Presence: how we show up matters

By Sonja Blignaut

Continuing our series, revisiting the topics we discussed in our community conversations this year, let's revisit Presence.

Complexity arises from rich interconnectivity.  Think about it this way:  A machine has many interconnecting parts, but they are not rich, i.e. when the gear lever connects to the clutch, they don’t change each other.  

But when two people meet, even in casual conversation, both are changed by that interaction (sometimes imperceptibly).  When a new person joins a team, other team members and the team itself are changed, sometimes in unexpected ways.  

Further, the observer effect in physics describes how the mere act of observation can change what is being observed, e.g. a wave becoming a particle.  The implication is that the observer (i.e. you) always impacts what they observe simply by being present.  This means that your state of being, i.e. HOW you are showing up in interactions, is important.  

Think about something that we all find pretty frustrating: standing in a queue or being stuck in traffic.  Once, while stuck in traffic (ironic!) Casper saw a billboard that stated: you are not stuck in traffic; you are traffic!  

It wasn’t a comforting message then, but over time, it has helped us realise an important truth and given us back a sense of agency. Even when it feels like you are a passive victim of the traffic, you are still a part of the pattern.  Your presence has an impact – not only on your own experience but also on others and, at times, on outcomes: think road rage … Similarly, when we stand in a queue at the bank, waiting our turn, it does not mean we are patient – it simply means we are compliant: it’s the way we show up in that queue that determines if we are patient or not.  How we show up, especially in frustrating circumstances matters; consider what happens when you are distracted or irritated in a meeting when talking to your child.  

Applied Mindfulness can help us cultivate the skill to intentionally shape how we show up and participate in complex systems.  Mindfulness can be described as the ability to observe what is happening while it is happening without an immediate need to change it.  In other words, to observe our feelings and thoughts and to be present in a particular way.  

We are all human, so we can’t always be wonderfully mindful, intentional beings.  We get triggered, and we get tired.  However, we can learn to step out of autopilot mode and stop being on the receiving end of automated or habitual reactions.  The skill we need to cultivate is to step back now and again, observe where we are and then intentionally choose an appropriate way to engage with our context.  This is quite literally a survival skill in complex contexts because, as we saw, we influence much more than we think.  

A practice that we find helpful in this context is the PIES check-in.  

The idea originated as part of a program supporting homeless communities, focusing on PIE (Physical, Intellectual, Emotional), which is an approach that pays attention not just to people’s presenting situation but also to the things that contributed to getting them there.  We added the S (Spiritual) because we firmly believe that Meaning and connection to something larger than ourselves are important for our overall well-being.  

How it works:

  • At least three times per week, grab a journal and find a quiet space where you can reflect without interruptions for at least 5-10 minutes.
  • Sit in an alert and comfortable position and focus on your breathing for two or three breaths.
  • Then, ask yourself, in this moment ...
    • How am I doing PhysicallyWhat is happening in my physical body? Keep breathing and journal what comes to mind.
    • How am I doing mentally and Intellectually?  How is my thinking? Am I feeling confused or challenged in a good way? Am I ruminating or overthinking? Am I bored? Am I learning?  Keep breathing and journal what comes to mind.
    • How am I feeling EmotionallyWhat is happening in my feeling centre? Do I allow myself to feel my feelings, or do I avoid or numb them?  Do I experience joy, awe and gratitude? Keep breathing and journal what comes to mind.
    • How am I doing Spiritually? How connected am I to Spirit*? Keep breathing and journal what comes to mind. (*Spirit = anything you feel connected to is bigger than yourself. (God, Universe, earth, nature, family, love, friendship, meaning, etc.).
  • Reflect on the above answers by writing down whatever comes to mind without judgment and without a need to change anything.  Be with what is with curiosity, kindness, and interest. Remember, this is a check-in of how things are now - it is not a fixed status quo or a general description of you; it’s just a temporary state you can be curious about. An example: Instead of saying “I am frustrated”, rather say “I am Nolan, and currently, I am experiencing feelings of frustration.”

When we regularly check in with ourselves in this way, we learn to notice, and be with our own complexity.  It also deepens our relationships with others – because the more we can notice and be non-judgmentally curious about our patterns, the more we can do the same with others.  In this way, we learn to mindfully regulate how we show up in the complex systems we are part of.   

We hope you will try this practice. Let us know how it goes!

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