The Art of Being Present

In the wholeheartedness of concentration, world and self begin to cohere. With that state comes an enlarging: of what may be known, what may be felt, what may be done.
— Jane Hirshfield

As a creative, being present is intimately tied to being inspired, becoming, and producing anything of quality. As a human, being present is even more intimately tied to quality of life and perception of reality. Very much like Hirshfield states, it’s the coherence of world and self. Being present in the context of concentration is indeed extremely difficult, and the difficulty lies in the disconnect between the self and the world. I believe that when we are in a state of disunion; we become vulnerable to distraction.

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It’s easy to place the blame for our distractions and loss of inspiration or quality of life on our modern world; however, if we take a step back to look at great artists in history, we discover that our difficulty in the practice of being present is hardly a symptom of our time. It is in fact a byproduct of the human experience.

French romantic painter and muralist Eugène Delacroix eloquently wrote about his struggles with distractions nearly two centuries before our present epidemic of short attention spans and our compulsive need for digital sociality.

He laments: 

“How can one keep one’s enthusiasm concentrated on a subject when one is always at the mercy of other people and in constant need of their society? … The things we experience for ourselves when we are alone are much stronger and much fresher. “

Later he adds:

“The development of sensibility is the most important thing for children and adults alike, but is much more possible for children…. Adults are very busy, taught to run all the time. You cannot run and be very aware of your inspirations.”

 

One of my favorite modern poets, Mary Oliver, explores the idea of self-distraction on a wonderful piece titled “Of Power and Time,” in her revitalizing book, Upstream: Selected Essays. 

She writes:

“It is a silver morning like any other. I am at my desk. Then the phone rings, or someone raps at the door. I am deep in the machinery of my wits. Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door. And the thought which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone. Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.

But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence. You react, of course. Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.”

Creative work aside, I believe that this interpretation of the relationship between being present and distractions can be applied to any type of life experience.

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I approach the art of being present from the perspective of an artist; and yes, this lesson becomes incredibly helpful when I sit down to write, draw, paint, or sew. But with this contextual understanding of distraction, it would do us good to expand our vision to encircle other moments of life we experience when we aren’t intentionally sitting down to wield our crafting tools. What about the moments in life that come and go so easily they seem to be invisible? Or, the moments that are so noticeable and painful, that we choose to (consciously or subconsciously) make them invisible?

What if we consider the possibility that in every moment of time we are artists of our own reality? What if we consider the possibility that by leaning into each experience, we create the opportunity to transform the mundane into magic and the pain into beauty?

If we walk through life considering ourselves to be craftsmen and craftswomen of our own experiences, then we begin to approach each moment as a blank canvas. This is where the magic begins to happen. This is the exact moment we become mindful and present. In this moment, we begin to pay attention to the details. We notice the tension, the colors, the textures. We notice the movement and the sounds. The very act of washing our hands, eating a strawberry, or opening the door becomes enlivening, rich, and sacred. In this moment, we merge body, mind, and soul with the world.

When we allow ourselves to lean into the mundane or the ordinary, exactly as it is - while we physically move through it - we inadvertently exercise the practice of being present. Distractions pop up; they always will. But now that we consider ourselves the chief architect of our reality and treat each moment like it’s the most important work of our “artistic career”, we begin to choose being present over allowing that ‘intimate interrupter’, as Oliver terms it, to take us away from our most precious experience – the now.

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For a moment, let’s consider the gritty experiences of life. The moments we’ve so cleverly learned to make disappear. I’m talking about the moments we don’t want to dwell in because their pain and discomfort is too unbearable. In these moments, we have every right and motive to seek out distractions. And, just like distractions are a byproduct of the human experience, so too is tragedy. Nobody is exempt. In our shared understanding of everything that is ugly, we must still allow ourselves to lean in, even if it’s just small moments at a time.

If this is your experience now, I urge you to allow your suffering to happen. Fortify yourself with the knowledge that time passes and, so too, will your pain. Don’t seek distractions in booze, drugs, sex, self-harming, shopping, or working. Don’t transmute it into something that is shiny and perfect. Let it resonate into your bones, then allow your body to move through it. As you move through the moments in mindfulness, ever searching for the possibility that awaits, your pain will slowly transform. You will grow again. You will rise from your tragedy stronger than ever, then turn around and light the way for those that follow.

The art of being present isn’t exclusive. It’s not a practice set aside for the gifted or the artistic. It’s for the average, the typical, the ordinary person.

Contemporary Painter, Agnes Martin shares her wisdom:

“Many people are so startled by an inspiration or a condition of inspiration, which is so different from daily care, that they think that they are unique in having had it. Nothing could be further from the truth. Inspiration is there all the time for anyone whose mind is not covered over with thoughts and concerns, and [it is] used by everyone whether they realize it or not.”

One way to approach teaching people how to be present is to teach that we must first be present to realize the inspirations and beauties of life. While that is the approach most of us take, it never gets us anywhere. Distraction sets in before too long and our foe, that ‘intimate intruder’, always wins. We must realize that in order to practice the art of being present, we must first step into the ordinary shoes of being our own Artist.


Over the last 10 years of practicing meditation, I’ve developed daily practices that help me live in the present moment as a creative. So, I created Present Not Perfect, a FREE downloadable workbook that showcases 10 of my practices that I refer to when I need to step into my artist shoes, embrace the imperfections, focus on being present and live a more mindful life.

Join the Illume Co. Community below to receive your Present Not Perfect Workbook.


Now, I’m curious. When it comes to being present, what practices do you have to share?