How to Be Present for Others – Without Losing Yourself

By Mary Jaksch

Every person we encounter shapes our life. If you think back, even the most unpleasant encounters taught us something about how to grow as a human being. And of course this is especially true of those we love. The poet Thomas McGrath writes:

How could I have come so far?
(And always on such dark trails!)
I must have travelled by the light
Shining from the faces of all those I have loved.

Sometimes it’s difficult to acknowledge that we constantly learn and grow through our interactions with those we love. The reason is that we are fixated on the: “If only they would…”

“If only they would…”

I’m sure you too could write a long list about how we would like our loved ones to be different. If such thoughts loom large in your life, take some time out and make a list of all the ways in which you would like your partner to be different.

Then take a good look at the completed list with all attributes and behaviors you wish your partner to have.

Who does the list remind you of?

You guessed right: the list is a description of what you think you are like! In other words, the thought ‘if only they would…’ really means: “Why can’t they be more like ME?” Well, the world would be a boring place if everyone was like ourselves! And we wouldn’t be able to grow and develop.

Because it’s only the differences between us and others that widen our horizon.

If we want to grow as human beings, we need to give something precious to those around us.

The greatest gift is to be present.

I don’t mean being half-present, but fully focused on the other person with your whole body and mind as if there was nobody else in the whole world. I’m sure we are all guilty of being half – or even quarter-present. For example, if we’re reading the paper, or watching the news, or looking at our emails – and someone starts up a conversation with us.

Barriers to being present

There are many different barriers to being present with another person. You may recognize these four:

  • Your mind is on other things and you are only pretending to listen.
    This is similar to what we contend with in meditation. The way to get past this barrier is by refocusing on the ‘now’. Tip:  Open your awareness to ambient sounds as well.
  • You don’t want to interact, but don’t want to say so.
    You need to make a decision whether you are willing to put your activity aside and really listen, or whether you are going to speak out and claim this time as your own.
  • You feel defensive.
    Thoughts fueled by strong emotions create gripping mind-movies. When we feel defensive, strong thoughts and stories are created that start with “But…!” It’s as if we bat away everything we are hearing, instead of taking it in. Notice your defensiveness and put aside all the ‘but’ stories for now.
  • What you hear triggers emotions and stories in your own mind.
    You’ll notice that your own stories are triggered by a desire to interrupt the other person and tell your own story. So often people break in with, “Yes, I know exactly what you mean! Here’s what happened to me …” Their own story has become so vivid that they can’t listen to what the other person is saying. When you notice this tendency in yourself, take a deep breath and refocus on what the other person is saying.

Distracted listening

How to you usually listen to others? Check out the list below:

  • Listen with only half an ear
  • Interrupt
  • React
  • Take things personally
  • Jump to false conclusions
  • Rehearse what you’re going to say
  • Have a lot of static in your mind

Each one of those points show up an unskillful habit: distracted listening.

There are some wonderful ways to circumvent our defensiveness by learning to listen in a new way, and respond peacefully. We’ll take that up in detail in our Virtual Zen retreat on Peacefulness (you can book your free place in the sidebar). For now, here is a simple way to practice being present with others:

Deep Listening

Deep listening means hearing beyond and below the spoken word. It means hearing the essence of what someone is saying, and noticing the feelings behind their words. When you listen deeply, you are truly present with the other person. Your mind is free of past judgments or thoughts of the future. You can let go of beliefs and prejudices you may have about the other person. You’re not analyzing or figuring things out, you’re simply being present with the other person.
Deep listening has three benefits.

  • It’s calming because it brings us back to the present moment.
  • It leads to feelings of connection, loving-kindness and compassion.
  • It helps us to communicate and creates true understanding.

Deep listening is a wonderful way of bringing the mind of meditation into our life, in order to create peace.

Contemporary Zen master Norman Fisher says:

If you can, stop fussing. Stop trying to make things better. Just listen with a sympathetic loving presence. Be willing to be there without outflows, accepting conditions as they are, and you may transform the conditions… and then something may happen. It’s not about doing something. Just listen – really listen.

We can transform our life and the lives of those around us simply by being present. It’s compassion in action. Of course it’s also very important to be present with ourselves. I’ll write about that soon.

What’s your experience of being present?

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About the author

Mary Jaksch

Mary is passionate about helping people create a happy, purposeful, and fulfilling life. She is the founder of GoodlifeZEN and also the brains behind WritetoDone.com, one of the biggest blogs for writers on the Net. Mary is also a Zen Master, a mother, and a 5th Degree Black Belt.

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