I was talking to an older woman the other week, who confessed to me that she felt so lonely inside and desperately needed someone to talk to her. I saw her son return home and, with this woman’s permission, told him how his mother was feeling and asked him to join us. He replied that he ‘always’ spent time with his mother, but that he would join us if this made his mother feel better. The son and I listened to this woman talk about her isolation, her low-moods, and her problems. The son started advising the woman on how best to deal with her situation, with the occasional comment, “We’ve spoken about this before, remember?” The woman remembered, and shut down (and shut up) as she probably had done before. With some encouragement, I got her to open up again, but by that stage the son had already taken out his phone to play games on it.
I was listening to a friend over dinner the other night, and I got distracted with a thought about one of the things I needed to do that day. Even though it didn’t take that long for me to return to the conversation, and I was able to pick up on what she was saying to nod my head, there was a silent pause from her. She commented on how what she said was just her opinion and probably was incorrect. She misinterpreted my blankness for a disapproval of what she was saying, when in reality, I was just blank because my mind had gone blank after it was distracted with a stray thought.
When I first became a lawyer, I used to scribble down notes as my clients spoke, to ensure I captured all the details of their story. Sometimes I would miss something because my mind was thinking of how best to deal with the issue (at times making assumptions too early) or thinking of what question to ask next. Now, I have my notepad to one side, and my client in front. I give them my presence, and give them the space for them to say what they want to say. In that space, and with the right prompting, the core of the problem often appears. Sometimes that problem is a legal one, other times the problem (and therefore the solution) is non-legal. In that space, there is so much information I get from my clients that are non-verbal. In that space, I find how to relate and understand my clients.
Reflecting on these three examples, I’ve come to really appreciate the importance of being totally present with the person I’m with – not just physically present or even intellectually present, but a spiritual or emotional presence. Some people may call this mindfulness, but I’ll just use ‘presence’ for now as that is how it feels for me.
This presence suspends your ‘self’ for a moment. You aren’t there just so you can get something from the other person, or to get their acknowledgment of you. That other person is not understood merely by being a reference point to you.
What that means is you can get to know the other person as they are and be with them in that moment without anything more. So you can understand them without comparing them to you, without adding your own judgment and preconceptions of who you think they are and what they want.
You realise that your presence means so much to them; it is like a present, a gift of unconditional love. In turn, your relationships become more meaningful and have more depth to them. You start to really understand people, and just as importantly, you start to truly understand yourself and be present to the ‘you’ that is manifesting at this very moment.
So the practice for this week is to ‘tune into’ the moment next time you are with someone. Really be there with them, and be there for them. See if you can suspend the chattering mind for just a moment, to leave behind the preconceptions and assumptions of what you think the other person is saying, so you can really listen to what they are saying with their mouths, their body, and their heart. Make them feel like in that moment, they are the most important person for you, because indeed they really are.