What is the greatest gift that we can give to ourselves, to others and to the world? In the previous blog I wrote about how part of the wonder of Madiba, were his abilities to be deeply present and radiate great humility. We explored the concept of humility in leadership. In this blog, we look at what it means to be present. The topic is an extremely relevant one in the world in which we live today. So relevant, that Time magazine dedicated their cover story to the “The Mindful Revolution” in February 2014 because the ability to be present or “mindful” is becoming such a lost state of being for many us, bombarded as we are by endless digital distraction.
Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh describes presence as the ultimate gift that we can give to another, saying: “The precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers”. And we know this truth experientially for ourselves. Reflect on what it feels like when we speak to someone who isn’t fully “there” with us, engaged in our thoughts, compared with what it feels like when we speak to someone who gives us their complete attention and presence. Often the difference will manifest in our energy levels. We feel happy after being with someone who really listens to us. When someone gives us their full presence, it is a high sign of acknowledgement and respect. Our presence communicates the message: “You are important to me and I treasure and respect you”. It immediately makes the other person feel valued and they in turn, value you.
Many of my busy executive clients express to me how they wish they had more time to spend with their children. Sometimes, increasing the quantity of time might not always be possible, but perhaps the quality matters far more. And the key ingredient to that quality is our ability to be present. Leaders who have this quality tend to inspire much respect from their followers because what accompanies presence is the deep capacity to listen and connect with another.
So how do we do it?
- Become present to your Self
Before we can become present for others, we have to learn how to become present to ourselves. A simple practice here is to notice every time your thoughts take you away from connecting to yourself. Ask yourself: How often and how long does this occur for? In the ancient scriptures, the mind is likened to being akin to a “drunken monkey”, swinging from one thought branch to another. Becoming present to ourselves is an invitation to tame the monkey and to reclaim your inner power by doing so.
- Cherishing the Breath
A useful taming strategy is to become aware of your breath. While driving, while brushing your teeth, while waiting in a queue or sitting in a boring meeting—any time you feel the monkey mind swinging around wildly disturbing your inner peace, invite your attention to rest on your breathing. Experiencing serenity as you inhale and letting go of stress as you exhale. Just noticing the various movements in your body that occur as this miracle of breathing happens through you. This practice will slow down the thoughts, allowing for a slight gap to happen between them. And in that gap, you will experience what it feels like to become present to yourself. Many of our elders would continually tell us to “Hold our shoulders back, stop slouching and breathe properly”. Keepers of wisdom they are!
- Being present for others
As you become more skilful at this practice, bringing yourself to presence more easily and more regularly throughout the day, you will find that your ability to become present for others will improve. It takes our practice to a higher level. What distracts us from listening properly to another and gifting them with our authentic presence, is the mind. A mind that is busy formulating responses and judgements, and thinking about other things, cannot enable presence for another. The next time that you are with your child or friend or partner or business colleague, practice what it feels like to use your breath to let go of the need to think, and to just fully “be” there, listening to them with your full self. Notice the difference in the quality of the connection, your response and the outcome. If you would like to explore this area of self-mastery more deeply, read this wonderful piece by Eckhart Tolle http://www.eckharttolle.com/newsletter/august-2010 on maintaining presence during conversations with others.
Presence is a deep topic and a difficult area of self-mastery. But just this simple practice can start to make a difference. Deeper practices will follow in more blogs. A wise sage once said that the only reality there ever is, is this present moment. It’s true isn’t it? And it is the quality of this present moment, determined by your presence that determines the quality of the next and the next. And that is how your future unfolds in a way that brings contentment.
“Realize deeply that the present moment is all you have. Make the NOW the primary focus of your life.” –Eckhart Tolle