01 Jan 2015
Happy New Year.
Last night, I was standing at the cutting board slicing a lemon into wedges to make lemonade when a little monkey ran over and hugged my leg. “Hi Tony!” Saoirse (pronounced SEER-sha) is Brenna and Sean’s little toe-headed three year old and she is the cutest little monkey there ever was. Her smile is about 20 feet wide. She is 30 lbs of pure sunshine. “Hi Saoirse.” I replied while my eyes maintained focus on slicing lemons and squeezing the juice into a glass. There was this adorable creature wanting to share her love and affection with me, and I wasn’t there to receive it. She hugged my leg pressing her face into my knee. I was focused on cutting a lemon. I regret not putting the lemon down, picking her up, looking straight at her and and giving her a big welcome. It was a missed connection. Receiving a gift offered is itself an act of love. No lemonade is more important than that. Being three years old, her mind and body are in sync in the present. They moved in unison to the next thing: climbing the couch and getting a snack, maybe at the same time. At some point, our brains gain the ability of thinking and feeling about the past and the future. Therein lies the problem. With that capability comes the problem of coming unmoored from the now.
The Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh, in one of his many discourses on interpersonal relationships, reveals that the greatest gift we can make to others is our true presence. In other words, show up and be there. So often in my life, though, my body has been physically in the proximity of another person but mentally elsewhere, daydreaming, planning, fretting, or being distracted intentionally or not. Or, I have held a phone to my ear with words from another person coming out of it while my mind was checking email or football scores or something. In other words, I was not present. My mind was fixated on something else and maybe averse to interacting with the other person.
Why is this so hard? There are as many reasons are there are ways the stream of consciousness can distract us.
- You get caught up in what we are doing. For example, last night my brain was caught up in the “Make lemonade” subroutine.
- A shiny object catches your eye, you hear “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” and the earworm becomes lodged, the smell of fresh pizza makes your mouth water and stomach growl, etc.
- You start thinking ahead to avoid something bad happening in the future or want some pleasant situation in the future.
- You start planning a response after hearing the first three words of a sentence.
- You’ve drawn a conclusion about the person or what they’re talking about and your brain gets busy defending that position.
- You have a lingering regret about something in the past that keeps bubbling up despite your best efforts and intentions.
- A thought, feeling, sensation, or emotion triggers a cascade of distracting other thoughts. For example, a song playing in the background triggers the memory that sends your mind back to your dorm room in 1997, which leads to that time when you and your dorm neighbor borrowed your vacuum cleaner and gave it back to you clogged with a sock, and who does that?
- The person says or does something that creates some sort of aversive response in us. For example, they are giving you advice you didn’t ask for, or they say something you disagree with, or something about your mom, or you may have drawn a conclusion about what they are complaining to you about and also drawn a conclusion about what they should do.
- You’re worried about setting the other person off.
- You don’t really want to be there, but are fulfilling an obligation out of duty and/or guilt, or you don’t have the courage or skills to end the interaction gracefully so you wait for them to do it.
- Restlessness or anxiety
- You really have to pee
- Unresolved conflict under the surface
- There’s something about the person you want to fix.
This list is not exhaustive, but you get the idea. These are all things I’ve caught in myself.
There have been times in all of my relationships where I have been physically present but mentally elsewhere. In all of those cases, I wasn’t really there relating with anyone. Fortunately, being present is a skill that can be improved like anything else, with practice. When I have made myself be mentally present with another person, in 100% of the cases, my relationship with the other person improved. The reason is, by being present, I drop preconceived notions, seek to understand, and accept the other person and their situations as-is, which diffuses tension in the other person. In other words, being present means operating as close to reality as possible. Being present means actually relating and coming to an understanding. Diffusing tension then becomes possible. When tension is diffused, peace is what remains. When the mind dwells on either the past or the future, tension becomes present. With tension, there is no peace. World peace starts with peace in individuals.
Being present means:
- Maintaining your attention on the interaction right in front of you, continually bringing it back whenever the mind drifts away.
- Not having a personal agenda.
- Being open to new information even if it disagrees with any conclusions you may have drawn.
- Seeking to understanding the other person from their perspective, wishing them well, and accepting them as is.
- Listening carefully to understand what the other person is saying and choosing not to argue. Simply being heard can relieve tension in another person. Contrast this with listening to identify a problem and coming up with a solution, or trying to be right or superior/pointing out their flaws (see the bit above about being given unsolicited advice).
- Understanding that they too are winging it in life.
- Being at ease.
- Being forgiving.
- Being skillful at speaking in a gentle way that is truthful, factual, and beneficial.
- Accepting the present situation as is without wishing that it were somehow different than it is, or seeking an explanation for why it is the way it is.
If this sounds a lot like meditation to you, you are on to something. Meditation is the controlled-setting practice for the game of being present in real life, which happens at game speed with all of the unpredictable elements and complications of life. Alas, that and each of the items on both lists are topics for other posts.
Is “Showing Up for 2016” a New Year’s Resolution? Call it what you will, but it is a step I can take to find peace for myself and others. What better cause to devote myself? All I have to do is show up.