Clarity in Presence
Remember who you are. ~ Mufasa (The Lion King)
To experience untrammelled presence, watch an animal in the wild one day. Whether it’s a giraffe delicately munching the leaves of a golden acacia tree, a lion walking deliberately away from the camera, a squirrel pausing its play to nibble on tiny berries, a nesting brahminy kite swooping low and fast to collect a twig from the ground, or the dark shape of a bat flying overhead in hazy twilight. From the vast savannah plains of a Kenyan safari in the beautiful Taita Hills Sanctuary over Christmas, to a crisp January day at home in Bangalore, each had an unmistakeable presence all their own. And every one of them radiated out in a heartbeat a felt sense that was clear and luminous. It reminded me that presence can be so ephemeral and yet have such a lasting impact. It’s what people mean, when they want to work on their presence: to become more inspiring, to be more connected and to feel more confident. So if you’re a lion, masquerading as a mouse doesn’t work; it’s essential that you discover your right size if you want your roar to be felt and heard.
Clarity in presence brings the essence of who we are into all the spaces we inhabit and through all the ways we communicate. It is an elemental part of our presence, the way a drop of milk enhances a mug of golden Darjeeling tea. Richard Rudd describes clarity as the softest, subtlest truth of who we are; for me that means an authentic expression of ourselves that shows up in a powerful embodied way. In his book Presence-Based Coaching, Doug Silsbee speaks of presence as a felt experience of timelessness, connectedness and a larger truth. It’s a definition that resonates because it acknowledges how special each human being is and what it can mean when we learn to be more integrated in ourselves. To remember who you are is to bring greater clarity in your presence by engaging your mind, body and heart in a way that is spirited and intentional.
Over the years, while coaching clients on leadership presence and through my own learning journey, I’ve noticed how clarity can appear with blinding certainty, accompanied by a brighter, stronger presence when for instance, we make clear decisions, when we have more agency, when we live purposefully, when we let go of the shadows. The paradox of presence is that we almost always live with levels of uncertainty, anxiety and fear. These emotions will show up in our bodies in ways that can shrink us and dim our light. When we find the courage to embrace these shadows and discover our own voice, we experience clarity in presence. If you’ve struggled with that, as I often have, here are some ways to help remember who you are:
Sharpen Your Gifts: Discovering the layers in knowledge and learning can be rewarding in so many ways. For clarity to flower into purposeful thought, speech and action, take a look at the realm of mind and matter in your life – what can you make tangible for yourself so that your presence resonates with it? We begin by engaging our thinking brain. First, the questions you ask yourself will help to shape the quality of your life so that it shows up in you. What are you still hungry to learn? What did you give up to tick the box of life? What creative expression wants to emerge that would help you to feel alive? Where do you feel you need more clarity to move forward? A senior manager I once coached told me about his love for numbers and math, describing working on math problems as the closest way he’d experienced truth and purity. As he spoke, his eyes lit up and he eagerly made a commitment to do more of what he loved; in that moment, we both knew that he’d remembered who he really was.
Second, become curious about why it matters. For example, when we want to get better at ‘communication skills’, it may really mean we want help to frame a thought to align with what we care about, or support to have that difficult conversation we’ve been putting off, or to be able to take a firm stand in what we believe in. When we have a for the sake of what we are committing to, it brings clarity and resolve, showing up in our presence as strength, grace and that elusive quality, gravitas. Third, challenge yourself frequently, be your own devil’s advocate to ask what if and why (or why not), to check in with yourself how you feel about your choices. This morning I noticed a spider drawing a gossamer silk skein across a potted plant all the way up a precarious angle to the roof and I marvelled at its courage and sheer instinct to get there. As that strand glinted in the sun, I realized that’s really what it takes to fill us up, to stay with what brings us alive, an inner fire, living from the heart. Choose a practice from the ones below that will support you to sharpen your gifts.
Begin a daily journal practice: writing is a powerful way to bring us back to ourselves. Use it to ask yourself questions, challenge your assumptions and write down what you feel about all of it. Whether it’s half a page or three, you can be sure that it will unleash your ability to take what you care about forward.
Go for a long walk: walks fire up your blood, bringing inspiration and creativity; moving your body intentionally helps to ground your purpose, remind yourself of what you care about and practice sustaining what you commit to.
Reflect on the primary domains of your life: work, relationship and self. What questions will help you to determine the quality of your life in each of these? What do you need to learn? What do you need to let go? And more often than not, what questions do you need to stay with for a while?
