Life Lessons in Presence

How many times have you heard someone say, “He was at home with us, but he wasn’t present?” It happens a lot and it’s a major factor in relationships coming apart. If you are reading this, you probably have some skills in staying present. The ability to stay present ebbs and flows through life, but continues to evolve.

Lesson One: learning to listen

I started school as an undiagnosed extreme dyslexic. I couldn’t decipher the funny shaped letters and words that floated around the page. In today’s world I probably would have been labeled with ADHD and a learning disability. Then, I was just called “slow” for my inability to read and “disruptive” for my hyperactivity.

My first eight years of life had lots of trauma. Among other things I was drowned and revived, survived two instances of abduction and abuse, lost my father in a plane crash and lived in four different towns. However, I had to get on in school. I would get a front row seat if I could, because in the front there would be fewer distractions to get me into trouble. And then I forced myself to listen to the teacher. As I learned to listen, my grades improved dramatically. Intense listening to, tuning in to or being present with the teacher got me to my final year of high school before anyone besides my mother and me even noticed my reading problem. It was decades later before I understood that the ability to tune in and listen was less than universal within the human race.

Lesson two: Meditation lost and meditation won

I tried TM (Transcendental Meditation) for a time, but without much success. I would quickly lose focus and become distracted, or else I would fall asleep. Probably my hyperactivity and, at that time, alcohol abuse were to blame.

A few years later I found myself driving in heavy Toronto traffic for several hours a day. It was fast, unpredictable, aggressive and exhausting. Then one day when I was boxed in behind someone driving at only the speed limit, something snapped. I realized I didn’t know anything about the person blocking me. He probably wasn’t “an idiot,” but an inexperienced driver, or someone unfamiliar with the city, or someone inexperienced with such intense traffic, or someone dealing with a loss.

In that instant, driving in traffic became meditation because I became fully present with my environment and stopped being focused on winning the traffic race. As long as I lived in Toronto, driving in traffic continued to be a presence meditation that left me relaxed and calm when I got to my destination, and I usually got there faster. The driving-in-traffic meditation seemed to jive with my hyperactivity.

Lesson Three: The foundation of communication

It was training in communication unlike anything I had ever come across. We learned to sit still in silence, knee to knee with another person, without gesturing, smiling, nodding or any other intermediary of communication. I learned if your mind wanders even for an instant, you have lost presence, and presence is the foundation of communication. Try it with your spouse for one minute; it’s hard.

For the test at the end of the training, my instructor and I had to sit knee to knee in presence with each other for two hours. After an hour, my instructor stopped the process and admitted her mind had wandered. We started over with the two-hour test.

Those were three big personal lessons in presence. I invite you to look back over your life with curiosity about how present you have been throughout, and about the kinds of lessons you have had in becoming more present with yourself and your environment, human and otherwise. Have any of your lessons been in the midst of adversity?

Dr. Neill Neill is a registered psychologist in Qualicum Beach. He helps capable people who feel stuck… trauma, relationships, addictions.