Thinking Toys #15 — Presencing

We often find ourselves in heated situations. Sometimes in the middle of arguments I “snap to” and wonder how I got there. It seems like this often occurs through a kind of Flow state. We “lose ourselves” — our sense of embodied agency — andbecome the interaction, for better or worse. On the plus side, this can bring a lot of passion and energy into our actions. It can also backfire, as we’ve all experienced. There is one powerful mental move for interrupting these flow states: presencing. You can presence yourself in many ways — one is by placing your attention over your entire body. You may immediately notice your energy levels, temperature, heart rate, and random discomforts. Then you can expand your attention to also encompass your surroundings. This may trigger noticing of objects in your environment that were being ignored. It may bring you to see other people in a new light. A pause can often be enough to turn an unpleasant interaction completely around. Or to identify possibilities hidden from view.

Depending on whom you ask, this is a variation of “mindfulness”. Luckily, you don’t need an app or a trip to the monastery for it. You already do it all the time. Yet, being aware that you can control it is empowering. By widening your scope of attention, automatic patterns get interrupted. Thoughts and actions can come to a screeching halt. It often feels quite pleasant. I deliberately try to trigger presencing moves when I become aware of a variety of warning signs. For example, when I am feeling excitement combined with contractive emotions — frustration, stress, righteousness. In general, if I notice myself trying to Feel Right about something, I try to enact a presencing. Also, I’ve built a few deliberate habits around the move. Lately, I’ve been doing it every time before unlocking my phone.

By flow states, I mean something a little bit different from Csikszentmihalyi’s version. I’m in flow whenever my attention is moving in patterned, predictable, automatic ways. This is always happening within some specific, narrow field of attention. In an argument, we will be laser-focused on the way people communicate their reasons. While writing, we concentrate on sensing the resonance between written words and feelings. When brushing our teeth, some attention is in tune with a sense of how much time we spend in each part of the mouth. When cued by a reward, we have a hard time avoiding thinking about it. There are peaks and valleys of reward and punishment, predictable stimulus and response. These are spirals of affect generated as we bounce off the world in familiar ways. Some of these flow states are more fun than others, of course. But they all inhabit modes of habitual patterns of attention. There is nothing good or bad here, but being in habitual pattern makes it difficult to take new action. By rearranging the field of attention, presencing breaks us out of these flow states and allows for new, unpredictable action.

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