Presence is a fundamental, but often overlooked, principle of productivity. It is the foundational underpinning of the other core skills required to create our best work.
If you want to create work that feels meaningful to you and has an impact on others, you must start by bringing a loving presence to your work. This loving presence is what deepens our connection to ourselves and to others, allowing us to cultivate empathy, so we can hear and feel what is needed and how we can serve.
Cultivating this loving presence is also the place where we most often fall down. We often go through our days on autopilot, forgetting our reason for doing what we do in the first place.
In a recent talk on Radical Love, Tara Brach said,
We cannot interact empathetically unless we know how to quiet our minds, step outside our habitual conditioning, and listen to each other in a different way.
The first step to changing these habitual patterns is awareness: finding the barriers we build that block us from opening to the present moment.
In her talk on Radical Love, Tara shared some of the ways we do this, which I’ve summarized below with some of my insights.
The 5 Biggest Barriers That Block Your Best Work
(1) The Trance of Thinking
To be clear, thinking is not bad. Nobody is saying to stop thinking, and you couldn’t even if you tried. It’s the function of the mind to have thoughts.
AND …. we get lost in thoughts.
The barrier we create to presence is not merely from “thinking” but the incessant inner dialogue, the thoughts, scenarios, planning, and debating that happens in our mind.
If you’re like me, you can quickly cross the line from “thinking” to “overthinking” to “down the rabbit hole” without realizing it.
And if you’re like me, perhaps you’re habituated to take refuge in the mind because that’s your safe place. When we are taught that our emotions are “too much” and that it’s not safe to show emotion, we escape to the mind.
The problem is that when we are lost in the trance of thinking we cut ourselves off from listening to our bodies, which offer us deep wisdom. When we take refuge in the safety of our mind, we cut off our ability to connect to others.
Related: 7 Problems With Thinking
Judgment is a subset of thinking. It is a pattern of thought that makes another person “wrong” or “bad.”
Some of our judgment is implicit, a deeply ingrained conditioning that some people or groups are superior or inferior because of characteristics such as race, class, religion, social status, job, age, marital status, gender, or a combination of any of these.
Judgment can also be a form of armoring, a defense mechanism to protect ourselves when we feel hurt or vulnerable.
For example, if your friend walks into the room and doesn’t come over to say hello, you might feel slighted. Instead of being with the feelings that arise for you, you might cover your pain by jumping into judgment, for example by thinking (or telling another friend): She’s so preoccupied with herself.
It’s crucial to recognize that any judgment in our system armors our hearts and blocks us from true presence and connection.
This includes judgment towards ourselves.
Just as we cannot fully connect with others when we feel superior to others, we also cannot fully connect when we feel inferior to them.
Related: 3 Mindset Shifts to Eliminate Judgment and Criticism and 7 Ways to Respond to Self-Judgment
(3) An Agenda
Anytime we walk into a situation with an agenda, we block ourselves from full presence to what is showing up.
An agenda could mean we want something from the person, we are attached to a specific outcome or result, or we want to make sure our voice is heard on a topic.
What we want from the other person can vary. Most of us have experienced what it feels like to be on the receiving end of a sales person who was trying to “close the sale.” That person wanted the sale and whatever it would give them.
But wanting doesn’t have to be material. We might want attention, approval, affection, assistance, love, connection, time
Attachment to our agenda keeps us focused on the result we are after rather than on the person in front of us. When we want something from another person, we see the person as an object in our way, which prevents us from truly connecting.
Related: Speaking Up, Deep Listening, and the Art of Real Productivity
Two crucial distinctions to keep in mind regarding agendas:
(a) ANY agenda can be a barrier to presence.
Here are two ways this can show up:
An agenda of service can be a barrier to presence.
Ironically, as I was writing this piece I had a conversation with a co-working friend who shared a challenge about their blogging practice.
Having faced a similar challenge I immediately wanted to jump in to offer insight that I knew could be helpful. The moment I grabbed onto the thought I wanted to share with my friend, I lost presence and could no longer fully attune to what was most needed in the moment.
An agenda unrelated to the current situation can be a barrier to presence.
Our agenda doesn’t even need to be related to the person in front of us. Your agenda might be to get lunch, or a glass of water, or to get to your meeting on time.
When we’re wrapped up in our singular focus of what we “need to accomplish,” the person in front of us becomes an obstacle in our path and we miss the opportunity to attune to what is needed right now.
(b) There is almost always an agenda
As Tara points out, it’s human nature that we’re wanting all the time. This is universal and natural. So there’s always this block to full open-hearted presence. The point isn’t to make this wanting bad, but to be aware of it.
To the degree that the other person is an object of wanting, we can’t relate to their wholeness. We can’t relate to their whole being and we can’t relate from our whole being. — Tara Brach
(4) Anger and Regret
Although Tara didn’t mention this one in this talk, it strikes me that in some ways this is at the opposite end of the spectrum of having an agenda.
Whereas an agenda keeps us out of the present moment through a focus on the future, anger and regret keep us focused on the past.
Although anger and regret can often be catalysts to action by fueling our fire to get things done as a way to prove ourselves, they can also lead to blame, resentment, or shame, which are judgments about others or ourselves. (See #2 above.)
As with an agenda, the anger and regret need not be related to the current situation. Energy is contagious. When we feel strong emotions about something in our lives, those emotions can become a barrier to presence in other areas.
Related: 7 Tips For Dealing With Anger
Perhaps the most obvious barrier to presence is fear.
Fear triggers our fight-flight-freeze response: we may lash out in judgment, retreat to protect ourselves, or do nothing.
One of our greatest fears is the fear of being judged by others; we fear being rejected, left out of the pack.
As Tara notes:
Fear shuts down our capacity to learn, to be fully mindful, and to be fully open-hearted.
If you’re still on the fence about how being open-hearted can help you do better work, pay attention to that first point:
Fear shuts down our capacity to learn.
Part of the process of creating our best work is to create experiments and learn from them. Otherwise how do you know what your best work is? When we are in fear states, we are less likely to create these experiments (because they feel risky), and even when we do, we won’t be able to learn from them objectively.
Related: The 3 Biggest Fears of Creative Entrepreneurs and How to Work Through Fear
2 Important Takeaways About Our Blocks to Presence
There are so many ways we block ourselves from presence; this list is just a starting point.
As you reflect on this list, you might think of other ways you build barriers that disconnect you from yourself and from others. And, if you’re like me, you might be tempted to judge yourself for this.
So I want to leave you with two crucial takeaways:
(1) You are not alone
It’s human nature to create these barriers. We are wired to have wants and fears, and to armor. Judging ourselves only deepens the separation we feel. The more we can share what we see in ourselves, the more we see that we all have these barriers.
(2) These barriers reflect something that wants attention
Awareness is the first step to change. Seeing the places we armor and separate is not the ending point; it’s the starting point — an invitation for further inquiry and exploration. The barriers that we erect are messengers directing us inward to our own spaces of vulnerability.