On being present…
“What is this life, if full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare”
from “Leisure,” by W.H. Davies
Have you ever really thought about just how much you miss? How much is happening, or going on around you, that you never even notice or really see? Like most of us, you’ll probably want to see yourself as pretty perceptive, and that you don’t miss much. But the chances are that this just isn’t true; the chances are you’re oblivious to much of what goes on around you.
It’s not your fault. We learn during our lives to be busy, focused and determined. We learn to move through big cities the same way everyone else does: head down, not making contact with others (there’s just too many, who’s got the time), trying to get somewhere. The chances are that this may also be the way which you move through your organisation, perhaps even the way you move through your life.
In January 2007, an experiment was conducted with a violin soloist playing at a metro station in Washington D.C. at rush hour. Joshua Bell, one of the top violinists in the world, played one of the world’s best violins (handcrafted in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari, and reportedly costing $3.5 million) with some of the best music of all time, for 43 minutes. So what happened? Did crowds stop to appreciate this music? Over the time that he was playing a total of 7 people stopped to listen, 27 people tipped mostly on their hurried way through, and over 1000 didn’t pay it any attention at all.
Which would you have been?
According to research, most people when given this sort of scenario tend to believe that they fall into the small group which is the exception. However, the odds are that you’re not the exception! Like most of these people the chances are you would pass by unawares, and like some who were later contacted by a journalist, you wouldn’t even remember the violinist.
An interesting fact is that every single child that passed noticed. Every single child wanted to stop and pay attention to the music, but was hurried along by adults trying to keep to a tight schedule. So what happens to us from childhood to adulthood that stops us from noticing?
In understanding this it may be useful to look our understanding of the brain. It seems that the right hemisphere of the brain is more concerned with novelty, where as the left hemisphere is more concerned with what it already knows. The right hemisphere is on the lookout for what exists without preconceptions (“reality”), whereas the left hemisphere apprehends our internal representations of reality, i.e. looks for what it already expects.
Generally in children, damage to the right hemisphere of the brain is more severe in its impact; whereas in adults the left hemisphere damage is more severe.
Why is this important? The left hemisphere is the seat of thinking, planning and reflection based upon the internal reality which already exists. It will most likely see the musician as just another busker without really noticing – something it already has a category for in its internal representation of reality. The right hemisphere won’t, however. It will experience things as they are, and will notice the musician’s performance, if we let it. It holds the child-like innocence that can stand and stare, when something beautiful occurs.
As we grow older we have more internal representations in the left brain from which to work, but that does not mean that we need to be lost in them, and unable to experience what is. To move out of our left brains and experience “reality” we need to be present. To do this we must connect ourselves to our very sensations of life in our bodies and in our senses. This is where we experience the present moment – it does not live as an internalised idea in the left brain.
Putting ourselves into this place allows the right brain to apprehend reality and allows us to notice more. With this we may see what is going on – we may notice beautiful music, architecture and other people. I know myself, when walking through big cities that the temptation exists to focus and just try to get somewhere. I also know that in doing so I miss out on seeing the world around me.
When I see leaders in organisations, I see the same behaviour repeated. They are so focused on where they are going and what they are doing, that they don’t see what it going on around them. Often they complain of people not giving them honest feedback, or being surrounded by ‘yes men’ (or women) who just tell them what they want to hear. At the same time they give up their own basic ability to see what is going on around them.
When working with one leader on centring (a technique which allows someone to be present, open and connected to others) he acknowledged a fear that if he was more present more of the time, more people would come to him with requests, offers, feedback etc. This was a fear to him because of the time that this would take away from his ‘work’, which he was defining narrowly in terms of the tasks he needed to complete. If we are more present, more people will come to us, and this points to one of the reasons we stay that way – to avoid difficult human conversations, such as declining a request.
As a leader accessibility is a good thing; you need to have people coming to you with requests, offers, and the feedback you say you want. By being centred (present and open) we can see so much more of what’s going on around us. By being present, we develop a presence where people want to be led by us.
I see too many people in organisations, running around not present, and therefore not truly feeling and experiencing their lives. Lives and work become an intellectual game in the constructed reality of the left hemisphere.
And in that mess so much is left unnoticed. People quit, upset and angry with the organisation, and moreso that no-one in power even noticed. People deal with tragedies and losses of which sometimes even close colleagues are only dimly aware. Opportunities for innovation and change are left behind as they don’t fit the worldviews of those most senior, whilst younger more innovative people get sidelined and eventually leave. Leaders are unable to realise their potential to truly lead others, as they hide in their constructed reality and are not present and accessible enough to have real presence.
And people on the way to work are unable to appreciate one of the world’s best violinists, playing some of the best music ever written, on one of the world’s best violins.