The quietude of the week before New Year's Eve offers a chance to breathe and reflect before we flip the calendar forward. Using this time to refocus our priorities and distill our intentions, we have a chance to prepare a truly precious gift that will last the whole year long.
As the Buddha taught, that precious gift is our presence. Presence, in this sense, is more than showing up or sticking around. It isn’t dependent on getting stuff done, seeing things through, or packing life in. It doesn't pass judgment on our hours, distinguishing quality time from regular time and regular time from wasted time. It embraces every single moment and engages us fully in the practice of being.
Presence is mindful attention, complete engagement with the experience of living. It is the energetic embrace of where we find ourselves right now. To be present is to dwell in the sensation of being in the world and to openly encounter the momentary what, where, who that surrounds us in every discernible dimension.
As the greatest gift we can give ourselves, presence centers us and balances our perception. Evolutionarily hardwired to focus on red flags—problems that run the spectrum from inconveniences to mortal threats—our attention often wakes to confront unpleasantness. Left unchecked, this reflex can dim our view of ourselves and everything around us. In yoga, we don't notice all the poses we glide through, but we beat ourselves up over the asanas that make us struggle. In life, we discount what works out for us, but we fixate on whatever goes the least bit wrong.
This selective engagement warps our experience of the world. How can we feel great about life when we don't notice the bus unless it's late, the soup unless it's cold, the work unless it's wrong, the news unless it's grim, the interaction unless it hurts? Unconsciously aware of this negative preoccupation, we fill our lives with diversions that we hope will hold our attention in a much more pleasing way. We seek focus and engagement in everything from dates to movies to yoga to sky diving. We sign on for anything that promises to make us feel alive, a phrase that stands in for how we feel when present. Unfortunately, as much as we enjoy these vivid bursts, unless we maintain our mindful attention these fleeting moments are just snapshots of our passing lives.
Even if we perversely prefer slipping in and out of consciousness because we’re resistant to being fully present in our daily lives, (it's not unusual to feel this way and the impulse behind it may be worth exploring), mindful presence is a gift we should cultivate to share with others. When we tune in briefly just to deal with problems, the people on the receiving end of our abrupt attention experience the negativity that has forced us to focus. In the case of children and those who crave connection, this negative flood of attention may seem better than getting none at all. Unfortunately, this channels the natural instinct to seek love into the destructive impulse to transgress. Imagine the energy that would be freed to build, explore, share, and cherish if this negative cycle were replaced with a supportive, steady stream of presence.
Moreover, imagine the nurturing energy and reaffirming solace you could offer the lonely, the numb, the discouraged, the bitter, and the lost just by being conscious in our common space. Think of the sleepwalkers who might wake and all the lives that just might bloom.
May the new year dawn to find you present.
May you rise to greet it, wide awake.