‘The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.’
Thich Nhat Hanh
What does it mean, to be present? In one sense we are, of course, always present. Where else could we possibly be? Yet we probably all know the feeling of being present in our bodies while our minds are elsewhere.
We also know what it’s like to be with someone who is not really present with us – who nods mechanically from time to time and mutters a disinterested ‘oh really’ while scanning over our heads to see if someone more important has arrived at the party yet. Other people have the gift of making everyone they talk to feel like the most important person in the room. We flourish in the presence of someone who is listening deeply, who is attentive and kind. Just to be in the presence of a person like that can be healing for us.
What does it feel like to be present? To not be present? It’s useful to be able to distinguish between the two states, to explore their effects on us – physically, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually. What helps us to be more present, what hinders it?
During meditation, we become aware how quickly our mind loses its focus on the object of the meditation, such as for example watching the breath, and wanders off elsewhere. We experience states of distractedness, and states of clear, open awareness. We become more familiar with the workings of our minds, and begin to learn what kind of conditions support our awareness and sense of presence.
It is easy to underestimate the effects of our presence on others. Just a few minutes of being in your company, of feeling heard, can mean a lot to another person. We might have been taught to be modest and self-effacing, but others benefit more if you are present with them, rather than subconsciously ‘apologising’ for your existence.
One way to start being more present is to simply slow down. People relax when they sense we’re giving them space, rather than rushing through our interactions with them. In ‘real’ time this might take only a few extra moments, but in interpersonal time, these extra moments will help us flourish and grow.
Weekly practice idea:
Try slowing everything down by 10 % this week. Give people space by asking one or two more questions, and listening deeply to their answers. Give yourself space throughout the day by taking a few moments to ground yourself. Take note of how this feels.