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“If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.”
— Lao Tzu
Truth is abundant in this quote by Lao Tzu. So often we get stuck thinking about the past or the future that we rob ourselves of the peace that the present has to offer.
A part of this peace, though, comes with being present in the present. What does this mean? Presence is, in the words of Arina Issacson, “a state of heightened awareness and attention in your moment-by-moment interaction.” Presence, and being present, is also influenced by a sense of connection with the thoughts, words, and feelings you use to connect with those you interact with whether it be small talk with a barista at Starbucks or an impromptu therapy session with your best friend.
Have you ever had a conversation and feel an energy with who you’re speaking to, an indescribable connection? With the way they listen, they seem to understand not only what you are saying, but how you are feeling; they make you feel like your conversation is the only conversation in the world. This person is being present, whether they realize it or not. Presence allows an individual to connect with others on a level beyond conversation. Think of presence as putting you on the same “wavelength” as the person you are speaking to.
According to Tony Robbins, we have six human needs: certainty, uncertainty, significance, love/connection, growth, and contribution. When you practice presence, you are giving the other person, and yourself, love, connection, and significance. When you are present with someone, you build a connection and allow them to feel your love. By being present you also allow them to feel important, significant and validated.
In therapy, an integral part of building a relationship is by being present. My first therapist was the least present person I have ever met. I remember trying to talk to her about the struggles I was going through, and she would look out the window, talk about her life, and interrupt me. Not a single time did I feel like I was being listened to. Not only did this make me feel invalidated, but it also made me resent her, and thus I shut myself out and refused to open up. She was disrespecting my time and emotions by lacking presence.
My second therapist, though, made me feel like I was the only person in the world. She listened, validated my emotions, understood where I was coming from, and helped me grow. Her presence, not her words, was what compelled me to open up, and made me willing to want to heal and grow.
Practicing presence also allows you to build communication and comprehension skills. You were given two ears and one mouth for a reason. By listening and being present with those around you, you can understand and validate other people’s emotions and find new perspectives. This allows you to grow your understanding of how others see the world, and learn about perspective you otherwise would not have come across. You will also find that the more present you are, the more people will be compelled to open up to you.
Being present is something that needs practice and takes time. But like many things, practice makes perfect. I find presence to resemble meditation in certain ways. When one begins meditating, it is very easy to doze off and think about other things and not be present in what they are doing. In guided meditations, they typically say something along the lines of, “… if you find your mind going someplace else, that’s okay. Notice it, acknowledged it, and now bring your mind back to where it’s meant to be.” The same applies to presence, if you find your mind going elswhere, bring it back to the person you are speaking to. Presence isn’t a skill one is born with, it is more like a muscle, the more you use it, the stronger it gets.
Be intentional about your presence. Once you give your presence meaning, you will find that being present becomes easy. In the book 12 Rules for Life by Jordan B. Peterson, he says “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.” If you go into a conversation with the intent of growth, all of your energy will flow to this intent.
Presence also allows you to live a more peaceful life. I find that practicing presence with others also allows you to be present with yourself and your surroundings. You begin to appreciate your thoughts and feelings and become more self-aware. Being present allows you to appreciate the little moments in your life. You no longer have “small talk” because even these seemingly insignificant conversations begin to take meaning.
Today is a gift, and so it is called the “present.” But being present is also a gift. Don’t rob yourself and those around you of your presence and the love and connection that comes with it. Gift yourself the present of presence.
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More on Mental Health on Campus:
What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need
If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help
The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis