Bringing Yourself Back to the Present

From Abstraction and Absorption to Awareness

Posted Apr 06, 2015

Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, there are always three different things you can do with your attention. Firstly, you can give it to the thought-chatter in your head - the stream of mental associations (images, memories, future projections, worries etc.) that runs through our minds when our attention isn’t occupied. Secondly, you can choose to immerse your attention in tasks or distractions, such as TV programmes, magazines, the Internet or a hobby. Or thirdly, you can give your attention on your actual present experience - that is, focus your attention on your actual surroundings, and the experiences you have in those surroundings. For example, if you’re in waiting room at the doctor’s surgery, you can either daydream (perhaps think about what you’re going to do at the weekend, or mull over some problems you have at work), immerse your attention in a magazine or your I-phone, or observe the other people around you and the objects and décor of the room itself. Or when you go for a jog, you can either daydream, listen to an audio book on your I-pod, or give your attention to your surroundings, the scenery you pass and the nature around you. 

In shorthand, you can think of these three states as ‘the three As’: abstraction (i.e. immersion in thought-chatter), absorption (i.e. in activities or distractions) and awareness (i.e. conscious attention to our experience). It isn’t completely cut and dried, of course – in a state of abstraction or absorption, you’re usually still in a state of partial awareness too. For example, even if you’re daydreaming or listening to an audio book while jogging, you’re obviously still aware of your surroundings to a degree - enough to pay attention to the traffic, or to keep to your normal route. But usually this is only a very basic and functional awareness; the largest proportion of your mental energy is given up to absorption or abstraction.

Every moment of our lives, we unconsciously evaluate these three options and choose one of them - and it’s usually one of the first two that we prefer. 

Think about how much time you spend in each of these three states. As a percentage, estimate what proportion of a typical day you spend in a state of abstraction, a state of absorption and a state of awareness….

I have asked many people this question in workshops and on-line courses, and people almost always estimate that they spend by far the least proportion of their days in a state of awareness. As a rough average, people say they spend 5-15% of their time in awareness, 50-60% of their time in absorption, and 25-35% in abstraction.  

This is a great shame, because living in a state of awareness is by the far the most beneficial state. Being present equates with a state of well-being. It enables us to perceive beauty and wonder in the world around us. And in a sense, being present means being truly alive. Our lives only consist of the present - the past and the future are only abstractions, which don’t really exist. There is never anything except our experience in the present moment. So if we’re not aware of our experience in the present - if we’re in a state of absorption or abstraction - then in a sense we’re not really living. 

This doesn’t mean that we should spend all our time in a state of awareness, with our attention focus on our experience and our surroundings. Both abstraction and absorption can be enjoyable, useful and necessary sometimes. But we should certainly try to increase the amount of time we spend in awareness. In terms of the percentages above, we should try to decrease the amount of time we spend in abstraction and absorption, and transfer it into awareness. 

The Gentle Mental Nudge

Awareness often occurs spontaneously - for example, when we’re in beautiful countryside, on holiday in unfamiliar surroundings, or when we see a beautiful piece of art - but it can also be consciously cultivated.  

This means making a conscious effort to focus your attention on the here and now. Whenever you realise that you’re in abstraction or absorption, try to make a habit of bringing yourself back to the present - not too rigidly or harshly, but with what I call a ‘gentle mental nudge.’ Whenever you realise that you’ve become immersed in thought-chatter, gently withdraw your attention from it and re-focus on your surroundings and your experience. Focus on the room you’re in and the objects and other people around you, and on the sounds you can hear. Look at the colour and shape of the objects and their relationship to each other. Feel the texture of the table you’re sitting at, the pen you’re writing with or the carpet your feet are on. Make a conscious effort to smell – perhaps the room or the street is filled with smells you weren’t aware of but which are quite perceptible. Do the same whenever you feel the impulse to immerse your attention in distractions or activities. 

If you don’t do this gently, and jolt your attention away from thought-chatter, you’ll generate resistance, which will make it difficult for you to be present. Rather than forcing yourself, just gently guide  yourself back into the present, and re-orientate yourself there. It’s like walking in the park with a toddler who doesn’t understand the concept of a straight line and keeps veering off the path in different directions: every few steps you have to gently pick him up and point him in the right direction again. 

For example, when you’re walking to the tube station in the morning with your mind buzzing with thoughts about what happened last night or what’s ahead of you today – give yourself a gentle mental nudge and bring your attention away from those thoughts and into the present. Transfer your attention away from your thought-chatter towards the sky above you, the trees and buildings and the cars around you, and the awareness of yourself inside your body, walking in the midst of these surroundings. When you’re eating your evening meal and realise that you’re reading a newspaper, give yourself a mental nudge and transfer your attention to the taste of the food and the chewing and swallowing. Or when you’re in a meeting at work: take your attention out of the discussion for a moment and be aware of the room you’re in, take in its shape and its colours and its furniture. Be aware of yourself sitting there, of your bottom against the surface of the chair, your back against its back and your feet on the floor. 

We usually assume that activities like driving or eating or cooking aren’t enough in themselves, because they’re essentially mundane and dreary. We feel as though we need to combine them with distractions – like reading the paper while you eat or having the TV on in the kitchen while you cook – to make them more bearable.  But when we actually do give ourselves wholly to the activities we find the opposite: these activities are sufficient in themselves; in fact, they provide a sense of ease and harmony which no distraction or daydream ever could.

In awareness the whole world becomes much more fascinating and beautiful. We realise that objects and scenes are only beautiful or fascinating in proportion to how much attention we give to them. Beauty isn’t just something innate, a quality which some objects possess – much more than that, it’s something that we create. The more attention we invest, the more beauty and fascination we perceive. Everyday objects and scenes only seem mundane because we don’t give them real attention. When we do consciously attend to them, we realise that they’re just as attractive as ancient artefacts that we go to museums to look at, or unfamiliar foreign scenes that we travel across the world to see.  

Once you get into the habit of bringing yourself back to the present you’ll be surprised how easy it is to do. It quickly begins to feel natural, and makes our normal state of abstraction seem absurd. Why should I let these crazy whirls of memory and association take up my attention when there is this endlessly rich and intricate world in front of me, filled with layer after layer of is-ness and wonder? you might ask yourself. Being immersed in thought-chatter instead of living in awareness is like travelling to a beautiful city – like Paris or Venice – and spending all your time there in your hotel room watching television. 

Steve Taylor PhD is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University, UK. He is the author of Back to Sanity: Healing the Madness of our Minds.

More Posts