Cultivating Presence by naomi dishington

When life’s Big Moments happen, as they are apt to do, you might intuitively know you need to do something called “being present” but maybe you aren’t sure what that actually means or how it would help.  You might also suspect that whatever “being present” does mean, it isn’t something you can gulp down like an energy drink for a turbo-blast of enlightenment.

So what do we mean when we talk about being present and why is it especially helpful in important situations, like a job interview or a child’s school performance, or a business negotiation?  For starters, it involves being focused. Blocking out distractions. Actively listening. Being aware of your breath. Becoming fully engaged with the person(s) in front of you. Most times, it is showing up in service of another, giving that person the gift of your full attention.

What if we started to think about developing presence like exercising our muscles? Both require a level of intentionality, repetition, and practice.  You can’t realistically hope to be present and confident in big, impactful moments if you haven’t spent time cultivating presence in the smaller, less significant moments.    

So, how can you begin? Working with a coach is a good place to start, because coaches are trained in the skill of slowing down, tuning out distractions, and can model being present for you.  In addition, your coach can help you become more attuned to and aware of your own reactive situations.  Once you identify your triggers, you can implement small steps to becoming more present in those situations.  As they say, “Being mindful is not difficult to do; it is difficult to remember to do.”  A coach provides some accountability as you learn to remember.

I recently brought this topic to Andrea St. George, Emotional Intelligence Coach and author of “With Love in My Heart”  Her advice on learning to become present is to start small. Very small.  She suggests practicing presence while brushing your teeth!  Bring laser focus to the senses. How does each tooth feel?  What about the gums?  How does the toothpaste smell?  What do you taste? How do your teeth look in the mirror? What sound is made by the brushing? According to St. George, no matter who you are, you’ll never be fully present in the Big Moments if you don’t learn to focus your attention on the sensations involved in something as basic and routine as the brushing of your teeth.

Once you’ve developed a bit of stamina in being present, you can begin to apply the tools while in traffic, or standing in line at the grocery store, etc. Then, you may find yourself flexing your presence muscles more often.  Perhaps you’ll need them in your challenges as a working mom, or during interpersonal conflicts, or while negotiating the purchase of a new home. The idea is to build up slowly and continue to practice until eventually you will have access to an inner reservoir of peace when you most need it.

Some might find this topic a bit vague, and wonder why cultivating presence is so important. Where’s the benefit?  My answer would be that it’s about building a strong mental core, much in the same way we try to build a strong physical core. The center of our body holds us together and provides a base for myriad movements.  Likewise, cultivating presence opens up access to other traits, such as: confidence, authenticity, patience, love, and compassion.  At its best, it is really a way of offering ourselves most fully to those around us. Spiritual author Henri Nouwen puts it this way: “In a time so filled with methods and techniques designed to change people, to influence their behavior, and to make them do new things and think new thoughts, we have lost the simple but difficult gift of being present to each other” (Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, p.12).