Last week I claimed, “Transitioning with grace requires the skill of being present to this moment, even if it’s difficult.” Well in the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit for me, learning the skill of being present to this moment was difficult by itself – whether or not the moment was difficult. I will also admit that sticking with it until I figured out how to make it work for me was well worth the effort. If we don’t work on the skill of being present in this moment, our emotions have the capacity to run like wild horses and take us places we don’t want to go before we have any idea what is happening.
My emotions frequently have a life of their own during seasons of transition. The transitions don’t even have to be significant. The other afternoon I spent almost four hours on a Zoom call after working all morning. I was exhausted. My husband had been waiting for my call to end so we could start making dinner together (something I enjoy doing). He asked me to __________. I’m leaving this blank because it really doesn’t matter what he asked me to do. I wasn’t able to hear his request at that moment. I was just too tired.
I Can’t Believe…
So let me tell you what would have happened before I began working to develop the skill of presence. My response to his request would have been something like, “Why are you asking me to do that?!?” or “I can’t believe you’d ask me that after I’ve been on a four hour Zoom call!” My tone would have been angry, frustrated he didn’t notice how tired I was. Remember. I enjoy making dinner together. He was inviting me to connect. Without being present to the moment as it unfolded, I would have missed the invitation.
Tired is an emotion. It is an emotion that can take us places we don’t want to go before we have any idea what is happening. Anger, fear, lust, hunger, and pain have similar powers. Tired can make me say things to my husband I wouldn’t ordinarily say. Tired can make me sound frustrated or angry when I’m really just tired. Tired can cause disruption in our connection if I don’t pause and listen to its message.
What does presence mean?
Dr. Daniel Siegel defines presence as “a state of mind of being able to be open and receiving, accepting, perceiving, awake, alert (aware) to things as they are happening.”1 Your path toward developing this skill will be your own. You have to try it enough times to discover what works for you.
I had to start by practicing when there wasn’t much going on. I could sit in the stillness and focus on the sounds I could hear, then shift my focus to images I could see, then the sensation of taste, then my sense of smell, and finally to the surfaces touching my skin (the floor if I’m standing or the chair if I’m sitting). As I shifted my focus, I could begin to detect a subtle difference between what I know and the fact that I know it –knowing I could hear a bird as being different from the sound the bird made.
The more I practiced, the clearer the distinction became. If you’d prefer a guided version of this practice to help get started, try Dr. Siegel’s Wheel of Awareness Practice, available for free on his website. Other practices like centering prayer and mindfulness meditation also build the skill of being present to a moment as it unfolds.
Let’s Try This Again
By practicing being present to moments when there wasn’t much going on, I built my capacity to stay present during moments like the one I described. So instead of tired running like wild horses and taking me places I didn’t want to go, I was able to pause long enough to notice the tension in my shoulders and the fatigue in my brain. In those brief seconds, I could reflect on my afternoon and listen to tired tell me I needed a brief rest. So when my husband asked me to help, I was able to respond, “I would love to help in a few minutes after I’ve had a chance to rest. I’m exhausted after my Zoom call and I just need a little time to recover.”
As I mentioned last week, transitions create ample opportunity to generate emotions that are powerful enough to cause disruption in the relationships that matter most to us. If we don’t practice being fully present in a given moment, we run the risk of having these strong emotions take off like a team of wild horses and deliver us to places we didn’t intend to go. Presence gives us access to remembering who we love and what we value, which in turn gives us the ability to choose a path of connection with those who mean the most to us.
To consider how working on the skill of presence could benefit your relationships, replay the last 24 hours in your mind. Was there a time when you were “off to the races” and said or did something before you fully realized what was happening? If you did, can you identify the emotion that started the chain reaction?
In the next 24 hours try noticing when strong emotions emerge. When they do (and they will), pay attention to your breathing to give yourself time to remember who you love and what you value. Then notice how your response might change.
1 Presence, Connection, and the Cultivation of Well-Being in Relationships and Family Systems Course, https://www.mindsightinstitute.com/dan-siegel-presence-in-relationships, notes from “Siegel Lecture 2: Presence, Attunement, and Resonance in our Relationships.”