As human beings we draw a distinction between ourselves and our furry friends in the animal kingdom, thinking of ourselves as rational creatures that, unlike our cuddly cousins, have the ability to think and reason. This is what separates us from other creatures.
Whilst that is true, what really separates us from other creatures on this planet is our ability to feel emotion: to laugh, to cry, to take the piss out of each other when we do stupid things (which is all too often!).
The illusion that we are calm and rationale creatures is maintained throughout our daily lives as we appear to exert control over things.
The reality is however, that we are never far from falling apart at the seams. Place any one of us in an adverse situation and our apparent rationality and self-control goes out the window.
We react to pressure by growing fearful, impatient and confused, whilst our supposedly irrational furry friends look on in bemusement, seemingly unfazed by anything (except dogs when the vacuum cleaner is turned on, who proceed to lose all their marbles and go nuts chasing the damn thing around the house until you hit the off switch).
This is none more true than when we are faced with violent confrontation. Our emotions take over and we react to circumstances with fear, self-doubt, insecurity, or on the opposite end of the spectrum, uncontrollable anger and rage.
Your emotions will kill your presence of mind, and thus your ability to react rationally and calmly in a conflict situation.
The more you can maintain your presence of mind in the face of conflict and turmoil, the easier it will be to affect a more favourable outcome to the situation.
As Robert Greene puts it in his must read book, The 33 Strategies Of War :
“Understand: your mind is weaker than your emotions. But you become aware of this weakness only in moments of adversity– precisely the time when you need strength. What best equips you to cope with the heat of battle is neither more knowledge nor more intellect. What makes your mind stronger, and more able to control your emotions, is internal discipline and toughness. No one can teach you this skill; you cannot learn it by reading about it. Like any discipline, it can only come through practice, experience, even a little suffering.”
What you need in order to cultivate your presence of mind are exercises of a sort that will provide a counter-balance to the overpowering pull of your emotions.
Presence of mind is needed in all adverse situations, not just in physical conflicts, so when you read the following counter-balance exercises, think about how you can apply these methods to your life as a whole.
Expose Yourself To Conflict
Fear is the most destructive emotion for presence of mind. Given free reign it will decimate whatever presence of mind you have. It thrives on the unknown, which lets our imaginations run wild. It is therefore better to confront your fears and let them come to the surface, rather than ignore them or try to tamp them down.
If you have a major fear of physical conflict then the best way to dampen that fear is to expose yourself to it. No one likes to hear this however, because it means exposing yourself to the very thing that causes you fear.
But expose yourself you must, especially if you want to overcome said fear.
Most people have a fear of violence and conflict in general. I did as well, but after so many years of working doors and being exposed to conflicts of one kind or another on a weekly basis, I eventually grew used to it, to the point where I am now able to maintain good presence of mind in such situations. In the beginning I was a total wreck. My presence of mind was often shattered when I had to deal with conflicts or get physical. I thought I would never be as calm and collected as some of the other bouncers I was working with. But eventually I got to that point where I was able to keep my emotions in check, which made it easier for me to deal with situations as they arose.
Exposure therapy is a process. Trust in it and you will eventually get to that place where you want to be.
The sensation of overcoming a deep-rooted fear will in itself give you confidence and presence of mind.
Public speaking was (and still is to an extent) another great fear of mine. As an introvert I found it difficult to speak with confidence to groups of people. Over the years however, I have made a point of putting myself into situations where I have to speak publicly, mostly through instructing classes, and lately to a camera (which is just the same as speaking to a group). My public speaking skills still need work but I’m getting there. Each time I do it, my confidence grows. I have faith in the process.
The more conflicts and difficult situations you put yourself through, the more battle-tested your mind will be.
Start small and go just beyond your comfort zone each time. That’s all you have to do. Over time you will make progress and each success will build upon the next.
“There was a fox who had never seen a lion. But one day he happened to meet one of these beasts face to face. On this first occasion he was so terrified that he felt he would die of fear. He encountered him again and this time he was also frightened, but not so much as the first time. But on the third occasion when he saw him, he actually plucked up the courage to approach him and began to chat.”
