Mindful or Present: What’s the Difference?


The words presence and mindfulness are largely pretty interchangeable, don’t you think? But I’ve been playing with a distinction. Something that fits into last week’s topic of how sensitivity can bolster toughness.

Mindfulness can be applied to anything where you’re focusing on the task at hand. To eat mindfully, for example, might include thinking about the farmers who produced this food, the land where it was grown, the truckers, sailors, or robots who transported it, and so on.

I’ve been distinguishing presence as our awareness of the moment… Of (wait for it) the present. Your experience of smelling, chewing, tasting, satiety, and even digestion could live here. In this case all presence is mindfulness but not all mindfulness is presence.

Time is tricky to hold in your hands. The concept itself is a pretty abstract and the (quantum) physics are shaky. Well, at least undulating. Theoretical physicist, Carlo Rovelli, points out that even within what we know about gravity, time itself undergoes wide quantum fluctuations. He says, “This distinction between past and future is not present in the basic grammar of the world. It comes about only because we have a blurred vision of reality.” In his book, The Order of Time, Rovelli discusses the idea that time itself may simply be a product of entropy—the gradual and irreversible loss of heat and order in the physical universe.

Knowing that time itself is not really understood—and that it may not even exist independent of our perception—is kind of spooky. Then again, skeletons are spooky too. Yet you manage to prance around your day-to-day life with one of those inside of you.

So, I think you can deal with this too.

If there is one conduit to experiencing time, it is physical sensation. While this is ultimately filtered through your brain—and subject to some variance—sensation is the absolute closest thing that you have to the present moment. Take a second to feel the pressure of where your feet meet the ground—or whatever you’re sitting on. The sounds you’re hearing. The feeling of air on your skin. Of all the things you can consider about the present moment, what you are physically experiencing is the least abstract—the most anchored in the physical reality of right now. This is presence.

The opposite of presence lives in the past and/or the future. Comparison. Distraction. Doubt. Being tough on yourself. Unclear priorities. The ghosts of issues past. I’m not saying that there isn’t a value to these things. They exist for a reason, after all. What I am saying is that you can’t ride two temporal horses with one ass. To be present is to bring your complete attention to bear on whatever is happening right now.

I often think back to an interview with a playwright/director who had taken up Brazilian jiu-jitsu in his 60s. He mentioned the name of an MMA champion and said, “I could fight him.” He wasn’t implying that he had a shot; he believed that he could bring his full attention to bear on the task. Thoughts of unfairness or hardship would live in a different time zone. He could be present. He could… Just. Do. The. Thing. Tell me that experience isn’t as tough as tough gets—to use absolutely everything you have, whatever that may be.

7 presence-based tools for physical resilience

When it comes to building the physical toolkit, there are a few things that we work on teaching everyone we work with at Bang. These are tools that you can use—in any moment or position—to fine-tune your experience of exercise into something that better fits your body in that moment.

Breathing: Are you able to breathe freely in this position? Is the air and pressure distribution even—or does it bias toward one direction?

Lat activation: Do you know where your lats are—and can you fire them up from any position?

Abdominal activation and full-body structure: Can you fire up your abs (superficial and deep to match the tension demands of any task—from fully relaxed to everything you’ve got?

Shoulders and hips: Can you create a pull in any of the eight directions (not to mention, rotate in each direction) in order to subtly change the position of the joint?

Feet: Can you bring your weight onto any area of your foot (without losing pressure in the other areas)?

Spine: Can you flex, extend, lean, or rotate into any direction—from any section?

Force production: Can you move explosively in each direction? In a slow and measured way? Can you—above all—move smoothly?

All of these are skills that anyone can develop. They take time—but are well worth investing in. They are rooted in in-the-moment awareness. They are rooted in noticing. When you notice, you are present. When you are present, can ask questions about what positions and movements feel best to you. And then you can use whatever you’ve got to make them happen.

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