Inspiration Corner, Personal Growth

What does it mean to “be present”? How this phrase has changed over time and what we can do about it

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what does it mean to be in the present
Photo by Elliott Chau

I’m lucky that, as an English teacher, I’m exposed to books that cover a full spectrum of genres, styles, and subject matter. In one class, we just finished Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town. In another, we’re reading the non-fiction Present Shock by Douglas Rushkoff. Each provides a very different answer to this question: what does it mean to “be in the present,” or to “live in the moment”?

Our Town provides the more familiar definition: to savor each moment. To be actively aware of and engaged with your surroundings.

In the play, Emily dies during childbirth. Still in denial, she demands to revisit her past. Upon returning, she is saddened to find that nobody pays any attention to one another. Dead Emily, looking back on the scene, begs her mother, “Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me.”

Yeah, yeah, you’re thinking. Nobody’s looking at one another because they’re all on their cellphones. Yawn.

But here’s the thing: Our Town was published in 1938, and this scene takes place in 1899.

Wilder was pretty ahead of his time. Our Town is a meta play — way before “meta” was cool — where the stage manager addresses the audience. It is deceptively simple, revealing profound truths about ritual, the circle of life, and the universe.

But this scene with Emily is particularly powerful. It shows us that the problem of taking life for granted and not truly seeing one another is not simply a problem caused by technology. It is a fundamental problem with humanity.

The antidote, then, would be living in the present.

But in Present Shock, Douglas Rushkoff puts a new spin on this phrase. He writes about a different kind of present awareness, NOT “some Zen state of an infinite moment, completely at one with our surroundings, connected to others, and aware of ourselves on any fundamental level.”

Instead, this type of present is one in which we’re perpetually distracted by 24-hour news and Twitter streams in which last hour’s post is irrelevant. One in which we outpace ourselves trying to keep up with the latest trends, and “instead of finding a stable foothold in the here and now, we end up reacting to the ever-present assault of simultaneous impulses and commands.”

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When “Being in the Present” is a Bad Thing

Here are some ways in which Rushkoff’s version of “living in the moment” manifests in our lives.

Shiny Object Syndrome

shiny object
Photo by Raynaldy Dachlan

Injecting urgency into sales and marketing is nothing new. But the pressure to buy RIGHT NOW has been amplified by the internet. Now we don’t have to leave our house or turn on the television. These messages are in our email inboxes, social media feeds, and the sidebars of our favorite websites.

Shiny object syndrome is not limited to sales items, either. If you’re like me and still trying to crack the code on how to spread your work to more people, you’ll be aware of the infinite and ever-changing stream of tips, tricks, and hacks.

Go on Pinterest and you’ll be greeted by a barrage of articles with titles like, “Explode your traffic” and “How I got a million followers in one month.”

Yes, I’ve fallen for it, too (and continue to fall for it). We all hope we’ll find that one magic tip that will change everything.

Yet most of the time, these are either rehashed versions of the same articles we’ve read over and over or they’re just a sales pitch for the ebook we must buy to get the good stuff.

FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)

fomo
Photo by J-S Romeo on Unsplash

In the book, Rushkoff discusses FOMO specifically as it pertains to email and newsfeed addiction.

My inbox, in particular, has long been a source of lost productivity for me as well as anxiety. After vacations or particularly busy times in my life, I would think of all the emails I’d be missing out on (since it’d be impossible to catch up on all the unread emails).

The funny thing is, all the unread books sitting on my bookshelf don’t evoke the same urgency. But isn’t the content in these books far more enriching than that in any email?

It’s because unlike the emails, I can read the books “when I get to it.” But what if that time never comes?

Narrative Breakdown 

From Greek mythology to the Bible to Star Wars, storytelling has long been an essential part of our culture. In Rushkoff’s words, “Experiencing the world as a series of stories helps create a sense of context. It is comforting and orienting.”

But now that newsfeeds have shifted our focus to what is happening right now, we no longer have much interest in linear stories. Additionally, the way in which we watch television has radically changed, leading to a breakdown in narrative. This is not to say that conventional dramas have completely disappeared, but reality TV and shows like Family Guy, which derive their humor from randomness, now dominate.

The Need for Instant Gratification

This goes along with the last point. We no longer have the attention span for a book or even a movie. As I said, I am grateful that my job forces me to read lots of books. Otherwise, I doubt I would.

We automatically take out our phones in line at the grocery store, at red lights, and yes, even while waiting for a website to load.

instant gratification
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

The Good News 

Of course, these changes, or “now-isms,” as Rushkoff coins them, aren’t all bad. Here are some benefits.

