I’ve been studying presence my entire adult life, because it gives me more of what I want — deeper connections with other human beings.
Have you ever wondered: what draws us to certain people? And what draws others to us? Our first thought might be status, or power, or celebrity. Sure, at times we’re all a wee bit drawn to the glam people and their shiny baubles. But in our day-to-day lives, who are the people that captivate us? What do they offer that makes them so attractive?
We are charmed by people who see us. Those who listen. Individuals who tell the truth with kindness. Those who show up with warmth and the willingness to share themselves with us. At the same time, they’re able to get themselves out of the way and make room for us. We connect with people who are present on a deep level that is hard to put into words. In their company we feel valued. Feeling like we matter to important others is one of the most fundamental human needs.
Presence is an awareness of and openness to what’s happening in any given moment. I picture it as a triangle. Presence is the ability of a person to 1) be aware of what’s happening inside them, while 2) being attentive to someone else and that person’s feelings, and at the same time, 3) being grounded in what’s actually happening around both people in the moment.
Awareness of your needs + my needs + reality = presence.
Sounds like a great place to live. Our world can at times feel very lonely, even when we’re surrounded by people. The experience of connecting with another person in a meaningful way is something that stays with us. Once we’ve experienced this connection, we want more.
If the rewards are so great, why aren’t we present all the time? Why are so many of us on a never-ending search for that someone who will really see us, and at least attempt to understand us?
A barrier to having the deep connections we desire is that much of what’s going on with us is involuntary. Our central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) is responsible for processing every sensation and thought we experience. It works day in and day out, keeping our hearts pumping, our food digested, our healthy cells healthy, our eyes adjusted to changing light or smaller font. Billions of neurons are controlling our movements, actions, and reactions to the environment. They are communicating with each other 24/7. The truly fascinating part is that it’s almost all happening outside of our awareness, in our subconscious.
In a paper published in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, a group of researchers led by Associate Professor of Psychology Ezequiel Morsella of San Francisco State University, took on the somewhat narrow question of exactly what consciousness is — and came up with a decidedly bleak view. It’s pretty much nothing at all. The unconscious is really in charge.
The study suggested that in some ways we can drop the idea that we are in control. Yes, we have unique abilities to notice when something isn’t working. We can problem-solve and make decisions, change our minds, plan, and carry out those plans. But it takes work and an intentional decision to make more of our unconscious conscious so that the choices we make are in our best interest, not just impulsive responses to internal or external stimuli.
The same holds true for presence. It doesn’t come naturally. What comes naturally is to go on automatic pilot and let all our physical, emotional, and mental systems do whatever they want, including allowing our minds to lead us around by the noses, in a fruitless attempt to avoid discomfort. If ungrounded, our minds keep us running from one activity to another, in an effort to have the life we think we should be having, instead of being present in the here and now.
The good news is that we’re all in the same boat. There’s nothing wrong with us, and we are all capable of becoming more present, if we choose that path.
It’s pretty simple. I want to be more present because I want the exquisite feelings that come when I connect in a really deep way with myself, with other human beings, and with life.
Becoming more present started with a decision to change how I related to life. I had always been introspective, but in my early thirties I realized I had a choice to make. I could either remain on a soul-deadening treadmill, robotically moving forward to capture something I didn’t have but thought I wanted, or I could experience what I did have with heightened awareness of its richness. But I needed to set the stage before I could do the work.
The work isn’t that hard, but it is foreign. Remember that unfamiliar things tend to feel uncomfortable. For me, setting the stage to become more present has turned out to be an on-going process of developing real CHOPS:
COURAGE to see myself as I am. Not the me who presents her best self to others, and not the me that hides from my limitations by suppressing and repressing things that make me uncomfortable, but rather seeing the fullness of me, with all my stuff.
HUMILITY of allowing myself to understand that I will grasp so much less than I think I know about what’s going on inside me — mentally, physically and emotionally.
OPENNESS to the reality that I have been trained, or have trained myself, to be somewhat psychologically rigid, and now desire a more psychologically flexible mindset.
PREPAREDNESS and willingness that I might experience physical or emotional discomfort when I got quiet.
STOPPING — intentionally finding moments of silence and stillness in my day. Stopping is the work. But it’s nowhere near as hard as we think, and the payoffs are immeasurable.
The power of presence is that it has the ability to introduce us to the best of ourselves. It allows us to step out of our loneliness and into the welcoming arms of others who care. When we are fully present we enter a state of flow that allows us to connect with others in a way that is impossible when our attention is on the past or the future.
Training yourself to be more present is just like training your body to be stronger and more fit. Try it! Take just five minutes a day to be still. Sit and focus on your breath. Soften and relax into your body. Gently bring your attention back to your breath, over and over, each time it wanders to the past or the future. With every repetition, return to the present moment and your breath, experiencing that return as building a presence muscle that is growing larger and stronger.
If five minutes is too long, do it for three minutes, or two minutes. Or many times a day, as often as you can remember, simply pause, take a breath in, breathe out, following your out breath all the way to the end, and soften your body.