The Value of the Person Next to You Right Now

I recently completed a Master’s in Public Administration and I spend a lot of my time thinking about government, governance, and the world of politics. One of the things I frequently hear in podcasts is how successful politicians have this ability to focus in on the people they speak with to truly connect to them, make them feel like they are the only person in the world, and earn their trust. Becoming a successful politician requires the ability to connect with others and it really stands out to us when we meet someone who can exceptionally connect with us and make us feel like the center of the world.

 

I think about this often because it is something I am actually not that good at. I want to be better at connecting with people and engaging with them more deeply and thoroughly. I want to be the kind of person that people think about and remember deep engagement with. The challenge for me is that I am often very distracted, and I don’t always do a great job focusing in on the moment and on the person I am speaking with. Luckily, Thich Nhat Hanh writes about ways of thinking that can help with my troubles in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness.

 

Hanh writes, “The most important person is always the person you are with, who is right before you, for who knows if you will have dealings with any other person in the future?” This quote is powerful because it reminds me that I don’t know when any given moment will be my last moment. It focuses on the only thing I have, which is the present moment, and reminds me to make that moment meaningful and valuable for myself and those whom I am lucky enough to interact. The quote alone is not going to change my behavior, but it can help me stay focused on the things which matter most, and that piece of mindfulness can help me think about my habits and the triggers that set me up to be focused or distracted.

 

Hanh continues, “The most important pursuit is making the person standing at your side happy, for that alone is the pursuit of life.” Looking beyond the person in front of you or speaking to you now to see who may be more interesting to talk to ruins your connection with the person in front of you. Thinking only of yourself and approaching another person as a transaction, as if you will only speak with them and give them your attention if they prove themselves worthy of your investment diminishes the quality of your relationships. When you instead treat other people as if  they were the most important thing in your life, you can become more connected with them and learn more about yourself and the possibilities of the world. This is what Hanh is describing when he says that making the person with you happy is the pursuit of life. Engaging with the person you are present with does not just look good for you, and it does not just make the other person happy, but it truly increases the value of the present moment and enriches the lives of you and the other person.

Compartmentalizing our Experiences is Impossible

Recently I have been thinking a lot about the present moment and I have been working on making the present moment its own moment in time, unconstrained by the past. I am working to remember lessons from Marcus Aurelius and to remember that all I control is my mind and reactions to the world at this moment. At the same time, however, I have recently ready Daniel Pink’s book When and I’m currently reading Cal Newport’s book Deep Work. Aurelius encourages us to be focused on the present moment, and to leave the past in the past and let the future come without thinking too far ahead. He stresses the importance of separating ourselves from the past in order to do the most that we can with the present moment.

 

Research by Pink and Newport, however, suggests that this might not be possible, and that even if we try our best to stay mentally focused on the present, the past unavoidably impacts the way our brains operate in the present. Pink studied the science of timing and examined the ways that the body and mind react to the world as we move through the day. He finds that the time of meetings, of intellectually challenging work, of exercise, and sleep all impact the way we think, feel, and move about the world.

 

Newport in his book looks for a way to perform at his best and seeks to understand how habit, performance, attention, and experience are all linked. He finds evidence to suggest that our minds are not very good at switching between tasks, and that what we have done in the past directly shapes our brains and our performance in the present. The habits we build and the effort we put toward developing our attention either enhance or limit our ability in the future to think deeply and focus on a given thing. What his research, along with Pink’s, finds, is that our current experience and state of mind is directly linked to our past and to rhythms and experiences throughout the day and throughout our lives.

 

The insight from Pink and Newport comes from scientific study of reality, but has also been discovered by those who meditate. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote about the inseparability of the world in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness. He states, “The great body of reality is indivisible. It cannot be cut into pieces with separate existences of their own.” the experience we have at one moment can not be compartmentalized and separated from another moment. At any given time we may be doing one thing and not another, but our experience of that moment is to some degree shaped by the experiences we have had throughout the day and in our past. In stoic philosophy, there can be a tendency to want to split what we do and how we experience the world into separate categories, but Pink, Newport, and Hanh suggest that this would be a mistake and may not be possible at all.

