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The Skill of Presence

Today, while at my local coffee house, instead of tucking my head into my iphone to kill the time, as I usually do while I wait for my order, I decided to see what it would be like to not have that distraction and just be present in the room with everyone else.

What I noticed is that even though there were about 30 other people physically present, no one was consciously there. Everyone was attached to a phone or laptop. People were mindlessly bumping into each other barely breaking from their device to look up and acknowledge their collisions. The Barista was calling out orders to a room full of folks deaf to their names.

The only person who stood out in the room with a focused presence was a toddler strapped into his stroller, wondrously gazing at everyone. He was reaching his hand out to all that walked by hoping for a high-five. Too distracted by their devices, passer-byers were clueless to this lost moment to engage with such a sweet presence. He glanced up and saw me looking at him and gave me the warmest, drooling, bright-eyed smile and waved at me.

How many moments have I missed for being too distracted in my device?

Many.

I kept noticing the urge to take my phone out of my pocket to check it. For what? There was no phone call or e-mail that couldn’t be handled in a few minutes when back at my desk.

I went through a roller coaster of frustration and impatience during the two minutes I was waiting for my order to arrive. If I allowed myself to let my phone distract me, I probably wouldn’t have been that annoyed by the wait.

Am I that bored with myself? That’s what it really boils down to, doesn’t it? Boredom.

We busy ourselves with lists of things to do and we do not give ourselves a minute to just be still, quiet and undistracted.

What is so scary about a moment with nothing to read, say or do?

We are moving so fast through life, trying to keep up with the speed of technology that we are missing out on precious opportunities like a joyful high-five from an eager, smiling infant. Instead of letting our advanced technology do its job, so that we are free to live our lives, we are lost in it trying to keep up with it.

One of my Yoga teachers used to always ask during class, “What race are you running?” By filling our every moment we are just speeding time and racing the clock. To what? Our death? Is it that inviting?

As we look back on our lives in our later years, will it be the status post we read while waiting for our coffee that we will remember with fondness or the moments we spend really connecting with others in person?

This question becomes more relevant with each passing birthday, “At the end of this path, will I feel fulfilled by all that I have done?” This is a tricky question because is it really about the tasks you have accomplished or your experience of life in each moment?

The practice of presence is a skill. It is not something we do naturally. We have conditioned ourselves to be distracted; in fact our culture invites it. How many times have you asked someone how they are doing and they answer, “Good! Really busy!!” What would you think if someone responded, “Good! Moving slowly!!”? Would you think there was something wrong with them or that they were lazy?

A practice of meditation is a great way to cultivate the skill of presence; yet, ironically, most of us do not feel we have the patience or time for it. I often hear people say they are not good at meditating because they can’t quiet their minds enough.

This is the misconception of meditation.

It is not about the ability to sit in a room and have no thoughts pass through your mind; it’s about taking a moment to be present so that we can increase our level of awareness in the rest of our lives, so we don’t miss anything. There are other more tangible ways to practice this that don’t require a half an hour of your day sitting in lotus position, in utter silence and vacant of thought.

For instance, the next time you are out with a friend and they leave you to go to the bathroom, instead of reaching for your phone look around the room. Notice the table and the chair you are sitting on. Take in the decorations and the people around you. Take in all the sounds—subtle and not. See if you can feel your heartbeat or the quality of your breath: is it shallow or deep? Did you zone out or drift off into thought? Give yourself this moment to be present and notice what it’s like to be alive. Pay attention to your desire to pull out your phone. Be curious about the drive to do that.

Ask yourself, “What am I distracting myself from?”

This practice doesn’t take extra time from your day to do. We all have many moments between our next destination or next project that we can use to hone our skill of being present. It doesn’t have to be long; just one moment multiple times a day is all it takes to develop the ability to be more present. The more you do this, the more you are able to come to a place of presence in all that you do. You might also notice time doesn’t seem to slip away as quickly.

If you would like to hear more about this, check out this powerful TED talk, Connected, but alone?, with Sherry Turkle.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. I can completely relate with your experience at the coffee shop. Perhaps breaking my Android two years ago was a blessing incognito. Great article! If you haven’t already seen this > http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k7X7sZzSXYs … and if you already have, I loved every time I’ve watched it anyway : )

    November 5, 2012

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