Cura Personalis: The present of presence

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For Christmas this year, I received several books by Buddhist philosopher Tich Nhat Hanh. Much to my family’s amusement, I quickly became obsessed. I roped dinner guests into doing “smiling meditation” before our meals and hopelessly tried to convince my dad that “driving meditation” can be done without closing your eyes.

Karen Konkoly

Karen Konkoly

As light-hearted as Hanh’s influence was on my family was this winter break, I learned something fundamental about how to relate to other people: “The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.”

Now, I knew about mindfully relating to others before I read Hanh, and, as far as I knew, none of my loved ones were “blooming” just because of me. Yet as I started to practice Hanh’s techniques to be fully present with others, I realized how much more fulfilling interactions can be when I approach them with mindfulness.

The basis of mindfulness is to give full attention to something happening in the present — oftentimes, the breath. Thus, to attain this mindfulness in your interactions with others, Hanh first suggests taking a moment: Notice you are breathing in and notice you are breathing out to ground yourself in the moment with whomever you are with.

Even if you aren’t talking, being present with another person allows you to feel truly connected and together with them. Hanh said when you are fully present with the people you are with, you will not miss them when they are gone.

When I started trying to practice this over winter break, I was in shock of how often I talked and laughed and hugged my family members while part of my mind was somewhere else — or nowhere at all. Even if I wasn’t on my phone or thinking about something in particular, I realized how little I focused on right now. I realized that mindfulness is not just something to do for five minutes a day to de-stress but a mindset that can ground me in the present all day long. I used to think that to be mindful I had to set aside time to stop — but being mindful doesn’t necessarily require acting any differently.

We are already physically present all the time: mindfulness just requires an extra effort — until time ingrains that effort — to stay fully, mentally present all the time as well.

Research has demonstrated that mindfulness can improve interpersonal interactions, and I’ve found that being fully present with others makes your relationships infinitely more fulfilling for both people involved.

Once you are mentally present, there are further techniques you can use to have more mindful conversations with others.

A mantra I use as a goal for most types of conversations is to “seek their opinion with nonjudgmental validation.” For Hanh, that means giving the person you are talking to a chance to fully express himself or herself: listen, without judgment or praise, advice or interpretation.

Regardless of how you might instinctively react, acknowledge their feelings are valid. Seek their opinion by asking follow-up questions so you can fully empathize with their point of view, which can also help them digest and understand their own feelings.

Making space for someone to open up in this way, even if those feelings seem unimportant and day-to-day, makes conversations a way to fully understand someone else instead of an attempt to change their mind or feelings.

Of course, not all conversations will go like this, and I (especially as an introvert) find it personally exhausting to stay mindful with others all the time. After spending much of my life being mildly anxious at the prospect of having to make conversation, it takes a lot of energy to maintain eye contact, ask follow up questions and put in the energy to appreciate everything everyone has to say. For me, at least, it can’t always be done.

That is natural and OK. A fundamental part about seeking others’ opinions with nonjudgmental validation is appreciating your own feelings and opinions as valid and without judgment. By staying in the present moment and holding ourselves with the same compassion that we hold others, we can have more fulfilling relationships that will let us all bloom like flowers.

Karen Konkoly, ’17, is a columnist for The Brown and White. She can be reached at [email protected]

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