“Be where you are, otherwise you will miss your life.” The Buddha
Presence, or being in the here and now, particularly when leading yourself and others, is one of the greatest life-skills you can master.
Because you don’t miss the moment. Despite the illusion of linear time, the business of the universe only ever takes place in the here and now. For you to participate you must be there. But as the Buddha’s quote implies, you may think you are present when actually, you are elsewhere.
Olympians appreciate the importance of being in the moment but the practice is less well known in the business world or in life in general.
Why might you not be present?
Because you are allowing your mind to run you. Your mind is an on-board computer and its function is not to think but to have your body-mind survive by presenting you with thoughts.
You could say that your mind comprises two main components: a set of filing cabinets and a processing system. The filing cabinets contain your experiences (or more accurately your perception of your experiences), and your processing system selects the past experiences it deems relevant in your current, present moment situation.
Based on these experiences, the processing system then generates thoughts to enable you to
a) survive, and
b) navigate the current situation successfully, according to its subconscious idea or what success looks like.
Thus in any situation, you are less likely to be engaged with the situation itself than with your thoughts, judgements, and opinions about the situation - but these are all based on your perception of the past. These past perceptions are your mind’s basis for its projected future, the thoughts about which will also be playing you in your present.
How being not-present is experienced
Imagine that I meet you for the first time. On shaking hands, I say everything required by social convention and within the parameters of my personality to appear polite and nice.
What’s really going on for me at a subconscious level, however, is that my mind on encountering you, asks itself “Where have I met one of these (ie you) before?” The processing system goes into the filing cabinets and selects files that it thinks apply to you and the current situation - files containing perceptions of similar experiences from years ago - which it then applies to the current situation, meeting you, to generate thoughts.
For example, if in the files selected, I find that I met someone just like you twenty years ago who was self-obsessed and lost me my job, my mind would identify you as a potential threat (without my being consciously aware of this) and, as we talked, would seek confirmatory evidence of its opinion. On this occasion you happen to use similar language to the person of twenty years ago so my mind now ‘recognises’ you as a future threat and its processing system generates thoughts of dislike.
‘I decide’ that I don’t like you and subconsciously transmit negative vibes which your subconscious picks up and in this exchange, it is unlikely that our contact details will ever make it into the other’s phone, much less be acted upon.
This has all occurred pretty much instantaneously and unconsciously without my actually connecting with you - only with my thoughts about you which are really about someone from my past.
Conversely, if the person in my mind’s selected files had been very helpful to me in the past, my processing system would envision a future for me that would be brighter with you than without you; it would generate thoughts about my liking you and ‘I would decide’ that I like you. But again, I have yet to actually connect with the real you. Your mind will be doing the same about me with you.
This is why our relationships seem random
The way we seem to experience liking someone or not is why people can think that relationships are random. But in the example above, I hadn’t even met you - the real you. I was dealing with my idea of you based on aspects of my past and from those, my mind then projected how my future might be with you in it.
Our experience of all situations is broadly similar. We engage according to the meaning we give to the situation based on our thoughts about it which have arisen from our perceptions of the past experiences our processing system deems relevant.
But the business of the universe only ever takes place in the present. While we are distracted, rummaging through our past and projecting into the future, we are not engaging with what is actually going on, right now.
The costs of not being present
To maximise the rewards of any activity or situation, however, you must have your attention on the activity or situation completely and not on your past-based thoughts about the activity or situation.
For example, trust is critical in good relationships. When you experience that my attention is fully on you and not on me, you trust me; when my attention is on my thoughts about you and not on you, I have my attention, in effect, on me and you cannot trust me.
Limiting beliefs beget negative life patterns
Your thoughts arising in any situation will be based on the files your processing system chooses to select which will be congruent with and continuing to validate your mind’s limiting beliefs about yourself.
If your mind has a limiting belief such as “I am unworthy” or “I am not good enough”, your processing system will select only those files that will have this current situation validate your mind’s overview of you in the world.
