A friend recently recounted how the day the papers splashed the Dinagat cult killings on its front pages, she had walked into the kitchen to a most disturbing sight. Her husband was lost in the reading of the story while their 5-year-old stood beside him studying the pictures of bloodied bodies sprawled in gruesome death. Her husband seemed aware but obviously not present to their son who was already sporting an unfamiliar glaze in his too-young eyes. Not wanting to draw any more attention to it, she signaled her husband who looked at her blankly then later folded the paper in grudging acquiescence, mumbling something about always being in the dark about her rules.
If her husband had been present, he would have paid attention to what his son was doing beside him, seen that he was looking at disturbing images in the papers and probably would have made a judgment call. I bet he would have done something about it. He would have thought about how these images might negatively impact his son; how they might puncture his safe and innocent world. He would have seen, at the very least, that it was not even necessary for the little boy to be looking at the papers. But since he was just barreling through the day as usual, going with the flow instead of being awake and conscious through it, the moment was lost.
So many of us live like this. We show up everyday, showered and ready, saying the right things, going through the motions, looking like we are in tune but how much of ourselves do we really bring to the page? Very little, I think. It is easier to leave behind those parts of us that might have to own up to things we consider painful or difficult to face. Being present requires more than we are sometimes willing to give, afraid as we are of what else will be asked of us, what else might be seen.
Very recently, my sister and I bumped into an old friend. It was a rather surreal meeting. She was a little too effervescent for comfort and everything about her was off-key. She looked the same, if not a little pale, but there was a palpable misshapenness to her that was difficult to place but almost impossible to ignore. It was as if she had sprouted psychic edges and corners along her etheric body. She looked normal enough but there were moments when I was certain she was morphing into a 3-dimensional Picasso.
On the way home, my sister and I talked about the quiet hysteria that was gushing out of our friend. We had both sensed that it was coming from a very deep unhappiness she may not even be aware of. It was apparent that something big and important inside her was dying to make itself known but because she isn’t or doesn’t want to be present to that, it had taken over in so many ways. Being with her is no longer a pleasant experience even if she is a nice person. Conversations are in falsetto. Laughter is manic. There isn’t a lot of fresh air to breathe because the truest parts of her are no longer visible.
I have another friend who complains that her children are so hyperactive that it makes time with them stressful rather than pleasant. As it is, she is hardly ever home, has no clue that they spend much of their time in front of computers, television, and cell phones. When she’s home, she’s physically there but the rest of her is always elsewhere. She is effusive with praise even if all her child does is put away his shoes, which he should be doing anyway. And so they push, push, push, hoping to extract something of her that is resonant and real.
If she were truly present, she would probably see that all these things contribute to the negative behavior of her children. But coming to this conclusion and owning up to what it asks, requires her physical and metaphysical presence; something she may not be willing to put out. Unless she is aware and makes a conscious effort to be all there, staying home all day won’t do much either. Of course this is easier said than done. I spend most of my time at home but there are days when it takes all I have to be present to myself and my children, but I think just being aware and striving towards being fully there already makes a difference.
Being present to what we really feel can tell us a wealth of things. There are moments in my life when I feel compelled to do something; to move towards a certain direction and yet, when given the opportunity to go for it, I sometimes notice a certain pulling back. I always try to be present to that. There are times when all it is is classic fear of failure, nothing more, in which case I just forge ahead. But there have been times when I really paid attention and, much to my surprise, all sorts of unknowns surfaced. These are what Oprah calls “aha moments” when I realized my hesitance was pointing towards a more authentic feeling and at the bottom of it, the discovery that something else was driving me to the task–anger, guilt, maybe a cosmic alarm or even just years of programming telling me that’s not what I really want anymore. If I just kept going blindly, paying no heed to the little signposts that direct me towards my places of truth, my world would be unbearably muddled.
Being present, first to yourself, immediately brings you to the clearest, most open spaces of your life. It’s like working in a clean, well-lighted place where everything is in the right place and in plain sight. When I am present, I see beyond all the clutter before me. Because I tend to be all there, I am not prone to panic, worry, or other negative, unproductive behavior. As a mother, this is an invaluable practice, especially because the quality of our children’s lives—their very character–depends on us being awake and fully present to every aspect of their unfolding.
I see too many people languishing in negativity over undetermined sources of pain, boredom or unhappiness. They seem to be in a place of constant helplessness or blame — it’s their spouse, their boss, their parents, etc. –and I can’t help but think that if they really showed-up, they would immediately see the way through. It will still be a struggle, of course (nothing worthwhile comes easy), but owning up to the process is the biggest step. Being present is like tuning in to your internal compass. From this place of clarity, we can really see and appreciate the things in our lives that matter and then navigate accordingly. When we are fully present, it becomes easier to trust in the flow and direction of our lives hitches, glitches and all.