The Present of Presence
Presence is a foundational element of mindfulness.
For the past several years, I give myself a gift every Christmas. It started once I moved out of my martyr stage. You know, the one where mom is always last. Which of course spilled over into I’m always last, even once the kids were grown and had families of their own. For many years, I truly believed that to be a good mother and a good wife, I was supposed to put everyone else’s needs ahead of mine. And I carried that same belief into my work for many years.
Which meant for many years, my kids, spouse, employer, extended family, friends, and anyone else within my proximity came ahead of me. And that really meant there wasn’t much, if anything, left for me. My belief system said that if I did something for myself, I was being selfish. Unfortunately, wherever that belief system came from, it left out the parts about being cranky, exhausted, frequently sick, and feeling pretty frustrated on a regular basis with life in general. I had never heard that I needed to take care of myself first so that I could be of better service to my children, spouse, employer and anyone else who wanted to get in line. Thankfully, I did learn it, eventually. And amazingly, I stopped being cranky, exhausted and frustrated! I stopped getting sick. And I became better at giving to others, at taking care of them in healthier ways, and most importantly, understanding and giving the gift of presence.
When I spend time with friends and family, I am present. I’m not thinking about other things, scanning my device, or wishing I could get onto the next thing. It’s not unusual for dinner with a friend to go on for 5 hours because we have rich discussions where we are truly present and listen to each other. Being present in a conversation means you hear every nuance, you’re filled with more questions because of subtle cues, you’re excited or sad or laughing hysterically because you’re in the moment with that other person.
When I spend time alone, I’m still present, with myself. I notice how I feel, what I’m thinking, what my surroundings are. There is so much beauty all around us, but we miss it if we’re thinking about what we need to do next instead of paying attention to the details in the moment.
Presence is a foundational element of mindfulness. Being present means really being in the here and now. Not worrying about what happened this morning or yesterday or last month or 3 years ago. Not trying to guess what’s about to happen, what may happen, what could happen. The past is over and there’s no changing it. The future hasn’t happened yet, and there’s no accurate prediction of it. So stay in the moment. Notice what’s around you. Observe the people, the environment, the sounds, the smells, the climate, your body, your breath – everything. In every moment.
“The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness.” Abraham Maslow
Constantly diverting our attention and energy to the past or the future makes us sick. Being present makes us well. Real life is only here in the present moment. The past is a memory. The future is a dream. Most people think of now as a stepping off point for the next thing. If we stop for this moment and observe or enjoy whatever we’re experiencing, we’ll still move onto the next thing, as this moment moves into a memory. Life happens fast! But this moment, when fully lived, leads to a richer experience, as well as more opportunities for more of whatever you want because you’re here, now, paying attention.
You can choose to be well now. You can choose to be happy now. You can choose to be attentive now. Realistically, you probably can’t jump straight into now because you’ve conditioned your mind to be on constant alert to what’s next, or to fret over something that already happened. Back when I made this shift, I simply bought an inexpensive watch and wrote “NOW” across the face. Every time I looked at my watch, I was reminded to be present. Once I got in the habit, I stopped wearing watches altogether. Since a lot of people skip watches now due to smart phones, you could simply make your wallpaper the word NOW.
Another trick I used was writing down these two questions and posting them in various places around my house and on the sun visor in the car. “What are you thinking?” “How are you feeling?” I had no idea that as I raced through my days, I was never paying attention to my thoughts or feelings. It would all hit me at day’s end, when I felt stressed and tired and then I would notice I didn’t feel so hot. Those notes would stop me in my tracks and bring me straight into the moment, multiple times a day. And that shifted my habits and behavior to something much, much healthier.
Of course there are many great books, videos and teachers you can learn from. Eckhart Tolle is probably the most profound author on the subject of now. You can also practice mindfulness, which is centered on being present with your mind, body and environment. You can meditate, which also brings you to the present by focusing on your breath. It doesn’t matter how you get here, to the now. It only matters that you start the journey of shifting your mind to pay attention to the present moment. Let the past go. Focus on now and the future takes care of itself. Life is actually so much simpler when you live it moment by moment. On the days when I do it well, it is amazing! On the days I don’t do it so well – keep in mind we’re human and this is not an easy shift – I shake it off and set an intention for the next day to do it better.
So back to my gifts. During the holidays, I give myself a gift. Shopping is not my favorite pastime, so since I’m already shopping for others, I buy myself something nice or special every year now while I’m out and about shopping for others. It’s a way to honor myself and to say thank you to me for all of my hard work. And it’s always something I really, really want. I’ve never once had to exchange a gift I gave myself! During the entire year, however, I try to remember to give myself the gift of presence every day. It enriches my relationships, strengthens my empathy, makes life much more vibrant, reduces my stress levels and brings me joy.
Don’t forget to be present this holiday season. It’s easy to rush through activities to get everything done and to get so caught up in the bustle, to miss the true blessings of the season. Consider giving yourself a gift this year. You can start with the gift of presence if you want the best gift you’ll ever receive or give in your life.