The Benefits of Being Present
First, we have to understand what we mean by "being present." It is simply being engaged physically, emotionally, and mentally in what is going on and what you are doing right now. "Right now," of course, can mean this minute, this hour, or this day, depending on what's going on and what you are doing and how long it takes for any of those to happen. "Being present" can include a certain practical amount of anticipating and remembering and thinking about what is going on and what you are doing.
The distinction between "being present" and "not being present" has to do with whether you are spending more time in your head or more time in experiencing. There is no hard and fast rule about that, but a rule of thumb can be that you are not being present when you lose awareness of what's going on and what you are doing.
It's easy not to be present when you are doing routine or very familiar things that don't require a lot of conscious attention. I can drive a car along a familiar route and go miles while thinking about things with barely any awareness of driving or of my surroundings. Naturally, that means I sometimes go past where I'm supposed to go and wind up where I don't want to be. On the other hand, when I'm doing something that requires moment by moment conscious awareness and decision-making, like skiing, I'd better stay out of my head and into my body and surroundings as much as possible or I won't be skiing very long.
When writing a book, I'm present and not present about half the time for each while I think about the subject as I type and make corrections to what I have typed. The point here is that there is nothing necessarily wrong with not being present all of the time, but being present more often has certain advantages.
The more present you are, the more aware you are of yourself, of your surroundings, and of the people in those surroundings. This increased awareness gives you more feedback that allows you to make better decisions and take more effective action. For instance, in teaching it's very helpful to know when your audience is sleeping, or leaving, or getting ready to throw tomatoes at you.
The more present you are, the more your body relaxes. This is simply because so much of our tension stress comes from remembering what you don't like or anticipating what you don't like. Your body is constantly in the present, so memories and expectations are treated by your body as present moment experiences, and the more stressful these thoughts are, the more it tenses up. When these kinds of thoughts are reduced by present awareness, especially in a relatively peaceful or secure environment, the more your body lets go of excess tension.
The more present you are, the more energy you have, not only because of the relaxation, but because it allows you to put more attention on energizing activities. Deeper breathing, physical movement, eating and drinking for pleasure rather than stress relief, and accessing various sources of environmental energy (if you believe in such things) are several possibilities.
The more present you are, the more connection you have with other people. People who are present can tell when you aren't, no matter how good you are at faking it. There is a difference in how it feels emotionally to be around you when you are present and when you are not. To some people, when you are mostly in your head it seems like you are colder and disinterested, regardless of whether you say the right words and make the right moves. Being present when you are with people is an important factor in establishing and maintaining good relationships.
The more present you are, the more confident you are and the easier it is to recall and use your skills and talents.You are also able to change life rules that aren't working for you, to give good directions to your body, to recall good memories, to change the effects of bad ones, and to make better plans for the future.
The more present you are, the more effective you are at anything you want to do involving work, play, and healing. In fact, according to some of my experiments, it also helps you to be more lucky.
The easiest way to be more in the present moment is to look at things around you, listen to sounds around you, and touch objects that are around you. Another way is to notice and appreciate things in your immediate environment that are good, useful, valuable, or just nice-looking. You can appreciate with both words and feelings.
There is an extension of being present that can be called "being fully present." This is actually a technique for reducing mind chatter and stress to a minimum and for enriching your life in many ways. Some people think we should strive to be in this state all the time, but I don't subscribe to shoulds and I'm not going to give up my fantasy adventures. However, since it can be a major life changer and life enhancer, I'm giving you a few ways to practice it.
Feel free to change your breathing and shift positions or modify your movements when it feels right to do so. You can do this walking, standing, sitting, or lying down.
For something more advanced, practice feeling energy--your own, that of other people, and that of things around you. An interesting variation is to practice extending your energy to feel the texture and shape of objects at a distance, like trees and rocks and buildings.
For an extreme challenge, try looking at signs without reading them. This is far more difficult than it sounds (unless you can't read).
And when you get tired of doing any of this, feel free to go back to ordinary thinking and feeling, remembering the benefits of being more present when it seems useful to you.
There is even a Hawaiian proverb about the benefits of being present:
E pane'e ka wa'a oi moe ka 'ale