Two years ago, I was consumed with writing, revising, rehearsing, and rewriting my TEDx Talk called “The Power of the Pause.” To say that I was obsessed would be an understatement. When I look at my notes from the talk (which is less painful for me than watching it), I’m struck by the simplicity of that fifteen minute synopsis of a very complex concept. The message seems so clear and straightforward: If you want to change, follow these steps: pause, feel what’s happening in your body, check the validity of your narrative, consider alternative interpretations, shift to other options, and choose a desired response. Awareness leads to choice and a decision to change your way of being in the world. Piece of cake.
Two days before the Feb. 1, 2019 taping, Chicagoland experienced what we refer to as the “Polar Vortex.” Wind chills plummeted to -40 degrees, schools were closed, stores were shuttered, and streets were empty. Little did we know that those two days would be nothing compared to the pandemic. I used these 48 hours to rehearse, rehearse, and rehearse some more. I taped my notes to the kitchen cabinets and practiced walking while delivering my life-defining speech. I posted my outline on a bulletin board in the basement, climbed on our elliptical, and projected my message to the concrete walls.
I nailed that talk – ten hours before it was filmed. That final rehearsal on the morning of the event left me feeling empowered, knowledgeable, and confident.
That evening, as I sat and witnessed the other presenters, sick quiverings of self-doubt invaded my gut. I was slated last on the docket, and as each speaker finished, my hands got colder and colder. When I was called backstage, my nerves were shot. I was not prepared for the full-blown panic attack that hijacked my nervous system. I honestly did not expect it. I speak in front of groups all the time.
I did not deliver the best presentation of my life that night, but I would not take back the lessons learned from my experience.
I learned – and continue to learn over and over – that life is humbling. That is a good thing.
I learned that there is no ready-made formula for presence. I learned that mindfulness is a commitment, not a ticket to transformation. After immersing myself in numerous workshops and courses, dozens of books and lectures, and numerous certifications over the past two years, I now know presence is not something to be studied – it is to be lived.
Presence is a lifelong journey that takes you to this moment. I’m working on staying here. And when I find myself going elsewhere, like ruminating about past disappointments or fretting a forever uncertain future, I try to bring myself back to now.
Yesterday, I took a break from reading Caroline Welch’s The Gift of Presence: A Mindfulness Guide for Women to switch a load of laundry to the dryer. As I pulled out one of Tim’s dri-fit shirts, I was amazed that the shirt could be completely dry after a wash cycle. I thought, Wow, these new synthetic fabrics are amazing! Then I pulled out a pair of bone dry underwear. I had put the dirty load in the dryer instead of the washer – a loud wake-up call from the presence conductor that I had veered off course.
My instinct was to judge myself for being an idiot, and even worse, for being someone who doesn’t practice what she preaches, someone who just cannot figure out mindfulness. Thankfully, one of the key concepts of meditation is non judgment of thoughts. Non Judgment let me off my own hook.
I have also learned that there are ways to calm my nervous system, and I can indeed settle my racing heart and harried breathing. I wish I had known this two years ago when I paced backstage and sought ways to bolt to my car.
I’ve learned about the parasympathetic system, the Polyvagal Theory, the neuroplasticity of the brain, and the emotional, psychological, and physiological benefits of meditation. I have great friends who meet with me on Zoom to discuss the potential, positive impact of brilliant thinkers, writers, and researchers.
Often, I have no idea how I can help make this world a better place. As I ease into 2021, I pray for a world filled with peace, presence, forgiveness, compassion, gratitude and joy. I’m reminded of the hymn “Let There Be Peace on Earth” which concludes – “let it begin with me.”
Gandhi’s words resonate with all of us – “Be the difference you want to see in the world.”
What do you want to see?