As I was rushing through the airport to catch a flight, phone in one hand, handbag over my shoulder, trying hard not to spill my coffee as I maneuvered through the early-morning crowds, the cover of a magazine showing an elephant teetering on an exercise ball caught my eye. I only read the first two words of the headline: “Forget balance…,” but that was all I needed to see. I stopped to buy the magazine. It turned out to be the Harvard Business Review. What was it about those two words—“forget balance”—that made me feel calm, peaceful, and deeply relieved? After thinking about it for a few minutes, I realized that I was constantly swimming upstream to attain some magical balance in my life, both personally and professionally. The prospect of abandoning the search felt freeing. After all, balance suggests a state of equilibrium between two things. But who has just two things to balance in life?
I became curious about how we cultivate mindfulness and apply it in our everyday lives, so I interviewed more than one hundred women from diverse backgrounds to try to understand its impact throughout the course of their lives. From their powerful stories, a pattern emerged in which I noticed that Presence played a key role in their well-being and was evident in three aspects of their lives: Purpose, Pivoting, and Pacing. I came to call these “the 3 Ps.” Presence provides the essential starting point, the foundation for all 3 Ps.
The first P, Purpose, is our life’s aim, which gives us direction and provides meaning. It’s what gets us out of bed in the morning. Like Presence, Purpose is free, and its benefits for our well-being are so extensive that if it were a medication, we would call it a miracle drug.
The second P, Pivoting, offers us the option to make a change when necessary—or even before absolutely necessary—and, as in basketball, keep one foot in place while exploring and determining what’s possible. Decision making can be daunting and unsettling as we often fear failure and resist change. However, with Pivoting we are reminded that we have the support of our relationships, experience, and resources before, during, and after making changes.
The third P, Pacing, refers not only to the speed at which we live our lives but also the overall trajectory of the many marathons and sprints that we run back to back. No matter our ages or stages, we sometimes feel that we need to figure everything out at once. Through the wider, more nuanced lens of Pacing we can come to realize that we need not do it all, all at once.
For those of us who work long hours at home or in the workplace, who receive unequal pay, are objectified, have unreliable child care, hit a glass ceiling, or feel exasperated at the end of a long day in unenlightened work environments, I’m not saying just be present and all will be well. Presence is not a panacea, not a cure-all for the many challenges we face. I wish I could offer you the power of Panakeia, the Greek goddess of universal healing, but I can’t. What I am saying is that while we can’t control others or world events, we can control how we choose to respond to what’s happening around us—and even within us. And that can allow us to feel more at ease and more in charge of our lives.
I’ve written this mindfulness guide for women, but of course anyone can benefit from reading it. In fact, even though my workshops and lectures are usually directed to women, there are always a few men in the room. When I’ve asked the men why they’ve chosen to attend, they respond along the lines of, “I want to be the best uncle I can be by doing what I can to know the life of my two nieces who are just starting their careers,” “I’m a teacher and I want to better understand what’s going on with my students,” or “I just want to learn more about my partner.”
Throughout this book, you will notice (I hope) the representation of a water droplet. In the figure, the vertical, mirrored feature symbolizes the past and the future, and the horizontal feature represents the present or spaciousness. Being in a state of Presence is often described as experiencing spaciousness and equanimity. Whenever you see the water droplet, I invite you to check in with yourself and see if you are present.
Don’t be alarmed if you notice the water droplet and realize that you’ve been ruminating about the past or worrying about the future. Perhaps you are concerned about an email you sent recently or an upcoming deadline. This type of mind-wandering is natural, and in fact, it’s to be expected. We actually spend about half of our waking hours consumed by constant thought loops, most of which are repeats. When you realize that your focus has wandered, just gently, kindly bring it back to the book—without berating yourself, please! Consider the water droplet a gentle cue to pause and become present—one quick example of an informal, impromptu mindfulness practice. Being present is a skill we can cultivate; just like building any other skill, it takes practice, and that’s why we cultivate Presence, mindfulness, or mindful awareness through practices both formal and informal.
The idea is to notice, to become aware, to pay attention, to place your mind and body in the same place at the same time. The water droplet reminds us to inhabit the only moment we have, this one unrepeatable, present moment. Research confirms that being present, as in focusing our minds on what we are currently doing, creates more well-being.
We are all on this journey together to develop the confidence that we can handle whatever comes our way by accessing our most resilient, flexible selves. Let’s begin now.
Excerpted from The Gift of Presence: A Mindfulness Guide for Women. Reprinted with permission: Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Mind Your Brain, Inc.