Beyond mindfulness: the 3 levels of being present

Posted on Jun 1, 2021

Despite endless inspirational quotes over sunsets and ocean shorelines, you might not know precisely what “being present” means. 

I used to experience presence as primarily a mental thing: shifting my attention to what’s happening now, instead of thinking about the past or future.

That’s part of it, but there are two other levels that I often find people leave out of the conversation.

I want you to know precisely what I mean when I talk about presence. It’s more than putting your cell phone down while in conversation. It’s more than looking up during your neighborhood walk to watch a bird fly from roof to roof. It is those things, and it is more.

So here’s the detail you’ve been missing about this oh-so-popular concept. It’s how I experience presence at 3 distinct levels.

Present moment awareness: level 1

The first level of present moment awareness is the one you’re probably most familiar with: mental. It’s about shifting your thoughts to what’s happening around you, instead of rehashing the past or planning the future. I won’t spend more time here because you get it, I’m betting.

It’s after this mindfulness that things get interesting, imo.

Present moment awareness: level 2

In addition to mental awareness, the second level of awareness is physical.

When I’m trail running, for example, it goes something like this:

  1. I experience a cue. These are cues I’ve made up and trained myself to notice. For example, reaching the top of a hill is something that happens frequently when trail running, and it’s a natural time to feel gratitude. I might have a great view and notice a turkey vulture soaring through the sky, or feel relief in my legs and a slowed heart rate. So, I reach the top of a hill, and mentally, I recognize the cue and shift my attention to the present moment: the trees around me instead of the lunch I was planning in my head the moment before.
  2. Then, I check in with my body. I mentally pick a place to start (often, my feet) and scan from there while noticing my breath. I notice every sensory detail I can in a given area. (Left ankle hurts. Top of left foot seems tired. Toes scrunched, stretch out toes! Yeah, that’s it. Yoga toes. Sand present in my shoe under foot…) I might shift to a “big picture” look, kind of sensing my whole body at once to notice overall if there are any particularly loud parts. (Oh, I didn’t realize my lower back feels wonky. Hot forearms. I wonder if I’m getting a sunburn.) As you can see, thoughts come in, they’re just not my focus. And while my intention is usually to do a full body scan, I rarely stay present long enough to do that. I get distracted by thoughts and forget again until my next cue.

The physical level of presence has been really enjoyable for me to play with. You can see me talk more about what this is like here.

Present moment awareness: level 3

When I’m upset by a person or situation, I have an opportunity to somewhat easily bring in the third level of present moment awareness: emotional.

I’ll use the example of a recent visit to my dad and stepmom’s house. One of those lifelong dramas was playing out, where a bystander would see nothing wrong, but I had a whole wartime story raging inside. You know what I’m talking about, right? Like, Dad was probably eagerly telling a story, and I was pissed that five minutes earlier, he didn’t ask me more questions when I was talking about all the running I was doing to train for my next race.

When I’m upset, it goes something like this:

  1. Mentally, drawing on years of study and practice, the emotional upset has become my cue. Ideally (though rarely, let’s be real), I’m cued before I react. I remind myself that this isn’t about the other person but about a story I’m telling myself—and beyond that, it’s about an emotion that’s been stuck in my body and wants to be expressed. By allowing it, I know that I’ll reduce the occurrence of future upsets and reactions. In other words, I’ll be a more loving person, to myself and others. From a tangible perspective, I’m staring at my dad, I’ve stopped listening to him for a moment, and I’m just mentally acknowledging, Oh. That thing is happening again! I’m pissed, and it’s not really at him.
  2. Next, I take a breath and become physically present, similar to what I described above, but now with a focus on the emotion that showed up. Maybe I can half-listen to him, half-listen to the tightness in my chest and throat. I might think, That’s sadness, but I shift my attention to the actual sensations rather than the mental concept.
  3. Then I allow my emotions without judgment, no matter how unpleasant it feels. This is a little different because instead of noticing what’s there, like a detective, I have to loosen up my grip on the present and allow other potentially painful sensations to show up. This is when the reassuring convo with myself starts. (Whatever you feel is okay. You can do this. We’re safe here. I’m thirty-seven years old. Keep breathing.) My self-talk kinda makes it sound like something really traumatic is happening, yeah? Sure, it’s not what we’d call “traumatic” in everyday conversation. But listen—there’s a reason I’m reacting to my dad’s innocuous story. This experience is tied to countless earlier experiences, back to some point long ago when Little Me learned that it wasn’t safe to express all of her feelings. So to that young part of me, yeah, it does feel pretty traumatic. She needs gentleness, and the opposite of judgment, to be present with these emotions. From a timing perspective, this step might happen later. In this example, I waited until I was alone in my car and driving home, then I intentionally remembered the moment in Dad’s kitchen so I could be with it. That way, I could make faces or moan or do whatever other “weird” things that needed to happen, and it wouldn’t impact anyone else or cause more drama.

This, of course, is just my way, at this moment in time. 

PC Daniel Farò, Death to Stock