On Being Present
You know, somewhere other than the past or the future. Right here. Right now.
Long ago, someone asked me, “Where are you?” I couldn’t answer. I was thinking about something else. I was recalling a great run of straight pool I had done before. I was thinking about someone I used to know. I was planning another evening, alone. I was not present. I was there, but not really. I had left my body behind.
Sometimes I do that. I just sort of check out and I’m not really there. I’m not available to other people. I’m lost in my own world, thinking about something, planning, reminiscing, ruminating, or just trying to make sense of what is happening to me.
That person who just had to ask me where I was, that person made me aware that I was checking out. He made me aware that there was another person in the room. He reminded me that there is someone and something out there, beyond my body, within my sphere of influence.
That was a long time ago. Things have changed. We have more ways to check out than ever before. We have cell phones and tablets. We computers and browsers. We have movies, TV, and funny cat videos. We bring our work home with us. We obsess over minor details, our mistakes and we wonder why some of our relatives never call. We are not present.
I’m aware of when I’m checking out. My kids make me aware of when I’m there and not so there. Kids are experts at being there. They are present whether they like it or not. Babies and kids don’t have the skills adults have to check out. They accept reality as it is until we give them a reason not to.
Animals are that way, too. Dogs and cats both have a reality that they really can’t ignore. They don’t tell themselves, “This is not happening”. They know what’s happening and there is no routine they can follow to check out. They can’t pick up their phone and scroll on Facebook whenever they have discomfort. But then, I don’t think they brood about their mistakes. I don’t have pets, so I don’t know for sure. But I’ve never seen a pet with an analyst, sharing his ruminations.
I know how hard it is to be present. My mind wanders. I’m deep in thought. I’m planning something else. I’m thinking about what I want to do later. My kids want to play. My wife wants me to empty the sink and put the dishes away. My ears ring. I forget what I was thinking and I do what I was asked to do. I put the dishes away. I play with my kids. I let the phone go.
I remember this movie, Being There, with Peter Sellers. I don't remember much about the movie, but what I do remember was how vacant the character played by Sellers, was. He was just so, vacuous. He smiled as he seemed to be enjoying the moment, but he wasn’t really there. I watched the movie for the actor, not the plot.
I see the videos of the protests and the violence on Twitter. I’m not here. I see there is a new message on my phone. I’m not here. I just finished watching the last episode of Outlander. I’m not here. I’m looking at the pictures of my family on my TV displayed by a Chromecast. Oh, I’m here.
My kids come down to find me writing. I’m here. My wife is in the kitchen. I’m here. The sunlight streams into the kitchen. I’m here. I’m enjoying the weekend and I’m here. I’m hiking with my family on a trail, and I’m here. I’m finding ways to be present.
When I write, I write to be present. I write to be in the moment, I write to be here, to know myself, to remember who I was just a moment ago. A day ago. A month ago. A year ago. I don’t write to pass the time. I write to examine the time that has passed. I write to return to the present.
My kids are constantly teaching me to be present. I see the way they act and I want to be like them. Present. When I see the way kids act, I know why people get drunk. They get drunk because they think that’s what they have to do to remember their childhood. I don’t have to get drunk to be in the moment. Being in the moment is a choice and requires only the choice to be in the present. I choose to be here.
To be present, I must make a choice to be here, every day, every hour, every minute. I know when I’m checking out. I can feel that disconnect. I can feel when I’ve misplaced my priorities. I know the sensation of a vacuum. I know when I’m not here, and I know how to come back. My kids know when I’m not here. They clamor for me to come back when they see that I’m gone, but my body is still there. I mean, here.
It’s not easy to be present. Our culture is really uncomfortable with our being present. That’s why there are so many distractions. That’s why we’re so busy. There is in our culture, a taboo against knowing who we are. There is a taboo against being present. All that chaos out there in the streets is an acknowledgment of that taboo. It is an uprising of awareness.
So when someone in my family asks for my attention, I snap out of wherever I was going, and I come back. I snap out of the reverie. I snap out of the daydream. I snap out of the fantasy. I snap out of the future. I come back from the past. I make myself available to the people around me to see what happens next.
I am present.