Practicing Presence in Relationships

Presence is an important value of mine. I try to practice it in every aspect of my life – not just in meditation or similar activities. One major opportunity I discovered a few years ago is in relationships. Presence in relationships cultivates connection – which research indicates is a key factor for well-being.

In my relationships, I continue to realize how often I am NOT present – and what it’s costing me. It looks something like this: I see someone I know walking down the street, and I look down and away so I can avoid talking to them and get on with whatever I’m doing. Or I get to my office and say “Hi, how ya doin’?” to my coworker, without actually pausing and giving them my attention. Or, heaven forbid I actually get involved in a conversation, I just go through the motions and all my attention is focused on getting out of there ASAP.

The core issue in all these scenarios is that I’m focused on something outside of the present moment. I’m grasping so desperately for the destination that I view the journey as a nuisance. Every time I repeat this pattern, it is strengthened. I’d prefer to strengthen the intertwined muscles of presence and connection.

So what I’ve been trying to do is simple (trying is the key word – mostly failing).  If I find myself in conversation with someone, I give them 100% of my attention. I stop whatever else I may be doing. I make eye contact. I listen, and respond authentically and appropriately.  When I attempt to do this, my first response is to feel uncomfortable and awkward. I’m doing something I’m not used to, so this is to be expected. If I get over the discomfort, I feel warmth and connection.  I create and deepen meaningful relationships. I learn things about myself and the person I’m talking to.

Some people do this naturally – my roommate is one example. Just the other night as I was making dinner, he was on his way out the door to meet a friend. We had yet to have a conversation of any substance that day, and even though he had already opened the door to leave and was carrying two bags of stuff, he came to a complete stop and asked me how my day was. His intention to leave the apartment got put on hold completely in order to talk with me, and I felt no sense that this was a perfunctory conversation.

I was in the middle of something and not even facing him when he started talking to me. But I was moved by the attention he was giving me. I put down my box of mac & cheese and turned to look at him, and we had a nice conversation for a few minutes before we both got back to what we were doing. It quenched my needs for connection, being cared about, and friendship. It felt warm, touching, inspiring.

I aim to have more moments like that one. What’s your experience with connection?  Are you a natural, or is this something you want to work on?

This post has focused mainly on my experience of connection, but this world is about more than me – and connection can be too. I’d like to write more about that in another post.  I began to understand the importance of connection and how to practice it by studying Nonviolent Communication. Ask me about it, or read more here.

In Praise of Shadows*

“No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven, unless its roots reach down to hell.”

Carl Jung

I’ve been enchanted by pain for as long as I can remember; it just seems cool.  My favorite fictional characters are usually the dark ones – Batman**, The Hound from Game of Thrones.  I love blues songs about how awful the singer’s life is.  And I’ve always enjoyed religious imagery about devils and hell much more than the kind with angels and heaven.

Despite being drawn to these things in stories, I have a tendency to resist all these feelings in myself.  I hope that tendency will be weakened by creating this post.  So I’m writing to sing praises to emotional pain – sadness, depression, anxiety, and the like.

Sometimes I go through emotionally dark periods.  Coming from a privileged background, I’ve never really had anything awful happen in my life – which only makes me more upset for not being happy.  I get sad about being sad about being ashamed about not being fulfilled about feeling guilty… on and on.  And it seems the more I resist, the worse I feel.

It isn’t until I stop judging myself for not being happy that I can finally get through it and move on.  I have to stop trying to be positive and focus on being real.

Rather than resist and beat myself up about experiencing pain, here’s some reasons why I want to accept my pain:

How do I stop resisting my pain?  I don’t have to do anything.  I just have to NOT do whatever I normally do: reach for my cell phone, food, or other distractions; beat myself up about not feeling good; or whatever other clever technique my brain comes up with for not facing my pain.  So next time I catch myself doing these things, I will try to pause, remember this post, and embrace the pain full on.

What’s your relationship like with pain and negativity?

Shout out to Jun’ichirō Tanizaki
** Here’s my favorite page in
The Dark Knight Returns where Batman is totally owning his shit

Being Positive vs. Being Real

I’ve internalized the idea that I need to always be positive. I am adept at forcing myself to find and focus on the silver lining – the key word being ‘force.’ For example, I might say, “I’ve been feeling sad lately. But I think it’s an important part of my growth process.”

On the surface this might sound wise. However, I usually say it because I think I ‘should’ say it, not because I actually believe it. “Fake it ‘till you make it,” as the saying goes. However, sometimes when I know I’m faking it, I judge myself harshly. Other people can sense this, and then they might also judge me. Even if they don’t, I project that idea onto them, and the result for me is the same – a vortex of shame, self-loathing, and negativity.

Ideally, I would stop judging myself as fake. Or better yet, stop getting stuck in long-term bouts of negativity. But if I’m already judging myself, it’s too late – beating myself up about it won’t help. So I figure the next line of defense is acceptance: to take responsibility for the pain which has arisen without blaming myself for it.  That might sound vague, so let me explain how I practice.

The Practice

To me, it’s about cutting out phony positivity. When someone who I want to connect with* asks me how I’m doing, I try to give them the truth, even when it’s not pretty. I might say, “I’m feeling shitty.” So far this has been excruciatingly uncomfortable. I desperately want to flip it into something positive, but I bite my tongue. I’m working towards being able to say it confidently, with no sense of shame behind it – though I doubt I’ll ever get there 100%.

I’ve only just begun this practice, but aside from my own discomfort, the results have been encouraging. From an intrapersonal perspective, I feel more authentic and less guilty. From an interpersonal perspective, I feel more connected to the people I’m talking to. Someone at my office offered to talk more deeply about what I was going through – which was very touching, and I felt it brought us closer without even having that deeper conversation. When I shared my pain with a friend, it opened us up to having a conversation about authenticity, where we both learned from and about one another.

I imagine this practice will evolve the longer I do it, and I hope I can continue to grow from it.

Have you struggled with finding the balance between being positive and being real?  When is it appropriate to “fake it ‘till you make it,” and when isn’t it?  I’m curious about your experience, and your thoughts on what I’ve written here.

*Note – I don’t force myself to do this with everyone. I don’t need to keep it real all the time – Dave Chapelle taught me how that can go wrong. 

Why I’m Writing

I’m writing these posts to help me organize my thoughts and process my spiritual journey. What I mean by spiritual journey is the practice of aligning my actions with the values I hold.

I’m not sure what themes I’ll end up exploring.  I’m interested in mindfulness, social justice, and psychology, though I am no authority in any of these fields. I write about these topics to digest, and as I post them publicly, I feel more accountable to continue practicing them.

I want these posts to spark dialog so I can learn from and connect with you, the reader. Even if we don’t have a conversation, I hope that sharing my journey helps you on yours.