Unfortunately, I’m not necessarily the right person to tell you exactly how to remain present. So I won’t be providing you a list of concepts or recommendations on how to be more in the moment. Instead, I’m writing about this to remind myself and others to acknowledge when we’re not. Like anything else, the first step in addressing an issue is to acknowledge we have a problem.
I’ve known for some time that I have a particular problem with not always being present in a conversation or in the moment when I’m with others. I tend to let my thoughts roam when I should be listening more in my personal communications. Of course, I could blame it on my career, where I’ve spent my life concerned about risks and protecting myself and others. So my mind is always moments, days, weeks, or even years ahead. But that would be an easy out.
Today, we’re bombarded with distractions, from politics and elections, a pandemic, jumping on one Zoom call to another Webex call, riots and protests, homeschooling, bouncing from one social media platform to another (while trying to think of something clever to post).
We flip through hundreds of TV channels and a long list of on-demand movies and YouTube topics while watching for five minutes before flipping to another option.
In my current position, I think about and even worry about thousands of people in more than a dozen locations and several countries. So my mind is constantly jumping from location to location, call to call and email to email. From problems to solutions to initiatives.
Shaky Work-Life Balance
Most of us are working from home these days and must shift from work conversation to family conversation and back to work again. Throw in a bit of network “breaking news” throughout the day, and you have a recipe for a cerebral tornado. And I wonder why I can’t stay in the moment.
Sadly, I know I’m feeding a bad habit and not being present at times with my family, friends, or colleagues. This is not the person I want to be. This topic came front and center for me recently when speaking with my 33-year-old son, who has a beautiful family of his own now.
He’s at a place in his life and career where ― like I used to ― he tends to constantly think ahead so he can plan his next career move:
- What training?
- What new position?
- Finish my Masters?
- Would accepting a position overseas be good for me, the family?
- Should we look for a bigger house or stay where we are?
I immediately remembered when he was much younger. Then, instead of living in the moment, I would often contemplate or let my thoughts consume me about my next career move or other trivial thoughts that really didn’t matter. If you know Harry Chapin’s song, “Cats in the Cradle,” you know what I mean.
This kind of thinking or distraction is like a thief. What’s worse, we become willing participants in the thievery. We allow it and even assist with opening the door as they steal our moments from others when we should be present.
You know that kind of person when sitting in a meeting or having a conversation with a family member or colleague who can’t put the #*@% phone down for five minutes and focus their eyes on your while applying active listening? Guilty.
I’ve begun to think about the times I’ve chosen or somebody forced me to be in the moment and why I did so. Maybe it was because the activity required it to survive or not be injured, like while rock climbing, rappelling out of a helicopter, riding a motorcycle, conducting undercover and covert operations, live-fire exercises, self-defense training, or racing a car.
Of course, it shouldn’t always take a life or death activity to be present in a moment. For example, when I started writing my book ― The Protected ― I had to learn to mentally prepare myself, clear my thoughts, and focus on just the subjects I was writing about. Admittedly, this took a few months to learn, and somehow I need to apply those same techniques in other areas of my life.
The Moderator Episode
I have been present and in the moment during events that brought joy or entertainment. Like watching my son play sports as a child, watching my granddaughter’s Taekwondo class with pride, or just being silly with her sister. Maybe it was even while watching a live concert of a favorite band or a big-screen movie that I couldn’t wait to see. (Movies are coming back after COVID, right?)
For some reason, the conversation can be the most strenuous activity for me to remain present. Still, it is one of the most important activities where we need to be in the moment and connect with other people. For example, I remember speaking on a protective intelligence software panel at the beginning of the year. I was the third person on the stage.
When the moderator (and good friend) asked my thoughts on the same question that he had asked the other speakers, I had to sheepishly ask: “What was the question again?” My thoughts had already left the building. Maybe that’s why “active listening” is a buzz phrase that people often use.
As managers and leaders, my question would also be, “Are we setting the proper example and encouraging others as to the importance of remaining in the moment to help support clarity, build trust, and promote teamwork? As parents, are we doing the same?”
“If you are depressed, you are living in the past, if you are anxious, you are living in the future, if you are at peace, you are living in the present.” — Lao Tzu
Being in the moment doesn’t have to only apply to being with others. Sometimes, it can be during a personal time of reflection. For some, it’s through yoga, jogging, hunting, or one of my personal favorites, snow skiing, or any activity where it requires some level of mental freedom. Anyone who knows me knows that I enjoy the occasional cigar and my favorite drink, a Rusty Nail.
Taking the time to slow down at that moment allows me to be present in conversation if I’m with others and enjoy friendly pontification.
If I’m alone, these moments often are times of deep contemplation about any number of things. For instance, remembering those not with us anymore, mistakes made, and sometimes oddly jumping forward to the future (How much will I need in retirement? Ducati or Harley? Prague or Zurich?). So even when I’m alone, I can still have difficultly remaining in my own moment.
Late last year, I was having dinner in Washington, D.C., with a couple of friends and former CIA colleagues. At one point, Gail asked: “So, you’re going on two years in your current position, time for a change, huh?”
I’ll admit, at first, I felt a bit insulted. But this friend knows me well enough. He also said: “Hey, it’s not your fault. You were trained that way. Think about it. Your first 20 years in the military and CIA, about every 2-3 years, you were asked to move to a new position, new location, or accept a more challenging role.”
While I understand where she was going, it still doesn’t give me an excuse for not living in the moment and being present more often.
I know I’m not the only one who has a nomadic mind at times. But when I heard my son describe similar difficulties, it naturally made me think: “Did I pass this trait on to him somehow?”
I wish I had a long list of exercises or recommendations that I could share if you’re a victim of your own lack of commitment to being present. I’m sure a 30-second internet search could provide us all with useful recommendations, along with several Ted Talk videos!
Like all those activities mentioned above that demand being present, one needs to have the right mindset for the activity and use discipline and commitment to the moment – out of respect for the time given by others as well.
As I get a little older, suddenly, those moments become more important. And we all have to acknowledge the reality that life doesn’t promise you tomorrow. So I will keep practicing living one day at a time and find ways to remain present and in the moment when it counts.
Regarding this part of my life, I’m still a work in progress.
Enjoy your journey!