Being Present

A few weeks ago my daughter’s school choir gave its annual concert. Which sounds rather grand but is really just half an hour of singing, with most of the students and teachers present but only a handful of parents. You can identify the parents immediately: They are the ones who enjoy the concert with outstretched arms and phones clutched in their raised hands. This scene reproduces itself everywhere. Why is it that so many of us feel this overwhelming need to record and store our peak experiences for later? Box up and store as much as we can from our children’s life?

Awful amounts of data are generated (who will ever go through all their 500GB of hard disc storage and 1 TB of cloud storage?) … while life is perceived not just through a lens but through a reality-distorting sensor. I’ve fallen into this trap too, of course I have, being a proud parent myself and wanting to share our daughter’s accomplishments and not larch-like singing voice with her equally proud but usually absent grandparents and father.

Only, as soon as you raise your arms and click on the record icon, you start missing out on the experience. You can’t even clap in time when your hands are already full. It’s not the same as being truly engaged and present, as being focused on what is happening … or being focused on what your phone or camera is doing, experiencing the important moments of your life indirectly. Of course I’m stating the obvious here, as most of life is like that now: Pixelated and stored somewhere to peruse again later (or not). 

A danger of this way of living is that it can replace reality in ways that are more worrisome than just the fact that trying to focus on two things at the same time can be rather hard. For what if we start measuring the value of our lives by the amount of experiences we have managed to put in a neat little box, either to frame it and put it on the wall, or to share with our online friends – as a facade that can often serve to hide the way we are really feeling about life?

While we struggle with questions about our purpose in life, and trying to cope with feelings of lack of self-worth, all too often this can lead to a seemingly contradictory but overwhelming desire to be present and seen. If we’re not comfortably connected to everything around us, as an essential part of Being, it seems we compensate this with posting the minute details of our lives. I mean, really, have you ever told your friends or colleagues what exactly you had for breakfast? No? So why would your 435 Facebook friends be interested in seeing it!?

And so, contradictory as it may seem, with all the recent technological advancements that allow us to communicate globally in ways that our ancestors could only have dreamed of, there is also a very real danger of escapism, of getting disconnected from the here and now rather than actually living our life for real. Instead, we relish the control that technology can give us over reality. It’s that desire to, maybe, prove that we exist, that we’re living and doing something, anything. We try to leave something behind, some proof of existence.

Personally, I feel this is a self-perpetuating problem. What we are trying to detach ourselves from, what we are trying so hard to whitewash and white noise over is actually our detachment itself. Whenever we sit down – whether it’s for meditation or for an attempt at plant communication or just to sit still and observe – we notice what is otherwise drowned out: The big hole left by all that we miss. The huge gaping hole of detachment, our lack of connection and understanding. And, of course, all the emotional upheaval connected to it. In a world where distractions are not only everywhere but actively pushed at us if we don’t actively resist and avoid them, it is just too easy and too normal to not engage but seek oblivion in the next Thing.

I don’t think it is just technological advancement that is to blame for this trend; there must be some enormous appeal to not wanting to be where you are, to detaching so completely. Truly connecting to something, no matter whether to another being or activity or even our own senses, means we have to open ourselves. You can’t connect through a carapace. You have to shed your amour, lower your walls, and let whatever is out there in. Scary! We are not used to being so vulnerable, to be really seen. So we hide behind our cameras and our phones and cultivate superficial virtual Facebook-friended-ships rather than real friendships.

And so I guess what I am trying to tell you is this: don’t forget to actually LIVE your life, rather than being an avatar in your own virtual reality. You can start doing this right now. The next time you catch yourself consulting a weather app to see what you need to wear put down your phone, shut down your laptop, and go outside or open your window and feel. Is it warm? Cool? Windy? Dry or humid? Light or dark? How does the air smell? Can you still see the moon? The sun? How is the light?

How did it feel to actually experience the weather as it is right now, right outside your window or door? How do you feel, having engaged all your senses instead of a sensor and GPS?

Experiencing ourselves as an admittedly small but intrinsic part of the Great Cycle and Circle of Life, as part of nature, gives us this sense of direction, of belonging, of being an important little wheel in the great order of things.

2019-08-18 10.06.12

Just after I finished writing the first draft of this post, I shuffled around the piles of books in my bedroom when, in one of those delicious instances of synchronicity, I unearthed the lovely book Art Before Breakfast by Danny Gregory. Leafing through it I found this passage:

Be here. Now. Art stops time. When you draw or paint what’s around you, you see it for what it is. Instead of living in a virtual world, as we do most of the time, you will be present in the real one. Instead of focusing on all the things whirring in your head, you will be able to stop, clear your mind, take a deep breath, and just be. You don’t need a mantra or a guru. Or an app. Just a pen.

Well, I couldn’t have put it better!

Now, I won’t outright suggest you take a sketchpad to your kid’s school concert (though by all means do so if you’re comfortable doing it!) – for all my fascination with sketching, my own efforts still woefully fail to resemble any of Danny Gregory’s or his colleagues, so I personally am much too self-conscious to do this under scrutiny – but at home, it’s another wonderful practice.

Show up and be part of your life. Your children will remember the joy on your face and you singing along, when the video you posted will have vanished into the vast recesses of cyberspace or got lost on Cloud 7.


Saille Freeling wandered along spiritual and mystic paths for two decades until she found her home with the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. She calls herself Ovate-in-training; in real life she is a biologist and editor.

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