Monday, August 27, 2012

Practicing Presence

Danielle & Lilliyan by Robert Whitehead, cc license
For a long time I’ve been near the end of my master’s degree with only my thesis and a few other odds and ends to complete. This Summer, after working through some emotional hurdles and pathological procrastination, I finally carved out the time to work on my proposal and committed it to my calendar. However, I can’t tell you how many of those work blocks were hijacked by planning meals for the week, cleaning out my e-mail inbox, and other distractions. I had such a hard time switching gears from my mom/housekeeping role to sitting at a computer for an extended period of time, let alone thinking and writing academically. Two things eventually helped me nurture the focus I needed to write my proposal. I fully committed to the work time, staying at my desk even when I was completely unproductive, and I created rituals to signal to it was time to focus. My focus routine consisted of brewing a cup of tea, playing ambient music, and then flowing through a few yoga positions before sitting down to work. After some persistence and practice, I was able to be much more productive during my work sessions.

I’m now running into a different problem.  My proposal was accepted a few weeks ago and the due date for my first draft is looming. I’ve increased the number of hours I’m working and I’ve become increasingly distracted during the hours that I’m supposedly not working. On the one hand, letting my mind wander as I go through the motions of daily life can be useful to work out problems in my paper or find the right turn of phrase. On the other hand, I have not been present with my family. And that’s a problem.

I’ve found that the most pleasant way to make it through the day with my almost-two-year old, is by giving her as much attention as she needs. This doesn’t mean that I don’t get anything done during her waking hours. It just means that when I’m cooking, cleaning, and running errands, it’s more about including her and making it playful than about getting the task done as efficiently as possible. This plan falls apart when I’m distracted. It seems that Cadence can sense when I’m less available and reacts by becoming frustrated and demanding more attention. In return, I become impatient and the day turns into a battle of wills. No fun.

I’ve found myself apologizing to my husband more and more for not listening or being off in my head. I’ll sometimes become so absorbed in my thoughts that I miss a key part of a story he’s telling me or we end up sitting in silence for long stretches. Being distracted is fairly disastrous for communication, in general. When you’re not focused on what you’re saying and what you’re hearing, you are destined for miscommunications. We’ve got those in spades, of late.

When your goal is to be empathetic with the people in your immediate company, presence is key. When I’m present and engaged with my daughter, she feels secure and can be the joyful little person she is. When I’m present with my husband, we stay connected and we are better able to support each other. Being present requires that you transition away from where you’ve been before and that you put off thinking about where you are going next. I found this easier to do when I worked at the hotline; just walking into the phone room was a signal to leave my personal stressors at the door. During calls I often closed my eyes to focus in on the caller’s voice or took notes, limiting my focus to the piece of paper and key words written on it. Unfortunately, these techniques don’t translate perfectly to being present in daily life at home.

I’m not quite there yet, but I have found a couple of things that help me transition away from my focused work periods and be more present with my family. First, when my work time is up, I try to quickly finish what I’m working on, close out programs, put away any other work materials, and leave my desk (no lingering to check e-mail or facebook!). This has taken some serious discipline, but I’m getting better at it. The other technique comes from meditation practice. One way to meditate involves clearing your mind of chatter and focusing on breathing. When you find your mind wandering, you acknowledge the thought, perhaps even name it, and then let it go floating away, returning your focus to the breath. This kind of mindfulness and spirit of non-judgment is equally effective (meaning, it works and it takes practice) when your goal is to be fully present with someone.

I find that saying things out loud helps me to internalize them, so verbally acknowledging when I’m distracted has been helpful. It can also be fairly embarrassing in some circumstances, so I began my practice with benign situations (“I’m sorry research article, while it appears I’ve been reading you for the past 5 minutes, I actually haven’t taken in a single word.”), and then worked up to people I feel safe with (my toddler is totally non-judgmental and my husband tends to find my admissions more amusing than irritating). After acknowledging the distraction, I refocus by saying, “I’m here now,” or, “I’m with you now.” After practicing this out loud in safe situations, I’ve been better able to practice it outside of my comfort zone - and I don’t always have to say anything out loud. The acknowledgment and the refocus take place in the comfort of my head.

And on that note, I can hear my daughter waking up from her nap - time for some more practice! Here’s to letting go of struggling with the past and the future, choosing instead to live peacefully in the present.

Like what you're reading? Sign up for my Good In, Good Out E-Newsletter: A steady diet of good stuff to fuel your soul, mind, and body! 

You can also sign up HERE if you are not able to see the form, below. 

Subscribe to the Good In, Good Out newsletter:

* indicates required

No comments:

Post a Comment