What exactly does Thich Nhat Hanh mean by “presence”? And how is it a gift to others?
When I first started consciously practicing mindfulness in my day-to-day activities, this was one of the first areas I explored. I watched what was running though my head one day as I chatted over lunch with a work colleague. I was dismayed to realize how often I was not really paying attention to him. As he talked about a project we worked on together, I discovered I was busy formulating my own ideas about it. When he continued talking for a long while, I found myself wandering off and planning my afternoon meetings. In short, I was pursuing my own agenda somewhere in the future, not being fully in the present with him. That was something of an eye opener!
I’ve now come to realize, sadly, that it’s a rare event when we’re really, truly present with others. There are many ways we can fall into the trap of not doing so. Our own views, agendas, and opinions come along with us, usually unwittingly, and can easily stand in the way of seeing others clearly, as they really are.
One particularly challenging example is when we’re with someone who is in pain, in trouble, or otherwise in need. If this person is someone we care about, we naturally want to do everything we can to help. But how much of our response is about our wanting to “fix” things in our own way? Or about assuaging our own discomfort and anxiety over seeing this person in pain? Or about living up to our own self-image as a kind and helpful person? Or keeping score — in the hope that if I do this now, they’ll repay me in kind in the future? These are all self-centered motivations disguised as altruism. And even if we DO have a genuine desire to help that person, it’s almost inevitable that some amount of these mixed motives creep into our thoughts and actions.
If helping people is our profession, yet another layer of complication comes into play. If our self-identity gets too wrapped up in our job role, we can find ourselves relating to others through the mask of our professionalism. Is it really me that’s present, or is it the nurse, counselor, teacher, or whatever, that’s doing the talking? Are we using our role as a way to avoid connecting with this person, heart to heart?
Another difficult situation is when the other person is doing something we consider “wrong.” Maybe they’re doing something illegal or unethical; maybe they’re doing something that’s hurtful to someone else or perhaps to themselves. When we become convinced of the rightness of our position (and hence the wrongness of theirs), we become polarized and fall into the trap of self-righteousness. It’s another way that our own views prevent us from truly walking in the other person’s shoes, as the saying goes.
So then, does being mindful mean being passive and allowing the other person to continue on in pain or creating a mess of their lives? Of course not!
In my view, mindfulness has to begin with a respect for the other person’s dignity and rationality. By this I mean, no matter how much I might disagree with what they’re doing, I make an effort to understand why they’re doing it and what circumstances got them there. It means suspending my own views and really appreciating the situation completely from their perspective – not just intellectually, but in my heart.
Mindful presence also means putting my self-centered motivations aside. Even if I can’t get rid of them, I can at least try to avoid using them as the filters through which I look at the situation. This includes putting aside my fears. What is it that prevents me from opening my heart to this other being? Am I afraid of getting hurt? Making a fool of myself? Making a professional blunder? What is it, really, that puts a wall of separation between me and this other human being who is fundamentally just like me?
Of course, there are times when the best thing to do is for us to step in and take action before any further damage is done. We need to do this in a way that, on balance, causes the least harm to everyone involved. Perhaps we need to act strongly toward someone to prevent them from doing something far worse. But it should be our last resort, done only after we’ve really walked in the other person shoes for a while.
And above all, mindfulness is about patience. It recognizes that changes need time, and that we cannot make things happen on our desired schedule. And some things are completely beyond our ability to change (as people often are). We can’t make a flower bloom when we want it to. In some cases, it might not bloom at all. But we can set the best possible conditions to support its happening. So we fertilize the soil and provide water and sunshine. Then we must wait, patiently and without expectations.
Sometimes this is all we can do. Some situations can’t be “fixed,” but can only be fertilized, watered, and given the sunshine of our mindful presence. This is what I believe Thich Nhat Hanh is talking about. It’s when we drop all our clinging to self-concerns and offer our naked, vulnerable humanity to another person. It’s this profound connection with another being that forms the soil upon which positive growth and change takes place.