More control

take control
Photo by Austin Neill

Stories are wonderful tools for teaching lessons, but they can also be used to control and manipulate. Now we see the seams. We can still enjoy the stories on one level while also recognizing how these stories are being used to hypnotize us.

By breaking the spell the media has put on us, we can take back control.

Expand Our Career Options  

With the growth of technology and this new, fast-paced lifestyle comes a vast array of opportunities. The “work at home” dream that I hold and I’m sure many of you do, too, seems like it is literally at my fingertips.

Bringing It All Together

bringing it together
Photo by Jens Peter Olesen

So what does all this have to do with Our Town and living in the present?

Well, “live in the present” is good advice but it’s also way open to interpretation. In our digital age, we’re perpetually distracted by the “now.” This leads to alienation and anxiety.

What Wilder likely wanted us to take away from his play, and what we want, is to be more connected with ourselves and with one another. To be aware — not of the latest trends, but of the divine grace all around us.

So how do we achieve these goals?

Realize your inbox/newsfeed will still be there tomorrow

Yes, it will be different emails and status updates. But what are you really missing out on? How many emails or status updates contain earth-shattering information?

If necessary, retrain your brain so that you no longer associate notifications with urgency. I signed up for Inbox When Ready, which hides the messages in your inbox until you click “inbox.” Simple, yes, but it’s amazing how this simple switch turned off the automatic nature of my habit. Now I no longer feel ANY urge to check my email.

You don’t have to be everywhere at once

Seize every moment, yes, but this does not apply to the digital world. Those of you who rely on digital marketing do not need a presence on every social media platform. You don’t have to have hundreds of tabs perpetually open so you can record a Facebook Live video, post on Instagram, and Tweet all at once.

Also, just because you can answer emails and work on your laptop on vacation or at the beach does not mean you have to. Yes, this is still a hard one for me to accept.

Take time to go inward

get still
Photo by Jan Zielinski

Sometimes I’m my own worst enemy. That’s one reason I write these posts — to keep myself in check.

Lately I’ve become hyper-focused on promoting this blog. Everything related to my spiritual path — meditation, journaling — went out the window.

Then I made the mistake of looking at my website analytics. Let’s just say, all my efforts had barely moved the dial. I fell into a deep despair.

But if I had been focusing on the other aspects of my life that make me whole and complete, I would have recognized those numbers for what they are — meaningless metrics that have no bearing on my soul.

I went for a hike that evening and spent a few minutes meditating. I’ve always found that meditation and nature have a grounding effect on me, helping me to get still instead of constantly responding to external stimuli.

Appreciate the power of stories

As I mentioned in my review of Debbie Ford’s The 21-Day Consciousness Cleanse, she divides the book into three sections: past, present, and future. Unlike most spiritual leaders, she doesn’t just tell us to “stay in the present.” She recognizes that it is our whole life trajectory that gives meaning and force to our existence.

This doesn’t mean you should stay stuck in the past, but you should take time to reflect upon and learn from the past. In the same way, our hopes and dreams for the future can propel us, giving us a reason to get out of bed every morning (eagerly, not reluctantly, hitting “snooze” multiple times as I often do).

reading
photo by Tamarcus Brown

 

For me, appreciating narrative also means reading and writing more fiction and watching more movies. There is something deeply satisfying about completing a story — even a mediocre story — that we do not get from scrolling.

Now What?

  • Read Our Town and Present Shock. These books couldn’t be more different, but both offer valuable lessons. Our Town teaches us how to make the most of our time here on Earth and resist the temptation to fall into routine. You can get it below.

In Present Shock, which you can order below, Rushkoff provides a blueprint that will help us adapt to this startling new digital landscape.

  • Tell me below: What does it mean to “be in the present?” What do you do to stay grounded?

20 thoughts on “What does it mean to “be present”? How this phrase has changed over time and what we can do about it

  1. I can totally relate to what you have written. I was always a reader and of late, the last couple of years, I have shed the books for other distractions. I’ve recently decided to start reading again and have been doing so for a few months now. I think its been the best decision I’ve made in quite a while.

    1. Glad to hear, Kelly! I started reading The Help for one of the classes I teach (again, I’m so lucky my job forces me to read lol), and it was amazing how it transformed my mood! I laughed, I cried, and I experienced a full range of emotions that I just don’t when I’m constantly on the move.

  2. I was an English Major and used to bean English teacher so this post touched me a lot. Oh my, that quote! “Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me.” Felt gut-wrenching to read. I like your point about why emails and newsfeeds should be on the back-burner — I’m also guilty of having a stack of books of my dresser that “I’ll get to.” I appreciated your advice about being present, but not in the social media way. The non-stop “live” snapchats drives me insane. People don’t actually need to know the RIGHT NOW.

