sounds and sensations; to the always available awakened awareness of your mind. Returning closes the loop and opens the door for deeper presence and fuller understanding. You re-establish a sense of ease, presence, and awakeness. Again, and again, and again…

This lesson is presented as a preview of Martin’s course Free Your Mind: How to Build a Daily Meditation Practice.