Low- and High-Stimulus Present: On two ways to be here now

Low- and High-Stimulus Present: On two ways to be here now

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Sounds like a good thing, doesn’t it? Being present, not thinking about the past or the future, just being here now. Being present has long been touted as a healthy state—if not the healthiest state of all.

I think what people call “being present” is really two opposite states confused with one another. Being in the present as it is typically encouraged is to de-jade oneself, to sit in meditation, for example, in a very quiet place without much in the present to occupy you, and to discipline your mind’s tendency to wander into thoughts about the past and future.

Practicing this can make one more accepting of life’s lulls. The Grateful Dead sang, “Sometimes the light’s all shining on me; other times I can barely see.” Practicing being present to simple things can be a way to get used to the lightless times and to prepare for or pre-grieve one’s inevitable decline in shininess, making it possible to be grateful even with what Dylan Thomas called “the dying of the light” as age brings us ever closer to death. As you get good at this kind of low-stimulus presentness, long waits, slow company, tedious tasks all become less tedious. You become boredom-proof.

When you get good at appreciating the little things, you’ve always got something present, however little, to appreciate. But these days, thanks to high-tech devices like video iPods, even without practice we all can have something present and small to appreciate anyway.

Contrast the ascetic, low-stimulation present with its opposite—being present because the present is so full of exciting stimulus that your mind has no reason to wander into thoughts about the past and future. Playing video games, watching an action movie on your video iPod, shopping for something you’ve always wanted, eating pizza, you’re as present as present can be. It’s easy. Engrossment compels you to be exclusively in the here and now. The here and now is so stuffed with allure you have no attention left for anything else.

This high-stimulus present is more popular than the low-stimulus alternative. It’s gaining ground too as the market responds to our inclination to distraction by providing us ever more exciting ways to spend an otherwise dull moment. Wherever you go, there you are with your video iPod.

Meditation advocates will argue that the high-stimulus present doesn’t restore you to the present moment, it takes you away from it. If you’re playing portable video games while waiting in line, you’re not experiencing the line or the people in it, which is where you really are.

But who’s to say where you really are, anyway? You’re really on a planet revolving around the sun, but do you notice that when you’re meditating? Your attention isn’t infinite, and yet the present presents you with infinite options for where to focus your finite attention. It’s true that video iPods take you away from the room you are occupying, but then the room you’re in is not essential to most forms of meditation, either. In meditation, you focus your attention on one thing, your breath, a candle—something small and present, but not everything present.

The difference between the high- and low-stimulus present is not in whether you focus on what’s really in front of you, but in how much effort it takes to be present. The contrast is in how much stimulus each approach offers to distract you from the past and future. Focusing on a candle takes a lot of effort. Focusing on an action movie takes none.

The highly stimulated present is, therefore, an absurd way to cultivate your ability to be present in lulls. It would be like exercising with those old-fashioned vibrating belt machines, expending no effort, relying on something outside you to stimulate you and therefore resulting in no increase in strength or stamina.

We rightly wonder about the long-term effects of our high-stimulus lifestyles, whether they’re addicting us to unsustainable, immoral, or counterproductive levels of diversion.

With a panoply of high-stimulus sensations available on the cheap, it’s easy to get spoiled. We are the first generations to have infinite access to very high stimulus. Will we be the first generations to arrive at 60 with a “been there; done that” attitude about all sorts of thrills? Pacing our delight to last a whole lifetime is now a challenge.

Is our rich diet of high-stimulus present sustainable? In a way, yes. By the time we’re in retirement homes, they’ll all have large-screen high-definition TVs. Still, as economist John Maynard Keynes once said, “In the long run, we’re all dead,” En route to death many of us gradually lose our ability to taste, to hear, to see. As a musician, singer, student, teacher, public speaker, and speed listener, I am thoroughly addicted to high-stimulus sound. I’d have a lot to lose going deaf.

To a large extent the choice between the low- and high-stimulus present is a matter of temperament and sensitivity. Some of us are hyper-sensitive and find everyday stimulation too stimulating as it is. We gravitate toward the serenity of a low-stimulus present. Others of us thrive on high stimulation and would rather meditate when we’re dead.

The ease with which we settle into a quiet moment is also a function of quality of life. If life is extremely comfortable, sitting quietly with the present moment can be very pleasant. If life is extremely difficult, the past and future are so intolerable that the present moment becomes the only safe refuge.

I figure we all must intuitively balance our stimulation levels, our awareness of the past and future, and our preparatory exercises for handling stimulation’s inevitable decline and fall.

The full Dylan Thomas quote is “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” from the poem “Do not go gentle into that good night,” in which the poet, who died at 39, makes the case for grieving fiercely the decline in stimulation. He depicts all types, from the wise men who, perhaps through meditation, have prepared and “know the dark is right,” to the wild men who ignore the dying of the light and “learn too late.” And all of them, no matter how much preparing they’ve done, should still in the end meet the dying of the light with rage.

Here’s the Dylan Thomas, along with another favorite, The Old Fools by Philip Larkin, who speculates about why, even without preparation, we don’t rage.


Do not go gentle into that good night

Dylan Thomas


Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.


Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright

Their frail deeds might have danced in agreen bay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.


Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.



The Old Fools

Philip Larkin


What do they think has happened, the old fools,

To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose

It’s more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,

And you keep on pissing yourself, and can’t remember

Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose,

They could alter things back to when they danced all night,

Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September?

Or do they fancy there’s really been no change,

And they’ve always behaved as if they were crippled or tight,

Or sat through days of thin continuous dreaming

Watching the light move? If they don’t (and they can’t), it’s strange;

Why aren’t they screaming?




At death you break up: the bits that were you

Start speeding away from each other for ever

With no one to see. It’s only oblivion, true:

We had it before, but then it was going to end,

And was all the time merging with a unique endeavour

To bring to bloom the million-petalled flower

Of being here. Next time you can’t pretend

There’ll be anything else. And these are the first signs:

Not knowing how, not hearing who, the power

Of choosing gone. Their looks show that they’re for it:

Ash hair, toad hands, prune face dried into lines—

How can they ignore it?




Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms

Inside your head, and people in them, acting

People you know, yet can’t quite name; each looms

Like a deep loss restored, from known doors turning,

Setting down a lamp, smiling from a stair, extracting

A known book from the shelves; or sometimes only

The rooms themselves, chairs and a fire burning,

The blown bush at the window, or the sun’s

Faint friendliness on the wall some lonely

Rain-ceased midsummer evening. That is where they live:

Not here and now, but where all happened once.

This is why they give




An air of baffled absence, trying to be there

Yet being here. For the rooms grow farther, leaving

Incompetent cold, the constant wear and tear

Of taken breath, and them crouching below

Extinction’s alp, the old fools, never perceiving

How near it is. This must be what keeps them quiet:

The peak that stays in view wherever we go

For them is rising ground. Can they never tell

What is dragging them back, and how it will end? Not at night?

Not when the strangers come? Never, throughout

The whole hideous inverted childhood? Well,

We shall find out.