Wednesday, January 6, 2010

On Being Present

Iris and I decided to stop working long enough tonight to go have dinner at the Old Mill. Seems that we've been running non-stop for... well, for a long time, and it was nice just to sit and talk.

We covered a range of topics from Iris' recent experiences in the playroom and hew new found understanding of Autism and how to best reach our kids, to how much we appreciate various people in our lives, to apparent paradoxes in what we humans say and do: the last being the topic of this blog.

Being Present
Many of us talk about 'being present'. In our circle of friends, it's become so commonplace as to not actually mean anything any more. Or, based on how I hear people using the phrase, it seems that way. It appears that words often bypass quality control on the way into our vocabularies. We like the sound of them. We have a basic sense of what they mean (or at least into which category they fall). The people around us use them and no one stops and corrects our usage. So, we add them.

At AT&T, we used to call this pod-speak (in reference to Invasion of the Body Snatchers) . What mattered most was sounding as though you knew what you were talking about. People developed an uncanny ability to construct syntactically flawless sentences where they had no clue about the semantics.

This was not a limited phenomenon. It was pervasive. As a technical guy who ended up being a marketing guy, I would often attend large meetings where someone would make a statement that was completely nonsensical, and everyone around the table would be nodding in agreement. Pointing out that the statement had made no sense at all endeared me to some, and to others, well...

Lately I've come to the conclusion that watching most people think is like watching little kids play soccer (or football for you non-US types); all the kids are simply chasing the ball without the ability to maintain a context or hold a position or anticipate the future. In essence, they're all present with the ball. However, in being present with the ball, they're not present with say, the game, or the plan, or their position.

The verb phrase being present doesn't actually mean anything without an object of some type. Being present with what... with whom... with when?

From one perspective, no matter what we do, we're always present with something; it's just a question of what or when or why or for how long.

As Iris and I discussed this, we talked about friends who have kind of dropped out of life in order to be present with their thoughts and feelings. Then we got back into this right/left brain thing again. (Bear with me for a moment; it's just a paradigm and a shorthand.)

Roles and Responsibilities
Let's say that you want to make really useful decisions about where you're going and what you're doing. A good way to do this requires reasonable consideration of where you've been and what you anticipate, i.e., thinking about the past and the future. The trick is to be present in your decision process, while considering past events and future potential. (If this sounds like an oxymoron, then your vocabulary quality control might be needing an overhaul.)

The problem with considering past and future is that, for many of us, this leads to the children's soccer match. As our logical left brain considers the past and the future, rather than holding its position in keeping us present in our decision process, our emotional right brain goes charging after whatever our left brain has brought up. Before we know it, we're clouded with regret (from the past) or fear (about the future) and our right brain renders our left brain useless. (Repeat, it's just an analogy, it's just an analogy...)

So, in some ways (allegorically speaking), being present is a right-brained phenomenon. The key to clear thinking is to not cripple our logically structured left brain by limiting it to immediate sensory input. The key to clear thinking is to free our left brain to explore all the possibilities, while keeping our emotional, creative side comfortable and focused on the thinking process, not the potential outcomes. If we can do that, we're golden.

However, based on our experiences, many of us feel incapable of this. So, rather than considering the past and future when making decisions, we simply try to be present. (The astute among your are thinking, "present with what?")

Well, in this case, our being present is really defined by that with which we're not present. In our attempts at being present, we actively block stimuli from the past and from the future. We're present only with our being present.

While this may feel good, ultimately, it's not very useful. In essence, it's akin to deciding you're fearless simply because you've blocked out thoughts of anything that scares you. It's not about facing and overcoming our fears; it's about avoiding them. It's like being able to enter a calm and meditative state only when you can isolate yourself from stimuli and not when you're in the midst of stimulaic hurricane.

Well, this may seem obvious, but that ain't what being present is about. Being present is the zen, it's the passion with a loose grip, it's the calm in the storm, it's about being totally in the moment as you consider everything past and future. It's not a curtailment of our logical structured side, it's an enhancement to it.

So What?
If you find yourself able to be present only as you mediate, or withdraw to a retreat center, or take a hot bath, or get away from everything, then I would suggest that you don't get it. Although these things are all wonderful and feel great, if this is your concept of being present, then you're selling yourself short.

I would suggesting trying on the idea that being present simply means being calm, focused and un-distracted regardless of the environment, stimuli or situation, and, that being present is something that you can learn to turn on at a moments notice.

Then I would suggest trying it out. Rather than being present through avoidance of stimuli, I would suggest trying being present (per the definition above) in the midst of various stimuli. You know what they are, they're the ones you normally shut out while being present.

Happy first Wednesday!

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