    1. Thanks for reading, Crystal! Yes, there is something about getting lost in a book that just doesn’t compare to scrolling through emails or a social media feed. I’m glad you could relate as a former English major and teacher.

  3. I am trying to focus on “not having to be everywhere at once”. I get caught up in wanting to know it all and do it all and trying to keep up with everyone. I am trying to focus on enjoying the moment and where I am at this moment. I am here for a reason, whether it be a lesson or a blessing and I need to focus on that and take it all in. Great read.

    1. Thanks, Kesi, for reading and for your comment. Yes, that urge to be everywhere at once is a challenge that all of us must deal with on a daily basis, myself included. I’ll be having a conversation with someone while simultaneously thinking about my to-do list or worrying about my emails I haven’t responded to, and then I always catch myself, and ask, “Wait a minute, what’s wrong with this picture?” It’s better to be fully engaged with one thing than half-engaged with a bunch of things!

  4. I find myself aimlessly scrolling and trying to find that magic tip alll the time! In reality, if I focused more on my blog and less on scorrlong and searching for the perfect answer, I’d probably be better off. Thanks for the advice!

    1. Absolutely, Stefani! Again, it reminds me that what we’re looking for is always within us, not outside of us. Also, ironically, that “magic tip” is usually some variation of “work hard and stop looking for a magic bullet.” Thank you for reading.

  5. Great post! I can definitely identify with the ‘shiny object syndrome!’ My new blog on top of working full time can threaten to overwhelm me at times. Some things I do to try and spend at least some time in the present are meditation, walking outside in the open and (trying to) switch off my mobile and laptop after 8pm. (OK so sometimes it’s 8.30….) I also have an app on my phone called ‘offtime’ which I can set to lock me out of my phone completely for a period of time. This seems to help!

    1. Thanks, Alison! Yes, meditation and being out in nature are definitely helpful for me. Less screen time…still getting there, lol. I think if I at least make a commitment to shutting down internet use an hour before bed and not immediately checking social media in the morning, I’ll be making progress!

  6. What a lot to think about.
    The tendency for us to create our personal space goes back to our need to protect ourselves – yet we welcome all the world into close proximity as long as It comes in through our phone! Maybe this is a compromise we’ve arrived at.

    1. Yes, David, that’s such an interesting point and reminds me of the conversation I was having with my students about social media. We were discussing how it allows us to have casual relationships with people we have just met and don’t necessarily want to meet in person, and it can certainly be good for business purposes. But of course, the issue is when it overlaps with personal relationships.

    1. Yes, for many of us! Whenever I feel FOMO creeping up, I have to ask myself, “What exactly am I afraid of missing out on? Is is really that special?” Thanks for reading, Jill.

  7. Good one Kate! As I was reading this, it gave me some new thoughts–first of all on what it means to be a teacher…or even as a child to sit in those English classes. Some of us will maybe never partake in literature, novels, plays, stories or poems again. And the thing is, I wonder if this taste of literature (aside from being about the reading, writing, and future job skills) doesn’t also set us up with the themes, metaphors, and thoughts we need to become wise human beings subversively–the way fairy tales do for younger children. I haven’t read present shock, but I saw Our Town when I was at University–I still remember how haunting it was. But we didn’t have connectivity the way we do now…wireless internet, laptops (not to mention smartphones) were barely a thing! I still remember the sound of dial-up. My husband bought me a smartphone but I keep it in airplane mode because I don’t want to know about storms in the North of France and French celebrities each time I check my messages or the time…So maybe I’m not totally typical. I also don’t have TV and am not on Twitter. But for me, it’s still a challenge to stay in the present. I try to stick with one moment a day–at the end of the day, I make sure I took in all aspects of one moment. It’s a bit like a form of meditation (I’ve blogged about it before). That has made a big difference to me–it’s become more automatic over time.

    1. Excellent points, Trisha. Yes, I’m sure my students often question why we have to read all these old books (IF they bother to read them at all and not just the Sparknotes), and sometimes I question it myself. But I really do think these books teach us essential lessons about what it means to be human, lessons that will resonate even if the books were written over 100 years ago. I remember watching the movie version of Our Town in my high-school theater class, but either the movie didn’t do the play justice or I wasn’t at the right time in my life to appreciate it. When you’re young, everything does feel fresh and new, but the older you get, the more you fall into routine. This is why Our Town stuck such a chord with me reading it now.

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