Hypervigilance and the Present Moment

BY CONTRIBUTOR NANCY WEAVER (Note: Nancy was the one who got me thinking about the religion series to begin with, here is the article that got it going)

A friend was lamenting that other people don’t pay enough attention causing her to always have to take care of details.  This woman has repeatedly told me that she has been hyper-vigilant since childhood.  After our talk, my mind moved to the difference between hyper-vigilance and attentiveness.

In Buddhism there is a concept called the near and far enemy.  Each of the virtues is considered to have both enemies, ie, that which keeps us from experiencing the virtue.  The far enemy is usually fairly easy to recognize, the near enemy far is more subtle.

For example, the far enemy of compassion is hatred or judging.  Reasonable, right?  Hating someone or something would certainly separate us from that being or thing.  The near enemy is trickier.  That is considered to be pity.  It took me a while to understand how pity is another way of distancing myself from feeling the pain of someone else, in the guise of being a good person.

When I hate/judge the person standing at the street intersection asking for help, clearly I am not being compassionate.  But equally when I pity that person, I am still not engaging in the heart opening experience of compassion.  And sometimes when I shove a dollar or a banana at them, I am still closing my heart to that person, right there, at that moment in the guise of doing the right thing.  But when I roll the window down, make eye contact, smile and ask how their day is going, then I open myself up to the great unknown of compassion. Of seeing them as just like me, no difference in our worth and needs.

So brief explanation of near and far enemy.

Attentiveness is one of the virtues.  Being fully present in the moment, alert to what life is offering, right here, right now.

The far enemy is distraction or numbing, busy in  mental fantasies of future or past, slugging down that alcohol/tv/cigarette/__________fill in your own blank.  Literally.

The near enemy is again, trickier.  Pondering the conversation with my friend, it occurs to me that  hyper-vigilance is the near enemy.  It is dressed up like attentiveness, yet look at how different the body sensations are.

Hyper-vigilance is narrow, focused, worried, constricted like a flashlight beam nervously and constantly flickering around the darkness, alert for danger, for what is wrong, incessantly scanning for what needs to be done, to be fixed.  Exhausting.

Attentiveness is open, expansive, relaxed, receptive and allowing.  Shining like the sun wherever it looks and wherever it looks seeing the beauty, the miracle that is always available in the present moment.  Renewing, rejuvenating.

Now for those of us that developed hyper-vigilance as a tool for dealing with trauma, that may sound discouraging, yet another way to beat ourselves up for not being the ‘right person’.   I invite you to lay down the beatings for ever if you can, for right now at any rate.

The next time you suspect you may be hyper-vigilating choose to investigate it, as an explorer.  Choose to notice, maybe even write down the sensations.  Track them like the expert you are.  What does your body do?  What thoughts run through your mind?  Have you had those thoughts before? How does your stomach feel?  Your back? Your neck?  Have you gone numb?  What is that like? What is your breathing like?  If this feeling were a colour, what colour would it be?  What kind of music?  Allow the inquisitive, curious child within you to experience and journal as much of this state as you safely can.  Then get up and move, dance it out.

The very awareness that we bring to having the experience of hyper-vigilance, is attentiveness.

One of the great gifts of my life is understanding that I am always capable of bringing that sliver of awareness to the experience I am having (like it or not!), to the exact experience I am having right now.  And that is all we are asked to do.


As we continually bring our attention back to what is true for us in this moment, miracles happen.



Living in the present moment can turn that hyper-vigilance into attentiveness…at least that has been my experience. Knowingly, addressing what is going on in your body produces a state of being that is recognized by mind-body-spirit and allows authenticity into our everyday. Love your thoughts on compassion as having compassion within produces pure compassion for others. We are all here. We are equals. Well written and also well received! — Jen J, 11/29/14