The Gift of Presence
“When you love someone, the best thing you can offer is your presence. How can you love if you are not there?” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
The only thing worse than not listening to someone is pretending to listen. Giving the vague murmur of agreement or a quick nod to communicate, “Yes, I’m listening, totally,” when really, we’re not.
I remember vividly a dinner I had with friends about four years ago. I’d been backpacking in New Zealand for 12 months and had just returned to the UK. Traveling in the car to my friend’s house, I imagined how the night would look. There would be lots of laughter—it was always side-splitting when we all got together. There would be lots of hugging—I hadn’t seen them for a whole year after all. There would be lots of storytelling—I would get to share my epic adventure.
Did all of this happen? To some extent, yes, but not how I had imagined.
In fact, I left feeling a little miffed, a little gutted. At first, I couldn’t work out why. My friends were the same old fun-to-be-around people. Despite “finding myself” while traveling (I joke), I felt I was pretty much the same old person.
So what was different? It hit me. The constant. Mobile. Phones.
How Cell Phones Can Sabotage Connection
The entire evening was tainted by endless selfies, videos, status updates, incoming phone calls, outgoing phone calls, and notifications. Distraction after distraction after distraction.
There were moments you could have heard a pin drop as the four of us, faces illuminated by the glow of the mobile phones, sat, hands glued to our devices. But, ironically, we were telling anyone who was on Facebook and Instagram that night what a terrific time we were having.
To begin with, I was angry with my friends. But soon, I realized I was really angry with myself. I was equally guilty, and people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones after all. What could have been—rather, what should have been—an evening of being deeply present with one another, each one of us offering our full and undivided attention, was tainted by technology, spoiled by social media, marred by meddling mobiles.
Technology and Presence
Backpacking was more campfires and deep life conversations below the stars, so this evening felt like a return to reality. Most of us struggle to put our flipping cell phones down. If we stop and think about it, what message does it send to the human beings in front of us when we are busy on our phones?
I made a vow that evening to get better at this, to be more present with friends and family, anyone I’m communicating with. I didn’t want to make anyone feel how I felt that evening—unheard and unimportant.
Zoom forward to today and, well, I’m much better but far from perfect. Technology certainly is a huge barrier to presence, but it’s not the main culprit. Instead, the main culprit lives between our ears, the mind.
The Chattering, Absent Mind
The mind is a lot like a talking alarm clock, and you have no control over when it goes off and what it will say. For example, I can be sitting face to face with someone, physically a few centimeters in the distance, but consciously, a world away.
Instead of listening to what the person sitting across from us is saying, we listen to our thoughts. Hey, did I leave the oven on this morning when I left the house? I hope my breath doesn’t stink. Why is that stranger in the corner laughing—is my underwear tucking into my shirt?
Or literally, anything else. Anything. Any other thought can pop up at any moment, pulling my focus momentarily away from the person in front of me. Luckily for us, people can’t always be certain when we’re not being fully present with them, especially if we’re an expert fake listener, able to give a very convincing response like “Yeah, sure, I get you.” Occasionally, I sense that the person I’m talking to senses I haven’t been listening. I feel bad and forgive myself for being human before returning to the conversation.
The Art of Listening
On the other hand, when someone is really listening to us, fully present with us in the moment, we can be certain. Without a doubt, because we feel it. It’s tough to put such moments into words, but you just know.
Moments when we’re fully present with someone and it’s reciprocated—it’s like magic, like the rest of the world fades into the background. Like the first time you fall in love and you just feel connected, you feel the dance of communication, the resonating, the synchronicity, the oneness.
That’s it. This, for me, is what presence is all about. The oneness.
How to Cultivate Presence
Eye Contact: The eyes truly are the windows to the soul. Giving eye contact really lets people know they’re being heard.
Listening to Understand Instead of Listening to Respond: We’re stuck in our heads if we’re listening purely to plan our response. Tuning into a person’s words and also how they say the words has greatly helped me to connect with people.
Limiting Distractions: Technology, off. The world can wait. Remember the good old days when only landline phones existed and if you weren’t at home people would leave a message and patiently wait for a response? Bliss. Nowadays, we’re available on mobile, Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, Snapchat, email … the list goes on. Flight mode is my friend. Anytime I want to get present, flight mode is activated.
Facial Expressions: When I really listen to someone, I find I empathize with them so much more. Naturally, my facial expressions will reflect this, communicating I understand how they’re feeling. We all wish to feel understood.
Give the Gift of Presence
In a few weeks’ time, I’ll be flying back to the UK to spend time with my family. In fact, this will be the first Christmas in six years we’ll all be together (my dear parents, older sister, younger brother, and me).
A part of me is sad knowing that around the world, there will be families sitting in their living rooms, surrounded by their nearest and dearest, but not really being there. Distracted either by their own minds, their mobiles, or maybe their new presents.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Board games can be played and conversations can be had, with presence, together. In truth, we needn’t wait until the holidays to connect in this way, as any moment, any conversation, offers a chance to be present with each other. But the holidays, for me, really are prime opportunities.
To be surrounded by the ones we love most and be with them more than just physically, but emotionally and spiritually too, well, this is worth more than any gift you’ll give or receive this year. This holiday season, give the gift of presence.