Not Present

Boathouse at Dawn, Fiji, photo by Ron Romanosky, at webshots

So it’s another year, and one year since I first read Ran Prieur’s warning that when you have, at last, the time and opportunity and freedom to do nothing, nothing is all you will want to do, and you may then remain depressed for a long time before you finally discover and realize what you, alone, unpressed by others, really want to do with your life.

For one year I have had that freedom, and Ran’s warning was right on. After the initial exhilaration, I spent most of 2010 doing nothing (of substantial use to anyone else, anyway). I put a bit of energy into four projects I think are important, but that’s all. I was pretty self-indulgent, and on balance not significantly happier, and actually somewhat less productive in non-work-related areas, than I was in previous years when I was working full time.

One paradox I have been facing is that in moments when I feel most “present” (those amazing times when I am feeling at once very relaxed and very aware) I can see and imagine much more clearly what I want to do with the rest of my fortune-blessed life; but that intentionality, that sense of purpose and direction and knowing what I care about and what I have passion for and what I feel good about doing, seems to be a prerequisite for feeling present. For me at least, presence and intentionality are a self-reinforcing ‘positive feedback loop’, but so is their lack. When I don’t have both, I have neither, and am stuck, aimless, motionless, inside my head.

I have been focusing much of my time of late on self-acceptance and on being aware of and letting go of my ‘stories’ — the fictions about myself and others, and about the past and the future that I mistake for reality, and which constrain and depress me and hold me back. These stories I tell myself include:

  • the story of Gaia’s ghastly and ever-increasing suffering, loss of beauty, and collapse
  • the story of most people’s insensitivity, cruelty, excessive neediness, rapaciousness, stupidity, dishonesty and unreasonable expectations of me and what the world “owes” them (and I of course include myself, much of the time, in the category of “most people”, and acknowledge that much of this human folly is unintentional)
  • the story of what will happen if my worst fears (usually of loss, suffering, or acute social anxiety) are realized
  • the story that I am lazy, hypocritical, selfish, useless to others, “part of the problem”, promise what I can’t or don’t really want to deliver, and am too easily angered, upset and fearful

This “letting go of stories”, and total non-judgemental, non-expectant self-acceptance, are the key practices I am using to become more present. It is as if when I let go of stories, judgements and expectations (and hence am freed from the fear, anger, anxiety and other negative emotions they provoke) what is left is true presence.

Sort of. The truth is that when I am alone, what I generally feel when I let go of all these things is a kind of ‘space-y’ numbness. It is when I am with others (in love, in sex, in intelligent conversation or in learning) that this ‘letting go’ brings about an amazing sense of presence. I suspect that this ‘thinking out loud’ blog that I’ve been writing now for eight years, is to some extent my reaching out for an intelligent conversation with others who are sympathetic, at those times when I am physically alone. Last month, after an animated hour-long conversation on a bus with a woman I had only just met, I suddenly realized I am feeling happy. It was only at that point I recognized that I had not been feeling happy before this chance encounter. How can I be so un-present that I am not aware of a fundamental, creeping sense of unhappiness, especially when I am living in a situation in which, by all rights, I should be constantly and ecstatically happy?

Photo: Mindful Wandering, by Maren Yumi

Yet after I’ve spent some time with people — even in intelligent conversation — I have a growing longing to be alone. So then I escape the crowd and retreat to comfortable space-y aloneness again. Except sometimes now it isn’t space-y: Perhaps I am slowly learning how to be alone, since there are moments, listening to well-crafted music, or bathed in certain light and shadow, or steeped in warm water, or surrounded by exceptional and peaceful beauty, or somehow moving effortlessly (e.g. on night trains), when I can be present alone. These are for me rare moments of great creativity, imagination and insight. In such moments I really feel like “the place through which stuff passes”, a part of all-life-on-Earth, instead of a disconnected “self”, an “individual”. It’s an amazing feeling of readiness, of momentum, of well-being, and of really be-ing.

In those moments my intentions are usually to write (music, poetry, short fiction) and to find people near where I live who are at once exceptionally intelligent, empathetic and gentle. If they also have many of the 65 abilities that will become all-important in the next decade, or if they’re potential sexual partners as well (young, slim, fit, attractive, poly, and with high sexual appetites) that would be an unexpected but unessential bonus.

