I’ve been reading a lot about the Buddhist idea of presence and how we can be more aware of the “now.” According to its teachings, regret, fear, and anger come from comparing our current experience with a past, future, or alternative experience. This tension generates negative emotions that distract us from concentrating on what is occurring right in front of us.
In Western society, this concept of presence was popularized by British philosopher Alan Watts and his 1951 book The Wisdom of Insecurity. Like Buddhism, he argues that the root of frustration and daily anxiety is our tendency to live for the future, a “constantly retreating phantom—the faster you chase it, the faster it runs ahead.” According to Watts, to escape this toxic cycle, we must maintain a full awareness of our present experience, which he differentiates from judging it, evaluating it, or relating it to some arbitrary ideal.
If the ancient teachings of Buddha or an acclaimed English academic don’t convince you, consider what The Late Late Show host James Corden said in a recent interview with Chris Hardwick:
[Being present is] the only way you can juggle being busy. You need to think, ‘What’s the thing I have to do now and I won’t think about anything else other than being the best version of myself now.’ So, if all I’m thinking about now is trying to make this the best [interview] it can be, I can leave here and go, ‘And now I’m going to try to be the best host or boss tonight.’ And when I get home, I’m going to try and be the best husband… And if that’s what you are always trying to do, you will only be a success. It’s the moment when you go, ‘Aww, I’ve got that on Thursday and I don’t want to think about this or that,’ then it’s all a disaster, then it all falls apart. When you think, ‘I’ve just gotta get through this so I can get to that thing that’s more important,’ well that thing may never come, it may never arrive. So actually, if you just go, ‘when I get to that, I’ll think about that. Right now, I’m just going to think about this,’ then, I find, that’s the only way I can juggle everything.
As intelligent people, it may seem obvious why fixating on the past and future is a diversion from the existing moment. However, as leaders, we must do more than just “live in the now;” we must demonstrate that we are present for the moment, for the team, for the vision, and for the tasks at hand. Sound daunting? It’s easier than you may think.
The most successful leaders know that appearing present is about providing your undivided attention. This can be illustrated through something I call the Dean Test. Named after Dean “the King of Cool” Martin, let’s say you walk into a meeting with a bunch of strangers. Who’s in charge? Using the Dean Test you can pick out the most senior leader by looking for the person who is least distracted.
Whereas everyone else is checking their phone, rummaging through folders, and desperately gawking at the clock, the leader is unencumbered by logistical details or outside interference. They are projecting a sense of freedom, authority, and calmness as they converse with those in the room. They focus on whoever is speaking, listen attentively, and inquisitively dig into the issues being presented.
By displaying a composed demeanor, the leader is exhibiting a quiet confidence that says, “Your time is as valuable as mine, so I will pay attention because this is the most important place I need to be right now.” Showing respect is the fasted way to build respect, and everyone appreciates attention from the boss. Plus, you absorb more of the information since you are engaged in what is being said.
The only thing that exists is this. Everything behind is gone and everything forward is unknown. All you’ve actually got is now. Everything else is dust; this is the only thing that is happening. So if you’re just trying to do this now, and when you get home do that, and tomorrow be wherever you need to be, then you’ll be alright.—James Corden
Feeling a sense of presence is not always easy. We all have competing prioritizes that take us away from the here and now. So start with behaving as if you are present. Keep your phone in your pocket and focus on your surroundings. “Pretend” as if whatever you are doing right now actually matters. The more you act purposefully, the more natural it will become, and the closer you’ll get to emulating Buddha, Alan Watts, James Corden, Dean Martin, etc.