 

I don’t think we have to throw out the ideas of Aurelius and stoicism, but we must understand as we focus on the present moment how it relates to our past and to our future. We can perform our best if we think, moment to moment, about how we are connected to other times in our lives and how we can maximize our performance and experience given the time of day and the activities we have been involved with or will be involved with. This drives greater intentionality in our lives which in turn drives better experiences and a better connection to the present moment.

Mindful Work

At work, I have often had times where I think past the duty or item in front of me to what I am going to do afterward and what other tasks I can complete or work on once the current task is over. I race through, counting the actions remaining until I have finished everything with the task in front of me. The problem is, I end up taking short-cuts, working quickly and making errors, and not taking the time to truly think through what I am doing. This prevents me from really learning from my work and opens me to distraction.

 

Our work habits are discussed by Thich Nhat Hanh in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness. In his book, Hanh looks at the importance of maintaining awareness of our thoughts and the importance of being mindful of our attention and focus. The more we can be connected to the present moment and the more we can be mindful of our actions and environment, the more we can truly live. This helps us avoid the feeling that we are being pulled in a million directions and helps us avoid the feeling that we cannot make the changes we want to make or accomplish what we desire in our life. Mindfulness is a tool that helps us be intentional with how we live and helps us find a mental balance and stability that can drive a meaningful life.

 

One of the suggestions in the book is, “Enjoy and be one with your work. Without this, the day of mindfulness will be of no value at all. The feeling that any task is a nuisance will soon disappear if it is done in mindfulness.” I know that my work is an area where the stories I tell myself about who I am, what I am doing, and who I think I should be interfere with my ability to do great work. My work is also an area where distraction and a lack of focus has lead to diminished quality and lessened efficiency while I try to complete meaningful items.

 

Mindfulness alone probably won’t solve all of my problems at work, but when I read through Hanh’s quote above, I am reminded that when I focus solely on my work and live in the present, my distractions will be reduced and my desire to simply fly through my work  to get to the next task will also diminish. This should create a space for me to produce higher quality work and hopefully work more efficiently and effectively. Improving my focus and being mindful of my work will give me more pride in doing a great job, and that will help my work be more meaningful, even if I think there are better things I could be doing. With a background of great work and a mindful approach to my day, I will also have a stronger foundation to stand on when speaking with my manager about what has been going well for me, about what I could improve, and about the direction I think my work should take for me to be more impactful and to do more meaningful work. Without mindfulness, my work certainly won’t be the strongest version of work that I can produce, and I also won’t have the awareness to recognize how my work and duties could be improved to make me more impactful to the organization as a whole.

Creating History

Physics often times does not align with what we expect. But really, there is no reason that the physics we experience here on our planet with our limited senses should lead us to perfectly predict how physics and reality play out across the universe. Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn is an excellent physics book because it takes readers with little scientific background through the complex paradoxes and challenges of physics to explore the furthest reaches of our scientific thought. Author Amanda Gefter herself is not a physicist, and learned to understand physics first as a hobby, and later (as detailed in her book) as a bit of an obsessive search for the universe’s ultimate building block.

Along her journey, Gefter introduces us to John Wheeler, a physicist who wrote with an almost poetic style when describing the complex science that he worked on. Wheeler helps us understand that one of the things within human experience that is so fundamental to how we view reality, is not quite as solid as we would expect. He is quoted  by Gefter writing, “We used to think that the world exists ‘out there’ independent of us.” When we study physics we are actually adjusting and changing the past. We are not looking at an independent system that existed before us a certain way. When we measure and observe the past, we actually can change it from the present. This is explained by Gefter with further help from Wheeler by describing experiments with photons to measure how sub-atomic particles travel. Light is made of photons, but it acts as a wave, with probabilities based on the wave function determining where the photons of the light will be. Once, however, we make an observation of a single photon, the probabilistic wave function ceases to exist, and the photon acts as a particle, and not as a wave. Up until we make our measurement however, the photon is a series of probabilities and behaves as a wave, the same way a wave behaves in the open ocean, and not as a particle on a direct path.