So what’s emerging for me this year is a set of modest intentions and a possible process for helping me realize them:

  • Continue to try to live by my six principles: be generous, value my time, live naturally, self-accept, practice be(com)ing present, let go of stories;
  • During my time alone, create an environment (peace, beauty, light, music, warmth, movement) conducive to that state of presence that produces my best writing, and devote at least three hours a day to that writing — and trust that the outcome of that process will be positive; and
  • Find, as close as possible to where I live, some more exceptionally bright, empathetic and gentle people, and spend as much time with them as possible; at this stage I have no idea if that time will be spent just in conversation and recreation, or on projects with shared purpose (I trust that if I find them, we’ll figure that out together).

Thinking about my one-word theme for the year, I keep coming back to the same word that I chose for 2010: mo(ve)ment. I think it is interesting that the words movement, motion, motivation, moment (in time), momentum, momentous and emotion all stem from the same root meue- meaning both instant and important. The power of presence, and of living in the now, to “move” us.

That’s all I’ve figured out so far. How about you, dear readers? What is your intention for 2011, and your process for realizing it?

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13 Responses to Not Present

  1. Hi Dave,
    I’m just at the beginning of a year’s sabbatical. Am blogging lots on various sites and
    – writing a book about ‘what next now that mitigation has failed’ (will be using – with appropriate attribution – many of your fine insights!!)
    – reading the King James Version of the Bible and blogging it
    – trying (and failing) to get fit

    Knowing how weak-willed I am, I have established some routines, which seem to be keeping me a little bit honest (though I have many stories of my own discipline and competence that don’t seem very fact-based!)

    But I like your lists very much, and shall have to use those lists. I also like mo(ve)ment…

  2. Brian says:

    My wintry synthesis?

    Politics is crazy. I look back one half century. It’s nuts. It’s nuts. We are always nuts, ey wot? That’s the ‘Pastoral’ that Phillip Roth beseeches:

    “The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that, well, lucky you.”

    Bitching and being right is not working in our nation, those in the headlines, cheap stories easy to produce, so much must be done, yes, one San Francisco of new people arrives every three days, a job we gave to oligarchs, big things for the uppers, intestines for the shoppers, we discover we’re crops, pockets extracted, largest strip mine in all history taking us down, converting our wealth to goofy yachts, leaders to shills, capture of day to day dilution, our schools rust, our staff quiver…

    I’m ashamed of it all, the whole damn thing, discouraged, there’s nothing in this loud cruelty, big shimmy hustling remainders, hustling doubt as always, not stature I enjoy, rats at the rear as far as I’m concerned…

    Damn the error, fruit would be nice, point to it, fold the wrapper, pick up detritus, trip the thieves, declare stubborn, choose uncomfortable, with discontent we have a bit of hope, enough to cull, enough to drain away odd piracy, discover why we’re losing…

    Damn it, gold is a silly reply, free is too late, stability is a wish we never did see, left with petards on hoists and judgments stuck in our poor watchfulness, we could use a few, bring the dead that bled for us, not listening to lying, hearing what we must do, attend to it, bring it home, fix outside each door, accrue that, shun the rest…

    There’s my day.

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  4. Paul says:

    Uh, well, do I have an intention for 2011?

    The last few months I’ve found myself returning to Jimi Hendrix’ version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”. Perhaps it holds some metaphors I can use to examine myself.

    I’m finding my thoughts alternating between (1) “there must be some kind of way out of here” (i.e., searching for a right path through life, trying to help to save the world while understanding my place in it), and (2) “there’s too much confusion” (i.e., being continually amazed at how attempts to make sense of the world–to categorize and explain and improve–lead to paradoxes, illusions, tangled rationalizations).

    What attracts me to your blog, to your life? Dave, as we ride together in the gathering storm, I appreciate your true speech, the kind words as well as the wildcat’s growl. Hey, maybe that’s what I intend for 2011 and on–to find ways to speak truly (to myself and others), with compassion and with untamed, raw spirit.

  5. Kevin Fitts says:

    Interesting stuff.. I have been a fan of hearing and reading your thoughts since you lived in Portland.

