Being present is one of those key life skills that doesn’t get much airtime. What is it to be present? It is to be in the here and now. We get called away from the present with our thoughts in the past and the future. If you are like me, walking the dog, shopping or drawing money from an ATM are all times where your mind is probably somewhere else. Either worrying about something that has happened or might happen, or planning something in the future.
Being present is about who you are being in the moment and not what you are doing. My own view is that our view of being productive is heavily skewed to doing things. Our world is geared to immediate gratification and the movement towards goals. Simply being isn’t enough for us.
But it should be.
It’s exhausting not being present. Admit it. I know it is for me. I’ve even lost money by leaving it in the machine because my mind was absolutely somewhere else.
Without some intentional practice, it feels as if we are designed to be thinking about something else all the time. There is a lot written about the efficacy of mindful practice (which is about building the muscle to being present) in supporting those with high levels of anxiety. This is not surprising.
Ellen Langer, the mother of mindfulness makes a case for being in the present:
“Noticing puts us in the present, makes us sensitive to context, and aware of change and uncertainty. When we are mindless we hold our perspective still, allowing us to confuse the stability of our mindsets with the stability of the underlying phenomena. Hold it still if you want but it’s changing nonetheless.”
I love the concept of holding our perspective still, all while the world changes around us. One area where this gets in our way is being in relationship with other people. This can be in meetings at work or drinks with a friend.
We all arrive at meetings with our heads full of what’s going on in our lives. Our bodies are flooded with the emotions from our lives – perhaps of struggling of getting there on time, of an uncomfortable conversation with the spouse, excitement about next week’s holiday or worry about an upcoming presentation. We all carry this with us all the time. Without acknowledging that this is going on for us, these other storylines in our lives bleed into how we show up right here and now.
The good news is that mindfulness practice can help us build our muscle of being present, and coming back to the present.
I use a structure in my coaching practice and in work with collaborators that allows us to become aware of distracting thoughts and emotions and become present to the agenda of the meeting. It’s called a check-in process. Each person says how they are arriving.
At times, more pointed questions work better. One is designed to pin point any distracting thoughts or emotions (for example, “What’s bothering you today?”), the other to bring people into the positive “present” (for example,“What are you grateful for?”). We use 5-10 minutes at the beginning of a meeting to clear what’s on our mind in service of us being fully present.
It’s a small and simple action that can make a profound difference.