I must say at the outset that this blog is terribly late because I was being present, very present, in several other areas of my life throughout March. Being present for this particular blog to capture the messages of this important theme was too important for me to rush or multi-task my way through!
What is it to be present: in one's life, in our loved one's lives, to our friends, to our co-workers, to our faith?
Our modern society certainly provides plenty of distractions that can keep us from truly being present, even to ourselves. Although largely - and thankfully - debunked as a means of efficiency now, the practice of multi-tasking exhorted in the last couple of decades by time management experts is still widely used by students at exam time; by parents juggling jobs, kids, activities, and marriage demands; and employees and employers alike. We are one frazzled and preoccupied society!
Most of us know that being present is important to our own well-being and that of those around us. So why is it so hard to do and what can we do about it?
Elyssa Barbash Ph.D. wrote for "Psychology Today",
"Have you ever heard the saying “don’t let the future steal your present?” This statement is very powerful. Many of us could benefit from following this mantra as it teaches the importance of mindfulness. If you have never heard of mindfulness before, it is the practice of being present in the moment (it is also the core of meditation practices and something one must master in order to become truly skilled at meditation)."
Indeed. To Be Present means learning mindfulness: how to be [more] present in the moment. Many of us can experience this when performing repetitive mundane tasks: handwashing dishes, folding laundry, mowing the lawn. One of the best soothing and mindful activities I do in the summer is mowing our 2 acre lawn; I enjoy this activity so much that several years ago my husband gifted me a riding lawn tractor for Mother's Day. Unorthodox choice to be sure, but he knew then how important that weekly time was for me.
Besides the benefits of this mental state of feeling happier, calmer, more relaxed, and appreciative, there can also be real physiological changes with that lowered stress response. Ms. Barbash reminds us that, "Mindfulness can also increase your ability to be in tune with your thoughts, emotions, and body sensations, which allows you to work with these human factors and communicate how you are thinking and feeling to both yourself and others."
If "being present in our relationships" is something that most of us believe we are doing, why then are there so many
people who feel disconnected, even lonely? In our very connected world, how can that be? Over this past month, while I was reflecting on the theme "Be Present" and was so busy with very people-centric activities, I repeatedly encountered examples of how we miss the mark. These instances involved interactions, or the lack thereof, between family members, friends, and co-workers. Opportunities to create a human connection, even a brief one, were missed. I noticed that I missed opportunities. I noticed that others missed opportunities with other people. I noticed that some people missed opportunities with me. I noticed how I felt about those missed opportunities and I thought about how, as a reasonably confident and secure adult, if I was feeling misunderstood and inconsequential, how much more difficult those same missed interactions would be for a more vulnerable person.
I am not referring to a level of attention beyond that which healthy human adults require to function and thrive. I am referring to missed opportunities to connect on an emotional level, those moments to demonstrate interest in, and compassion or kindness to, our fellow human beings, particularly those with whom we already have an established relationship at some level. I think we need to remember and practice our humanity with each other more often.
We really are all just walking each other home.
I have a terrible habit of keeping my cell phone close by and checking it far too often. In a switched on world, and with a position that involves a level of responsibility for others, I have rationalized my behaviour as a necessary aspect of my career. But it's a terrible habit and one that I am trying hard to change. Last Saturday, following three weeks of mostly being away from home for work, I asked my husband to play hooky with me from the farm so that we could enjoy an afternoon date, and suggested that we spend that time at the shooting range, a past-time he enjoys very much (I do as well, and I'm a very good shot!). It was a wonderful afternoon of connecting with each other in a fun activity.
Cell phones are not the only distraction that keeps me and you from being present in a more meaningful way with our loved ones, friends, and colleagues. In a society that provides plenty of distractions, it is easy to feel like an attention-deficit-afflicted squirrel. And connecting with our "peeps" requires a certain energy. There are those whose batteries are recharged with human interaction, those through solitude, and the rest of us who can fall somewhere across both sides of that coin.
Dr. F. Emelia Sam provides some sage advice to help us to Be Present in our relationships:
1. Breathe consciously.This is perhaps the easiest method to draw us back into ourselves. Being that it is solely dependent on your will and accessible at any time, it is the most common method of practicing presence.When you're in any state other than relaxation, you tend to take shallower breaths. Deliberately changing your breathing rhythm allows you to focus inwardly and instantly decelerate your hurried pace.
2. Concentrate on one sense.We are multi-sensory beings, but that can often result in overstimulation. When you have the opportunity, focus on just one of your senses. Close your eyes while you listen to sounds in the background. When you're eating, try to distinguish among the flavors in a bite. Sit in silence while you examine a particular object. Creating spaces with limited sensory input can help you find more calm.
3. Stop multi-tasking.Most people are not the efficient multi-taskers they claim to be. Performing several activities at one time often results in a lack of concentration, leading to decreased productivity or increased errors. For example, grocery shopping while talking on the phone can have you aimlessly wandering down aisles. If you're speaking to a friend, just do that. If you're shopping in a grocery store, just do that. It may not be feasible for every shopping trip, but make the decision to be present with one task when you can.
4. Establish tech-free times.Today's technology makes us accessible at all times if we let it. However, this takes away our power over our own time. Designate periods when you're simply not accessible. Barring essential people, things such as random email notifications, texts, and work updates probably don't need your 24/7 attention. Make non-contact time sacred.
5. Learn to say no to things that don't bring you joy.Think of all the activities in which you engage yourself. Is there one you'd rather not do that you could eliminate? When you don't enjoy something, it not only takes up your time when you're doing it; you waste valuable energy anticipating your displeasure. Dreading something in the future forces you out of the present. Say no when you want to.
6. Practice listening and eye-contact.These are the basics of communication. These actions let the other party know you are present for them. They feel heard and validated, which means your presence has the potential to set off a chain-reaction. (Remember, your mindfulness reaches far beyond your own world.)Practicing presence isn't a fad. It's a timeless principle of well-being. It's essential to meaningful connection with self and others. Don't miss the moment. It may be too important to ignore.
So let's resolve to Be Present with those around us. Engage with those around you. Ask how your co-worker or employee is doing and listen carefully to the response without judgment. Play with your little ones after dinner. Spend time with your partner and really connect.
Put the technology away. Some homes have a basket at the front door where cell phones are dropped when people come over. I can't promise a basket at the front door (baby steps, baby steps!), but I can promise more eye contact, more active listening, and more reaching out. I hope you will join me.