Gefter writes, “Delayed-choice experiments have been carried out in laboratories, and each time they’ve worked just as wheeler suggested. It’s an established scientific fact: measurements in the present can rewrite history. No, not rewrite. Just write. Prior to observation, there is no history, just a haze of possibility, a past waiting to be born. ‘There is no more remarkable feature of this quantum world than the strange coupling it brings about between future and past,’ Wheeler wrote. If observations we make today can create a billion-year-old past, so, too, can observations made in the future help build the universe we see today.”

In the quote above Gefter is describing the same experiments with photons, but looking at photos billions of light years away from us that had to travel across the universe and split on one side or another of a black hole, universe, or other star to reach one of our telescopes. The path taken by a given photon is best described by the probabilistic wave function with all the features, such as frequency and amplitude, of physical waves that we can observe on earth. But once we make an observation in a telescope to measure the path the photon took around a galaxy, black hole, or star, the wave function no longer describes the photon, and the photon has to have followed a set pathway, a pathway that was not determined until it reached our planet, billions of years after it was emitted from its original source.

The physics is beyond my ability to describe, but the key point is that we are human and have limited brain space and experiential ability. We can only experience first hand so many sensations and realities. More possibilities exist than we can experience and understand. Thinking that we can ever describe reality in the most comprehensive manner is a great dream for scientists and physicists to work toward, but we will always be limited by the fact that we are human and can only experience the world in so many ways. Things that we take to be so certain, like history and the passage of time, seem to be interconnected with the present and the future in ways that we can’t quite explain right now.

The Power of the Present

Marcus Aurelius believed in the power of the mind and our ability to control our thoughts to overcome our challenges and find peace with ourselves and the situations we find ourselves in.  In his book Meditations he wrote down his personal thoughts and struggles so that he could return to what he had learned from philosophers and life experience. He kept the book as a journal that he could use to help himself learn and grow through difficult situations, and one topic he returns to throughout Meditations is the idea of being present in the current moment.  Aurelius wrote,

 

“Do not disturb thyself by thinking of the whole of thy life. Let not thy thoughts at once embrace all the various troubles which thou mayest expect to befall thee: but on every occasion ask thyself, What is there in this which is intolerable and past bearing? for thou wilt be ashamed to confess. In the next place remember that neither the future nor the past pains thee, but only the present. But this is reduced to a very little, if thou only circumscribest it, and chidest thy mind, if it is unable to hold out against even this.”

 

His paragraph speaks about  recognizing our present moment and taking our mind off events in the past that we cannot change and away from the possibilities of the future that we cannot predict.   He also recognizes that our present moment is the only moment that can truly impact where our life is heading, and reminds the reader to look at the present moment with all the clarity possible.  Seeing each moment as it exists right now helps us change the way we think and ultimately change our perception of the present moment.

 

Living in the present is a challenge because we are constantly pulled toward the history of our  past while simultaneously pushed toward a future that we cannot see. We bring the lessons, pains, emotions, and fears of our past with us as we move toward a future that we desire and wish to be better than our current circumstance.  All of this, Aurelius would argue, ultimately fails us on our quest to become the best version of ourselves possible.  Worrying about what has befallen us allows our past to impact our future, and stressing the future takes us away from the present, preventing us from being able to maximize our current actions.  For Aurelius, in stoic fashion, there is only the present, and it is up to us to recognize the present and take all the necessary steps to create the perfect present for ourselves regardless of our history or future plans.

 

What the Roman emperor also builds into his thoughts about the present moment is our ability to choose how we wish to experience the present.  We can decide that the present action, fortune, or obstacle in front of us is insurmountable or an aid for us on our journey.  If we approach life shying away from our challenges and looking only for what is comfortable, then we will never achieve our fullest potential.  What Aurelius in his quote above urges us to do is forget our past and future and focus on our ability to be great in this current moment.  It is only our opinion which determines whether anything is good for us or negative, and it is in our power of mind to decide how we will react to challenges and behave when faced with arduous tasks. Ultimately, we create the reality of our present moment.