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Not Present

So it’s another year, and one year since I first read Ran Prieur’s warning that when you have, at last, the time and opportunity and freedom to do nothing, nothing is all you will want to do, and you may then remain depressed for a long time before you finally discover and realize what you, alone, unpressed by others, really want to do with your life. For one year I have had that freedom, and Ran’s warning was right on. After the initial exhilaration, I spent most of 2010 doing nothing (of substantial use to anyone else, anyway). I put a bit of energy into four projects I think are important, but that’s all. I was pretty self-indulgent, and on balance not significantly happier, and actually somewhat less productive in non-work-related areas, than I was in previous years when I was working full time. One paradox I have been facing is that in moments when I feel most “present” (those amazing times when I am feeling at once very relaxed and very aware) I can see and imagine much more clearly what I want to do with the rest of my fortune-blessed life; but that intentionality, that sense of purpose and direction and knowing what I care about and what I have passion for and what I feel good about doing, seems to be a prerequisite for feeling present. For me at least, presence and intentionality are a self-reinforcing ‘positive feedback loop’, but so is their lack. When I don’t have both, I have neither, and am stuck, aimless, motionless, inside my head. I have been focusing much of my time of late on self-acceptance and on being aware of and letting go of my ’stories’ — the fictions about myself and others, and about the past and the future that I mistake for reality, and which constrain and depress me and hold me back. These stories I tell myself include:
  • the story of Gaia’s ghastly and ever-increasing suffering, loss of beauty, and collapse
  • the story of most people’s insensitivity, cruelty, excessive neediness, rapaciousness, stupidity, dishonesty and unreasonable expectations of me and what the world “owes” them (and I of course include myself, much of the time, in the category of “most people”, and acknowledge that much of this human folly is unintentional)
  • the story of what will happen if my worst fears (usually of loss, suffering, or acute social anxiety) are realized
  • the story that I am lazy, hypocritical, selfish, useless to others, “part of the problem”, promise what I can’t or don’t really want to deliver, and am too easily angered, upset and fearful
This “letting go of stories”, and total non-judgemental, non-expectant self-acceptance, are the key practices I am using to become more present. It is as if when I let go of stories, judgements and expectations (and hence am freed from the fear, anger, anxiety and other negative emotions they provoke) what is left is true presence. Sort of. The truth is that when I am alone, what I generally feel when I let go of all these things is a kind of ’space-y’ numbness. It is when I am with others (in love, in sex, in intelligent conversation or in learning) that this ‘letting go’ brings about an amazing sense of presence. I suspect that this ‘thinking out loud’ blog that I’ve been writing now for eight years, is to some extent my reaching out for an intelligent conversation with others who are sympathetic, at those times when I am physically alone. Last month, after an animated hour-long conversation on a bus with a woman I had only just met, I suddenly realized I am feeling happy. It was only at that point I recognized that I had not been feeling happy before this chance encounter. How can I be so un-present that I am not aware of a fundamental, creeping sense of unhappiness, especially when I am living in a situation in which, by all rights, I should be constantly and ecstatically happy? Photo: Mindful Wandering, by Maren Yumi Yet after I’ve spent some time with people — even in intelligent conversation — I have a growing longing to be alone. So then I escape the crowd and retreat to comfortable space-y aloneness again. Except sometimes now it isn’t space-y: Perhaps I am slowly learning how to be alone, since there are moments, listening to well-crafted music, or bathed in certain light and shadow, or steeped in warm water, or surrounded by exceptional and peaceful beauty, or somehow moving effortlessly (e.g. on night trains), when I can be present alone. These are for me rare moments of great creativity, imagination and insight. In such moments I really feel like “the place through which stuff passes”, a part of all-life-on-Earth, instead of a disconnected “self”, an “individual”. It’s an amazing feeling of readiness, of momentum, of well-being, and of really be-ing. In those moments my intentions are usually to write (music, poetry, short fiction) and to find people near where I live who are at once exceptionally intelligent, empathetic and gentle. If they also have many of the 65 abilities that will become all-important in the next decade, or if they’re potential sexual partners as well (young, slim, fit, attractive, poly, and with high sexual appetites) that would be an unexpected but unessential bonus. So what’s emerging for me this year is a set of modest intentions and a possible process for helping me realize them:
  • Continue to try to live by my six principles: be generous, value my time, live naturally, self-accept, practice be(com)ing present, let go of stories;
  • During my time alone, create an environment (peace, beauty, light, music, warmth, movement) conducive to that state of presence that produces my best writing, and devote at least three hours a day to that writing — and trust that the outcome of that process will be positive; and
  • Find, as close as possible to where I live, some more exceptionally bright, empathetic and gentle people, and spend as much time with them as possible; at this stage I have no idea if that time will be spent just in conversation and recreation, or on projects with shared purpose (I trust that if I find them, we’ll figure that out together).
Thinking about my one-word theme for the year, I keep coming back to the same word that I chose for 2010: mo(ve)ment. I think it is interesting that the words movement, motion, motivation, moment (in time), momentum, momentous and emotion all stem from the same root meue- meaning both instant and important. The power of presence, and of living in the now, to “move” us. That’s all I’ve figured out so far. How about you, dear readers? What is your intention for 2011, and your process for realizing it? Read the original post on How to Save the World.
sweetspot Dave Pollard is the author of Finding the Sweet Spot.

Dave is now probably best known for his weblog How to Save the World, where he writes about understanding how the world really works, and how we might create better ways to live and make a living. Dave is currently VP of the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants, where he is responsible for research and thought leadership, and more specifically for helping the accounting profession and entrepreneurs in general become more innovative, resilient and sustainable. Prior to this he worked with Ernst & Young for 27 years in many different capacities as CKO and Global Director of Knowledge Innovation, and as Director of Entrepreneurial Services. Dave speaks and writes prolifically on knowledge management, business innovation, and sustainable entrepreneurship. His first book, Finding the Sweet Spot: A Natural Entrepreneur's Guide to Responsible, Sustainable, Joyful Work, has just been published by Chelsea Green. He lives on a natural wetland on the Oak Ridges Moraine northwest of Toronto.

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