A fable that shows that familiarity soothes our fears.
There is not much worse than feeling dependent on other people. Dependency will make you vulnerable to all kinds of negative emotions like betrayal, disappointment and frustration, all of which can play havoc with your presence of mind.
When it comes to your personal safety, self-reliance is even more important. You can’t depend on anyone to save you or come to your rescue. You must have the confidence and ability to deal with whatever circumstances you find yourself in.
Going back to my bouncing days, in the beginning I relied quite heavily on the other guys I was working with. If anything happened, I needed their support to deal with things, which didn’t really increase my confidence much because I just felt dependent and unable to deal with things by myself. As I became more experienced and my confidence grew however, I learned to stand on my own two feet, and this increased confidence helped me deal with conflicts easier.
Being self-reliant is critical. You need to make yourself less dependent on others, and especially on so-called experts. You can’t rely on any instructor or sensei to help you with your personal safety. Placing yourself completely in their hands (as many do) is not the way to go.
Take responsibility and work on expanding your repertoire of skills by yourself. To do this you need to feel more confident in your own judgement.
To quote Robert Greene again:
“Understand: we tend to overestimate other peoples abilities and we tend to underestimate our own. You must compensate for this by trusting yourself more and others less.”
Feelings of intimidation will always threaten your presence of mind, and it can be a difficult thing to combat. It’s kinda hard not to feel intimidated when there is some angry, aggressive individual standing right in front of you who is giving of so much bad intention that you just wish you were somewhere else at that point, far away from the violence that is about to ensue.
Most of these feelings of intimidation are originated by your imagination however. The would-be attacker in front of you may look the part, but that doesn’t mean he can act the part as well. Our imaginations give the other guy traits and abilities that they most likely don’t even have. You have no way of knowing either way, so why upset your mental balance by thinking about it?
One of the keys to combating intimidation is to see the other guy as just a mere mortal, an ordinary Joe who is about to overstep the mark for whatever reason. See the person, not the myth your mind has probably already created.
Cutting the other guy down to size in this manner will help you to keep your mental balance and presence of mind.
Develop Your Intuition
Presence of mind depends not only on your minds ability to come to your aid in difficult situations, but also on the speed with which this happens.
Speed in this case refers to your ability to respond to circumstances with rapidity and making lightning-quick decisions. This kind of power is often read as a kind of intuition.
In terms of increasing that ability to respond faster to circumstances, there are things you can do to bring out that intuitive feel that all animals possess.
You should first of all have a deep knowledge of the terrain, so to speak. You must understand the nature of the situation you are in and what you have to do. The more you train, the better you get. The more experience you have, the deeper your knowledge of the terrain is going to be.
It will also help to have a good feel for people and a good level of social intelligence. You must know people and their general behaviours, the rituals, the social conventions etc. This will help you predict people’s behaviour to a good extent; it will help you understand these kinds of altercations, and it will allow you to spot such situations early, before they develop out of hand.
All of this will give you an intuitive feel for people and situations that will help you in making faster decisions and maintaining your mental balance.
Maintaining Presence Of Mind In Every Day Life
Presence of mind is not just useful in times of adversity. It is not something which you should just switch on and off as you need it. It should be something that you actively try to maintain throughout your daily life. Cultivate it as a daily condition. Work on controlling your emotions and strengthening your internal discipline. Try to maintain a calm and level state of mind throughout your day.
Maintaining presence of mind can prove to be quite difficult at times of course, especially in the face of daily stresses and mental anguish of all kinds. If you find yourself loosing your presence of mind, just try to check yourself and bring your mind back around again. It’s no big deal. You aren’t going to die if you loose your presence of mind so don’t beat yourself up about it. Just keep pulling it back into focus when focus is lost.
The better you get at maintaining this mental balance, the more your focused and calm state of mind will do for you in your daily life. When a crisis does come, your mind will already be calm and prepared.
Once presence of mind becomes a habit, it will always remain with you.