As we move through the holiday season and approach the end of the calendar year, people often find themselves in a bit of a frenzy racing from one activity to the next, their heads filled with chatter and a continually growing list of things to do. It is easy to lose ourselves in a flurry of activity and miss out on the purpose behind all the things we tend to do at this time of the year. If you have ever found yourself collapsing in a heap wondering where the time went and feeling depleted rather than filled by the holiday spirit, you know what I’m talking about.
When your pocketbook has reached the place where there just isn’t a lot more give, take comfort in the fact that there is a gift you can share that transcends all others and won’t cost you a thing. It is the gift of presence, a state that allows us to truly bring out the best in ourselves so that we can do the same for others. The gift of presence is one that allows everyone to receive its benefits, and you can experience it wherever you are — whether in a meeting, running an errand, sitting at your desk, or in a conversation with someone important to you. This practice has the power to transform the way you experience your daily life and what it allows you to create for yourself and others — without really doing anything at all.
Can you recall the last time you felt totally and completely attended to?
Chances are it wasn’t when someone was giving you advice or telling you what to do. It may not have even been when someone was engaging in an activity on your behalf or watching you tear open a gift. And yet when we think of giving something to others our minds often immediately jump to what we can do, say or buy for someone. Many times the best gift we can give someone is that of our presence.
But what exactly is presence?
The word present derives from the Latin past participle praesse meaning “to be before one”, from the roots pra – pre + esse – to be. I believe presence is a state of being that’s achieved when we are truly in the moment, allowing it to unfold without judging it, labeling it, or getting lost in our thoughts about what it means or what we believe should be happening next (or instead). Presence allows us to cut through the clamor of our preoccupations, worries and fears so that our true selves can emerge. It is a gateway through which our intuition and inner wisdom enters and expresses itself. A moment of presence is a state of grace that can produce great insights that help us to truly learn from our experiences, make the most of our opportunities and rise up to our challenges in creative ways. In these moments of presence, we know who we really are and what we are truly capable of.
Have you ever noticed that people tend to match each other’s intensity and tone when they are together? Comments about trivial matters are often matched with similar banter. Expressions of fear or dread often elicit responses that are equally charged, and expressions of anger have a way of provoking reactions that people later regret. In a similar manner, moments of presence when shared with others can evoke powerful responses that can be revealing and transformational. This is because when you are truly present with another human being you create a space that allows that person’s true self to come out as well. This is why the best leaders have learned to become comfortable with silence, to listen more than they talk, and to allow themselves to become instruments that help others to recognize their own greatness – not necessarily through anything that say or do, but rather through moments of presence that are created and shared with others.
So how does one cultivate a moment of presence?
It is really rather simple, though far easier said than done.
(1) The first step is to be still. That’s right. Sit still. I know it goes against everything you were probably taught about getting things done and being useful. But do it anyway. You can practice now, while you read this. Become aware of your breathing, of the space you are sitting in, of the weight of your body and how it feels in this moment. Feel the life inside you and trace it to each part of your body. Listen to the sounds around you. Take a deep breath. Let it out slowly.
(2) Become aware of your thoughts. Observe the activity of your mind as it continues to process whatever is there– thoughts like, “this is silly, really – I have way to much to do to be sitting here, doing this…” and “I have to remember to call so and so back today,” and “What did my [boss, colleague, friend, etc.] mean when he/she said…”. Recognize that you are not your thoughts, but rather the thinker of your thoughts. Simply watch them parade around, without getting sucked into them. Feel how much bigger you are than all of that. Continue to breathe it in.
(3) Step three…. There really is no step three. Simply continue to repeat steps one and two, immersing yourself more deeply into the experience with each breath. You don’t need to do this for an extended period of time, unless you want to. Often even a couple of minutes are sufficient to bring you to a more intense state of awareness and aliveness.
In these moments of presence, you will experience things on a different level – one that allows you to respond from a deeper, wiser part of yourself. And when you are with others, you will bring out that deeper, wiser part of them as well. Presence is incredibly powerful to practice with others. The process is the same, except that you expand your awareness to take in the other person as well. Look into their eyes, and listen to what they are saying. But listen to what they are not saying as well. Presence is more about being than doing. So allow yourself to truly BE with another, devoid of judgments, labels, and agendas. When you listen from this place, you are like water to a thirsty plant, allowing others to open up and soak in needed nutrients. And in this space, they may just find the answers they seek as well – not because you are giving them, but because you have created a space that is illuminating for everyone.
Picture by scottchan.
The other day I treated myself to a massage. It was a welcome reprieve and my muscles were sore, so it felt especially good. Every time I do something like that, I consciously try to be in a state of hyper awareness, where nothing will escape my perception. I want to enjoy every single second of the experience and do whatever I can to dive into it completely. In this state, I have often felt as though perhaps it is possible to slow time down. While the physical act of doing so is improbable (though there are some who believe there is no such thing as time), I do believe that being intensely present allows us to fill each second of our time with more awareness, more enjoyment, more of life’s sweetness than ever.