  6. Greg Reid says:

    Dave, that is an outstanding piece of writing. I think you summarize well the struggle that happens to people ‘once the get there’ and have achieved what they thought would make them happy. I’ve learned (as I am sure that you have) the simple truth: You either grow or you die, there is no in between. In nature and in life, growth is vitality. Without growth (in whatever one chooses) then a person will be unhappy and stagnant. End of story. I have also often contemplated why some years are better than others but then I heard another truth: The only ‘straight line’ in Universe is man made. The Universe has no natural straight lines, and neither do our lives. We have ups/downs/acrosses and can’t be expected to plot the continually upward trend with our lives that, IMHO, is simply myth and lots of marketing by our culture and society.
    Those that are really happy, that I have seen, are achieving areas that meets their needs and values (note: Needs and Values may NOT be the same in some people).

    So you say your goal is ‘movement’, but for what purpose? To what end? Mexican jumping beans move. So the challenge and the decisions become: move ‘why’ and ‘to what’? Which comes to another truth that I have found: Sometimes you don’t know what to do next but doing nothing is the worst possible alternative. It is in the doing that options and ideas are opened that will help define the next steps.

    Just some thoughts.

    Please keep writing, it is excellent material.

  7. Thank you Dave for being here for so many years trying to make sense of the world. Often when I’ve been looking for inspiration and courage I’ve found it here.

    You are right, that all each of us can do is put our own house in order. That’s a necessary step. But we cannot do that in isolation from each other. I’ve become increasingly aware of something I call “social permission” which is the granting of permission to speak in a social context about a topic that is socially sensitive. For instance the limiting of population in a city or country. Or the downsizing of the company or the economy.

    This is strongly related to the business of being a “professional”. A topic I intend to write about in my own blog later today. To be a professional is to be a person who has a point of view, that would be generally supported by the standards of whatever profession we are part of. A professional point of view, as Robert Jensen points out, (The Myth of the Neutral Professional) generally supports the status quo, and is likely to be strongly conservative in a political sense.

    To deal with the future that is surely coming, many of us need to speak in our professional groups in a way that the leadership of the profession will consider unprofessional. We have to talk about a decline, about loss of control, about adapting to change in new ways. We MUST give ourselves and each other permission to have this conversation. The alternative is what we now have, 40 years of inaction when action was needed.

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  9. Cro Magnon. says:

    My advice to like-minded people is to get out there and do what you know is right. Respect for our fellow man, and for the environment, should always be our priority.

  10. Seb says:

    Have you given any thought to rhythm or tempo? I have a hunch that it matters but haven’t yet clearly elucidated how.

  11. lifeofliberty says:

    I’ve known for a long time that this blog is not about “how to save the world”, but how you are trying to save ‘you’.

    Writing is a part of that.

    I’ve met Ran, been up to his property and so forth and he’s as screwed up as everybody else. He’s still struggling with his own role, but then again, aren’t we all?

    The idea that we should ‘fit’ into this world is fraught with dangerous reality. Anybody that is comfortable with the way things are here is clinically insane, so trying to find that sense of peace and balance you seek is going to put you at direct odds with how the world really is and what it expects / demands of you.

    You will ALWAYS be at odds with this world and it’s culture, people, values and sense of morals if you are ethical, compassionate and concerned about a habitable future for life forms on the planet. This is not a path of peace, not when there is so much ignorance, apathy and widespread destruction taking place all around. Nobody who is balanced can be at peace with that.

    Put this into the perspective of how the Natives had their way of life utterly destroyed and the incredible depression that they must have gone through, the end result which has been widely documented in suicides, alcoholism, mental illness and short lifespans. Now some of us are trying to gain some ground by rolling a bit of all this destruction back, or at least find others who feel the same way. We run into exactly what they did — total indifference and apathy, social acceptance of ‘superiority’ lifestyles and expectations.

    Since that genocidal path has been taken (which was really globally), things are stupendously worse and we run into the same sense of ‘loss of being’ that the Natives did with all of it’s horrifying but predictable outcomes.

    I’ve met many people who quit and give up, going ‘back to the world’ to work and be a slave once again. They think that they prefer it, having not done the work within themselves to realize that going back ultimately means to enhance the destruction. You were NOT happier when you were working full-time as you wrote, but you certainly thought so, because your value system had changed.

    And this is what happens when people give up and go back, they’ve exchanged their values and sometimes even their principles. We’ve lost that ability to simply ‘be’ — that sense of wholeness and balance that comes with simply living without the expectations and demands that our culture has laid upon our backs.

    This screwed up culture of ours insist that we enslave ourselves and hang our happiness on a career, on work, on doing something ‘productive’. Our entire value system comes from this sense of productivity, as taught by all of our institutions. We are literally defined by this sense of being a cog in the wheel of society. You are ‘known’ by what you do, which has absolutely nothing to do with who you really are.

