How may times have you been implored to “be present”, especially when things aren’t going well? Hundreds of times? Thousands?
We often correlate “being present” with a positive outcome; in our culture, it carries a positive connotation universally, without question.
But the reality is that sometimes being present sucks.
To be clear, I have nothing against being present. Living in the moment carries some extraordinary benefits, and some of the practices used to discover presence (mindfulness, listening, meditation, observing periods of silence) are of great benefit and impact.
The problem I have is that many people spend inordinate amounts of time trying to be present, without even reflecting on why that’s what they want, or even what it really means.
When I am listening, I am present. When I’m doing work that’s meaningful to me, I am present. When I am standing with a friend who has lost someone, I am present.
And yes, even in some periods of great anxiety, fear, or pain, I am present, if I am allowing that anxiety, fear or pain to engender some sort of action.
Presence assumes you are truly in the moment, absorbing your entire environment, even for the most fleeting periods of time. It means you are reflective, self-aware, focused, and confidently standing in whatever circumstances you happen to find yourself in. These circumstances are not always going to be ideal. Therefore being present isn’t assured to be some sort of cosmic experience populated by rainbows and chocolate bunnies. Sometimes, the experience will be outright mortifying.
So don’t assume that “being present” is by its very nature going to make you feel great, or even that it should. It can help to create the conditions by which you create a more contented, joyful life, but that is by no means guaranteed. When that doesn’t happen it becomes just another cliché; a form of mental masturbation, even an agent of avoidance.
That’s right: reaching for “presence” can itself be a form of escape.
It’s very easy to assume that being present is the pinnacle of intentional living, and as well-meaning as the counsel to be present might be, it’s also generic and doled out with an astounding amount of naiveté.
Instead of focusing your energies on being present, divert your energies towards activities and practices that will lead you to be vulnerable. That vulnerability will then lead to a form of presence. Though understand that entering a state of presence will often force you to confront your darker natures; parts of yourself that you do not wish to face.
That is why many people expend enormous amounts of energy talking about being present, instead of doing the incredibly challenging work involved in living authentically.
Making “presence” the ultimate goal misses the point entirely.
Presence—and the accompanying peace that finding yourself truly in the moment brings with it—is a byproduct of doing the work, particularly when enduring great difficulty. The uncomfortable, often excruciating work necessary to learn to live with—and ultimately transcend—your adversity, is the path.
The path often feels lonely, which is why so few take it. Yet it is beautiful, for in it we come face to face with our brokenness. And as a result, we stand in it—and maybe, just maybe, reach one fellow soul in need of our compassion and grace.
Could there be anything more present than that?