Here’s a scenario that happens way too frequently: You’re dining out at a restaurant and see a family of four already seated. The dad is on his smartphone, the mom is texting on hers, and each of the kids has their own cellphone, iPod touch, or electronic gaming device…complete with earbuds.* None of them is interacting with the other person who is right in front of them. They are physically present but absent in all the ways that matter.
When you’re driving, waiting in line, or even having a conversation with someone, are you fully there? There seems to be a shortage of “being where we are.” I’m guilty too. I pull out my iPhone to check email or Facebook when I have to wait in line more than two or three minutes. I don’t like feeling like I’m wasting my time. But are boredom or inaction a total waste of time? No. Our minds need to rest…and not just when we are sleeping. Without resting our consciousness, it’s like being in a fitness program that’s all cardio without ever stretching. You minimize the gains and eventually get injured.
Be where you are or beware who you are. If you frequently find it too uncomfortable to sit in the space you are in without responding to distractions like texts or phone calls, reflect on why that is. Is your business pressing on your social time? Is your social time pressing on your family time? Is it difficult being alone with your own thoughts and feelings? Do you have appropriate boundaries? Identify the true cause and work to remedy it.
People can mentally escape their environment with or without an electronic device as an aid. If you are not the person doing the escaping, it’s often hurtful to be “left” alone while in physical proximity of another human being with whom you’re supposed to be connecting. It feels like they are placing greater importance on the other person or thing over you. The hurt and rejection may be intentional or not, or even recognized or not. If you are not giving your full attention to your social partner, you are denying them a precious gift: Your self.
Listen – really listen — to the stories of your partner or children. Ask your family about their day’s events and pay attention to their reply, no matter how mundane or repetitive (yes, even you repeat yourself sometimes but you still want to be heard). At our house, we go around the dinner table and ask each person, “What’s your rose and your thorn?” The rose is the highlight of their day and the thorn is the low point. It’s a nice conversation starter that assures that each person is heard.
A middle school counselor once told me that parents frequently complained that their teenagers didn’t talk to them. He said that teens actually talk all the time, but usually about topics that adults think are silly and not worth listening to. But his advice was to listen patiently to the trivial stuff because your children will develop the habit of talking to you. In between the minor stuff, they’ll eventually reveal important stuff. However, if you’re perceived as a person who doesn’t listen, they’ll stop speaking. And put on their earbuds.
Practice focusing in the moment. Try to pursue mindfulness with the same vigor and pride that you practice multitasking. Slow down, for just a few minutes each day. Learn to silence your mind at will. It takes practice, but you’ll get better at it. Try meditation or prayer or yoga (all of my favorites). Start observing mundane things like how the cream dissolves in your coffee; the movement of the wildflowers beside the road while you’re at a stoplight; or the flapping of a bird’s wings as it flies by. Look into the eyes of the cashier who rings up your merchandise. Actually see the people around you. Be more involved — more cognizant — in the moments as they pass. You are, in this very moment, the youngest you’ll ever be again. Live it to its fullest… which might mean doing it slowly.
Savor the moments that make your life uniquely your own. The more intensity with which you cherish a moment, the more it becomes a true memory. When we are at the end of our days, one of the few things we have to keep us company is our memories. Create as many good ones as you can. They aren’t in a smartphone or on an iPad screen. They are in the creases and corners of your loved one’s eyes and mouth as they laugh or cry. Be fully present with them because your gift is your presence. After you’re gone, it’s those moments that they’ll remember.
Set up some “Presence Rules.” Create “No Electronics” zones and times. For example, we have TV-free dinner time. Unless we’re on a long road trip, my kids aren’t allowed to use electronics in the car (and I’m not supposed to either, as much as possible anyway). I completely avoid making telephone calls when driving my kids to school or when I pick them up so I give them my full, undivided attention in these moments of transition. It’ll be or it’s been hours since I’ve seen them and I want them to know that they are the most precious gifts to me. Remember, it is your actions that convey your true feelings, not your words.
Choose to sit together with loved ones in silence rather than reaching for a method of [electronic] escape. That’s the easy way out. And electronics are always available later; that’s what the DVR, voicemail, and pause button are for. Your children or your partner or your friends are not always going to be there. Recall the lyrics of — or better yet, listen to — the old Cat Stevens song, Cat’s in the Cradle: “When you coming home dad? I don’t know when, But we’ll get together then, You know we’ll have a good time then.” Have your family remember how you were there for them when they wanted you… not just in body, but — as importantly — in mind and spirit.