Your Presence is Requested
Does this sound familiar?
“Hey! How are you?”
“Oh…I’m super busy!”
“Super busy, eh? Me too”.
I think this exchange paints an accurate portrait of our usual mindset when it comes to managing the steady torrent of demands we face in our day to day lives. And so when we arrive at the end of another ‘busy’ day, rather than taking some time to reflect and decompress, our minds continue to race – whether revisiting events of the past or filling out the next to do list. No wonder we pay scant attention to the Here and Now – to being Present.
Which brings me to performance artist Marina Abramovic. In 2010 the MOMA hosted a retrospective of her four decade career titled ‘The Artist is Present’. While everyone knew she would show up for the exhibition, no one could have imagined how much she would show up! And so each day for 79 days she would enter a cavernous room, take a seat in a hard wooden chair, and simply stare into the eyes of the person across from her. In total, she would gaze into the eyes of 1545 total strangers for 750 hours, without aid or distraction. Hour after hour, day after day, for nearly three months. Each time she looked down, gathered herself, and then looked up and into the eyes of a fresh new face.
“…There’s so many incredible things when you look in somebody else’s eyes. Because in the gaze with that total stranger, that you never even say one word – everything happened.” – Marina Abramovic
In his book Stillness is the Key, author Ryan Holiday uses Marina’s performance to pose a question: “Is it really that hard – to be present? What’s so special about that?” But apparently for many who had the opportunity to take a seat opposite Marina, and stare into her eyes for half an hour, it was something of a religious experience. “Many viewers cried. Each one said the hours in line were worth it. It was like looking in a kind of mirror, where they could feel their own life for the first time.”
Marina said of her art: “The proposition here is just to empty the self. To be able to be present.” She also said “People don’t understand that the hardest thing is actually to do something that is close to nothing. It demands all of you…there is no object to hide behind. It’s just you.”
In her book Social Chemistry, author Marissa King says that humans have a profound need to feel seen, heard, and understood. But it is a privilege we are not frequently granted. She too cites the example of Marina, noting how she devoted herself to treat every person she encountered with the same attention and respect, and how rare it is to for someone to engage with you like nothing else matters.
Marissa believes that fleeting moments – like those that Abramovic tried to create – determine the quality of our interactions. “Our bodies respond physically when we are in high-quality interactions: blood pressure lowers, heart rate slows, oxytocin is released. You can literally feel a high-quality connection.” It is her belief that short interactions can have a transformative effect on our life and sense of well-being and that ultimately, brief moments are central to our emotional experience.
I believe the quality and frequency of our interactions have been eroded by our addiction to technology. Our devices offer a convenient means to ensure we are never bored, and to opt out of the interactions that might take place were our noses not pressed up against a screen. Then came Covid 19 and well, socializing took another major body blow, not to mention how it amped up our collective anxiety! Talk about the perfect storm for isolation and loneliness!
So where to from here? I believe that now, more than ever, it is important to be mindful about how we connect so we can find a relief valve through the connection we make with others. Let’s open ourselves to being present so that we can appreciate the benefits from high-quality interactions. This may call for us to shift perspective and to look at chance encounters as an opportunity, rather than an inconvenience. Make the effort to greet someone with a smile. Even with a mask on, they will be able to tell! Let’s appreciate how these interactions make us feel and lengthen it out. Savour the moment. Allow yourself to be present. I have every confidence that your to do list and cell phone won’t mind waiting.