I contrast this to how I often feel driving home at the end of a long day in traffic (especially if there are screaming kids in the car), cleaning up after my dog or cat, or getting a cavity filled. Engaged in a somewhat banal or even unpleasant activity such as this, I can to some degree disengage from it altogether, and occupy my mind with other things. This seems to have a way of speeding everything up and making the whole experience distant and somewhat blurred upon my recollection of it. I can drive all the way home in this state and not be able to recall a single landmark I passed along the way.
The knowledge that I have the ability to slow down or speed up time for myself in this way is interesting to me. But what is even more intriguing – and somewhat unsettling – is the thought of how much of my life is spent somewhere between these two extremes, kind of on auto pilot. How many times in a conversation with someone is my mind somewhere else – scanning my “to do” list, thinking of what I could prepare for dinner, or even contemplating what I want to say next? How many times when my kids come proudly marching through the door to show me their latest artwork do I half heartedly glance up from what I’m doing and offer feigned enthusiasm? What I miss in those moments is something I can never get back.
I used to feel it was important to capture special times on film – and lugged around a camera, camcorder (or both) at the kids’ recitals, ball games, or during vacations and holiday events. Then one day I realized I’d get so caught up in getting the perfect shot that I missed those precious moments altogether. And they are never quite the same when you watch them on video. So I began to resist the urge to reach for those devices (or even bring them altogether), and instead simply immerse myself in whatever was going on. I think the quality of my memories has improved significantly – even if I don’t have a lot of photos or videos to show for it.
What if we lived more of our lives with the kind of presence we have when we don’t want to miss a thing? How much more in tune would we be with each other? How much more of each other would we actually experience and enjoy? How much more trust could we inspire and nurture? How much more joy could we create? How many more problems would we solve with solutions that addressed those little things that may have previously escaped our awareness and come back to bite us? How much more of our very selves could we bring to everything that we do and everyone we are with? And how much better the world would be because of it!
Perhaps as we become more aware of the degree to which we are really showing up, we can begin to gauge how much of our lives we are truly living. And then we can consciously create – and enjoy – lives worth living for.
Copyright Synchronistics Coaching & Consulting 2010. All rights reserved.
Some of the most memorable performances I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy have been Springsteen concerts. The boss. I’ve stood in the sold out stadiums before the show started along with thousands of other people waiting eagerly for the music – and the magic – to begin.
And Springsteen really does create magic. In a matter of minutes, he seems to effortlessly transform the entire building and everyone in it into a kind of portal that vibrates with possibility, energy, and spirit. Throughout the rest of the evening, he takes his audience right into the music with him and allows everyone to become a part of it. I have never left a Springsteen concert feeling anything less than incredibly inspired and somehow renewed – as though some part of me I didn’t even know I had woke up while I was there and begged to be released into the world.
The last time I saw Bruce in concert I was musing over the fact that he, like all of us, has at one time or another most likely ordered a hamburger at a fast food joint or stood in line at the grocery store. And I reveled over what it would be like to be standing there behind him – perhaps before he recognized his own inner genius and believed in it enough to write and record the music that would inspire others to give life to their own.
Would I know that I was standing in the presence of greatness? Could I somehow feel it? Or would I move through the rest of my day unaware of how close I’d come to magic?
And then I began to wonder about the people I actually do stand in line behind in the grocery store these days. Who’s to say that one of them isn’t destined to touch the lives and transform the worlds of many as well with their own unique talents and passions?
In December of 2007, the Washington Post persuaded Joshua Bell, one of the finest classical musicians in the world to be part of a social experiment. On a cold January morning, this internationally acclaimed virtuoso stood leaning against a wall next to a trash can in a Washington DC metro station with a baseball hat on his head playing some of the most intricate pieces ever written with a violin worth over $3 million dollars.
Over the course of the forty five minutes that he played, a total of 1,097 people passed by this musician who only two days prior played a sold out theater in Boston’s Symphony Hall where the seats averaged $100. Only seven people stopped and stayed – most of them only for a minute or two. Twenty seven gave money, mostly change, for a total of $32 and some cents. He ended each piece with no applause, no acknowledgement of his performance – or even his existence.
If people could be in the presence of someone like Joshua Bell while he was performing without stopping to appreciate and savor it for even a moment, perhaps it is also feasible that we are in the presence of greatness every day in some way – without even knowing. It could be in the person who serves you your morning coffee, the guy in the cubicle next to you, one of your own children. Maybe it could even be the person who stares back at you in the mirror.
Copyright Synchronistics Coaching & Consulting 2010. All rights reserved.
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