I often find that seemingly disparate books and essays awaken deep connections within me and the world, which is one of the main reasons I advocate reading several things concurrently.

My two sources at the moment are the science fiction masterpiece The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, and a recent publication, The Trauma of Everyday Life by Michael Epstein, Ph.D.  The former chronicles the experiences of a man as he works to understand the truly alien people of Winter, and to re-examine his understanding of love, while the latter uses the teaches of Buddhism and modern psychiatry to understand the inherent trauma of being human.  What could they possibly have in common, and how does it relate to the new year?

Epstein notes that Buddhism assumes the following about trauma:

  1. Trauma happens to everyone, unavoidably.  It is part of being alive.
  2. In order to move past it, one must first acknowledge its reality.

There are other observations as well, but these struck me as the most important.  Epstein relays several anecdotes in which renowned Buddhist teachers remind their students of the primacy of acknowledging the present.  To see the present with a clear-eyed fullness enables students of Buddhism to move not beyond their trauma, but through it.  The only way out is through.

Le Guin, meanwhile, paints a picture of an alien society in which the year always is and always remains Year One.  Unlike earth, about to move from 2013 to 2014, the year in Winter is always the same.  It is the past that grows further distant, while the future remains continually in the future; the future never arrives.  Tonight, the calendar would remain Year One, while 2013 would become “one year ago” or “last year”.

We do this in part, but not as a matter of concept.  As a result of Winter’s different perspective, the ambassador Genly Ai (from Earth) encounters a society “more generally concerned with presence than with progress.”

The two authors write about the same thing, in different contexts and ways.  We must have the presence of the people of Winter in order to possess the clear-eyed acknowledgement of our trauma (and joy!).  How often have you worked with someone, or had a friend or loved one, for that matter, who could not be brought to acknowledge the present reality?  Or does that, perhaps, describe you?

So how do we do it?  How do we actually live with more presence?  My decade of experience in coaching and consulting reminds me that while everyone needs to develop a unique approach, a few things seem to work for everyone.  They won’t surprise you, but they do require some discipline to put into action.

  1. Get to know your body.  Exercise regularly, eat well, and get enough sleep.  Maybe try a 3-day juice reboot (my wife and I did this last month and each lost 7 pounds).
  2. Get to know your mind.  Read books.  Read blogs (like this one).  Challenge your brain capacity and functioning; it’ll teach you a lot about how you think.
  3. Find your meditative state.  For some people, exercise is meditative.  Or maybe you need to get a yoga mat and sit still for 15 minutes.  But I always recommend to my clients that they develop a practice of some sort that encourages stillness.  This will put you in touch with your thoughts and will de-numb you from the stimuli of the day.
  4. Remember that you might die tomorrow.  Some view this as morbid, but I don’t (and neither does Epstein).  Treating today like it actually matters is what going through things is all about.
  5. Be kind to yourself and to others.  In short, nobody likes an a**hole.  Including you!
  6. Figure out what you like, and do it every day.  There’s no reason to wait, and no time for regrets.  Don’t know what you like?  There are a plethora of books and sources to look into.  I like Steering by Starlight by Martha Beck.

Le Guin’s and Epstein’s themes coalesced at just the right time for this post.  I find it meaningful that they wouldn’t have done so had I not known through experience that immersing myself in ideas and concepts restores and invigorates me.  I follow my own advice, and will seek to live this new year with renewed presence.

I wish you all the same.