This is how your unconscious limiting beliefs are able to continually recreate negative patterns in your life and why you may be at the mercy of limiting life patterns such as always being poor; no good in relationships; always sabotaging your success, etc. Your mind uses every situation to promote its view of what your position should be in relation to life. It is a big cost, for your mind is, in effect, running you according to its conditioning, rather than you consciously running it. This is how it is for most human beings.
The antidote is for you in all situations to practice being present.
What is it to be present?
Here’s my working definition:
Be present, your attention focused completely on the person, situation, or task in hand; free of all judgements, opinions, and referencing from your past; in the here and now; with that person, task, or situation, and giving them or it your complete attention, not just once in the moment, but ongoingly.’
How do you apply this in practice?
In the example above, on meeting you, my mind’s processing system goes straight into its filing cabinets of past perceptions and generates thoughts about you with which I engage by listening to the voice in my head.
To be present to you, so that you get that I get, where you are, I take my attention away from my thoughts about you and put it on you. But as you continue to speak, my mind will try repeatedly to hook my attention by generating more thoughts about you. To be present, I return my attention to you, continually, which is why in the definition above it says, “give your complete attention not just once in the moment, but ongoingly.”
Being present in a situation
To be present in a situation that is taking place, you take your attention off your thoughts and put it on to what’s happening while maintaining awareness of what is also happening around you. This contrasts with being focused, when you would concentrate your attention on the central theme of the situation to the exclusion of the ancillary events.
For example, when chairing a meeting you might often try to ‘be focused’ to achieve a desired outcome. I used to think, when younger, that my meetings were best chaired when I was able to write the meeting minutes beforehand. Well, perhaps not but I could be guilty of driving for decisions that I had made already.
But with experience (and wisdom), I found that the best outcomes arose from my being completely present so that I was listening-out participants’ real views on a subject, while maintaining awareness of the reactions and potential openings for action coming from the others in the room.
Ultimately, I found that my best chairing took place when I set out to be completely silent other than to summarise and move the meeting on to the next item, choosing to be completely present during the discussions and listening-out the best strategy in relation to the item we were discussing. I was, in effect, listening to the collective intelligence of my team rather than relying on my own singular perspective.
On chance encounters
In any work related role but, particularly in a leadership role you need to identify through others what needs to be done and get done, through others, what needs to be done. One of your greatest tools for achieving this is to plan regular chance encounters with your people through MBWA or Management by Walking About.
This apparently nonchalant activity which is as effective online as in the workplace can generate a goldmine of invaluable intelligence and contribution through your ‘chance’ encounters with your people and the resultant conversations that then take place.
But only if you are present: in the here and now, suspending your judgement. Your staff then sense that you are listening and that they have a line directly through to the real You and they will tell you about crucial aspects of your operation and how they think it might be improved.
Listening without judgement is an act of grace and when you give this you receive in kind. This is leadership communication at its best - connecting personally with your people so that communication both ways takes place.
Allow Consciousness to work through you
But there is another, more powerful reason to practice being present in all your activities and situations: when you are fully present, in the here and now and not engaging with your thoughts about what you are doing, you - or your lower self or ego, as identified by the thoughts in your head, step aside, allowing your higher self - who you really are - to engage without the mind’s limitation.
Your higher Self is your creative self which can then work through you to create outcomes that your logical mind could never conceive.
“The present moment is always small in the sense that it is always simple, but concealed within it lies the greatest power . . . Only when you align yourself with the present moment do you have access to that power. Or it may be more true to say that it then has access to you and through you to this world.” - Eckhart Tolle: A New Earth.
This is the power of presence and the more you can bring your presence to all activities and situations with which you engage, the more powerful and effective in life you will be.
By Christopher Jones-Warner
Recommended further reading:
A New Earth - Eckhart Tolle - particularly chapters 9 and 10.