    Non-cogs are outcasts, and those seeking to free themselves from this modern slavery. What you are really doing, what this blog is really about, is trying to save yourself. From the absolute insanity of this present world and what it demands of each of us, and how we are all being forced to live.

    It’s the white-man’s reservation, of course, the enforced lifestyle and adaption to gain permission and the right to exist. The Natives long understood this and have written about it as I imagine you know. We all live on the reservation, and we’re swiftly rounded up and brought back if we try to leave.

    Once in a while, one of non-whites will wake up to this truth ourselves, somehow, and attempt to self-extract ourselves from what we rightly determine is a highly destructive and self-defeating way of life. The struggle is momentousness and it has been my experience through contact with many people, that most fail. The system sucks them back in, having made this type of extraction outright illegal in most instances.

    Of course the deck is stacked against all who would try, but nonetheless, try is what must be done. But it is in that path of trying, that struggle of finding oneself and the true identity that we all actually have, that we run into all the things you’ve hinted about. Freedom found, then lost, depression fought and (hopefully) overcome, the exhilaration of doing the ‘different’, new experiences and the sense of peace and tranquility that comes with understanding fundamentally you know within that you are doing something very ‘right’, etc.

    Eventually, after much time, you develop two things; resolve and detachment. Resolve to live your life irrespective of societal demands, and detachment from the insanity of this present world. Compassion and concern is not actually lost, but the realization that ‘how to save the world’ as you titled this blog is tempered by the fact that just saving your own self is quite nearly the very best that you can be expected to do.

    You’re on the right path (imo), I’d not be a reader if you weren’t. I’m seeking the same peace you are (aren’t we all?) and walk away from those who insist that their destructive lives, attitudes, beliefs, etc., are ‘harmless’. None of us are harmless, but some (many) less so then others.

  12. jand says:

    Dave, Today has been the very first day I have not been employed (managed by an other) for 30+ years.

    For what it is worth, I am thinking of the next year in terms of a bunch of Rs: rest, relaxation, recuperation, rejuvenation, reconnecting, reconnoitering, retooling, refueling. I don’t want to decide too much too soon (creating barriers/boundaries/limits) and, conversely, I don’t want to turn down/miss too many “on the spot” experiences (say no to adventures/explorations). I’m hoping that by the end of the year, the multitudes of ideas concerning “things I could do” that I now have will have somewhat abated/sorted themselves out into “currently viable to pursue further” or “not” (due to having connected with “serendipitous/nourishing” circumstances or not)…letting happen rather than making happen.

    I think that answers the questions you posed but I’m having trouble stopping there, wanting to reply to other comments and chime in with my own “helpful” observations, the main one of which is that I have a sense of confusion around the heavy accent on doing/action in the various meanings of “mo(ve)ment” juxtapositioned with “being in the moment”… I thought “being” does not necessarily involve “doing”? (and in fact doing may detract/distract from being?) It is my impression that “being” (practiced/experienced by regularly spending time with yourself in meditation) is the key to the joyfully aware sense of self and other/universe often called “happy”. I would like to recommend Mark Epstein’s book “Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart” and shamatha (peaceful abiding) meditation practice to you.

    The “constantly and ecstatically happy” state you indicate you “should” have comes to mind when reading the earlier comment about timing/tempo… And recollection of the ever-changing nature of things, often cyclical, understood/described by various wisdom traditions, also arises. I rather doubt anybody (except injured/dysfunctional) is exempt from the flow of “happy, sad, mad, glad” human emotions… In fact, it is my understanding that when that flow stops on one of the settings, is when there are, in fact, “problems”. So maybe think about letting up on the “I should be happy all the time” bit? (I think maybe that is what Andrew is responding to…)

    And lastly, I say (with all due respect) “bah” to Andrew’s comment about a job: I would like to offer the alternative perspective on jobs and whatnot to be found in the book “The Freedom Manifesto” authored by Tom Hodgkinson. I find it a fairly inspiring vision of a possible path toward post-industrialization wherein people are able to live reasonably happy lives at a decent speed on a human scale with sustainable and adequate “material circumstances”.

  13. Dan Miner says:

    Good post, Dave. Lived and written with authenticity. Thanks for your writing. I share your sense of struggle with story and self-acceptance; I’m sure many other sensitive humans do as well.

    Dan from NYC.

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