Soften your container: We wear our armour proudly, particularly if we are women, celebrating the strength we’ve gained over time, through the rough phases that have come our way. I’ve been one of those, inheriting a steel backbone from all the women in my family. It’s served us well too, as I’m sure it has all those who can relate to being strong. Being able to endure hardship, becoming as tough as nails to better be able to deal with the world, showing a calm exterior when in reality there’s much turbulence within, these qualities are celebrated. However, when we armour up to face the world, our bodies tighten, contract and become hard, offering up a presence that is rigid, edgy or tense, with language and behaviour that mirrors this state. Neuroscience tells us how much of that is about living in a state of threat all the time. There is much literature available today to help understand why we react the way we do and what is the impact of traumatic experiences on our bodies. In The Body Keeps The Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk begins his deeply enriching book by telling us about how we continue to have traces of such experiences over generations, impacting our capacity for joy and intimacy and on our biology and immune systems.
The barriers we erect around ourselves, around our hearts, take many years to build, and it’s hard to bring those down all at once. Our longing to be fully seen carries the shadow of our fear to be fully seen. Anaïs Nin puts it beautifully in this quote: And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. When we seek more meaningful connection with others, when we ache to receive and give the love that is present in our hearts, softening our own container becomes necessary, to allow others in and to allow ourselves out. Vulnerability has at its deepest core, a strength that is inbuilt in your essence already; and love is the other superpower that will open your heart. Clarity in presence is when your light invites others to walk with you, holding hands, rather than behind you. Try these practices to soften your container and then notice what shifts in your presence.
Be curious about your armour: hold it with love rather than fight to get it off. That really means reflect on why it’s there in the first place. Breathe, sit with a loved one if that supports you and be with it for a while, without judgement.
Listen to your heart: I love this practice, learned from a mentor coach. Sit in a quiet place for a while, close to nature if possible. Place your hands over your heart, allow your head to drop a bit as you pay attention to your heartbeat and ask the question that’s stirring in you. And then listen in silence for a while, feeling what your heart wants you to feel. Follow up this practice with some journal writing, if you like.
Find a safe space to cry, whenever you need to: don’t fight it, don’t apologise for it, don’t hide it. Trust the process your body needs to heal itself; tears only help the light to get back inside.
Seal your edges: Every now and then, remind yourself that it takes energy, effort, to show up as inspiring, spirited and committed. Managing energy, across the dimensions of body, mind, heart and spirit, can very often be tricky in a world that asks much of us both at home and at work. And tired bodies, hearts and minds can wind up having the opposite effect that we intended. If we are in survival or burnout mode, demotivated, listless or worse, it will impact our health along with the way we think, feel and act. Energy leaks can be alarming if we ignore them. And we typically pay the price with our bodies. At a recent client workshop, it was both heartening and sobering to listen to the group acknowledging and highlighting how critical this conversation was becoming to performance and to leadership presence. When we reflect on this, we often look at where we want to be, aspirational, rather than where we are right now. Beginning to acknowledge what is, learning what leaks our energy, brings clarity to presence. This means that when we do get tired, which we will, we just get better at giving ourselves what we need to bounce back.
When we remember who we are, we get clearer about our own boundaries and make space for our needs and values. There’s a reason you often read about successful leaders who have morning routines that include quiet time, exercise, reading, writing, meditation, family time and healthy breakfasts — all these support them to manage their energy, to become clearer, healthier and more purposeful. So begin today to check in with yourself every now and then, how are you doing? It’s a small step. From there, consider the commitments you want to make that will help you focus more and stay energised. Ask what drains you, makes you feel helpless and powerless? What gives you energy? And what might you need to feel fuller and more joyful? Practice sealing your edges regularly with the suggestions below.
Reflect on your boundaries: what are they? Who/what do you give permission to, to go past them? How does that impact your energy? Use your journal to write on this, to help bring more clarity to the layers these questions will uncover.
Meditate: a sitting practice even as little as 10 minutes a day will help you stay present to yourself and focus more clearly on what you care about. Quiet time works as well.
Nourish yourself: what will help to fill you up, to nourish the corners of your soul and heart? Give yourself that as much and as regularly as you can. For me, it’s alone time, poetry, nature, writing, reading and body care – rest, salt scrubs, gym workouts, essential oils and chocolate.
And when clarity feels like it’s a little distance away, read this quote by Rainer Maria Rilke: Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try and love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually , without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. It’s where I am right now – living the question. Somehow, that thought serves to align me with what I care about, to remind me who I am. I hope it does the same for you too.