Having spent most of my life not paying attention to the things that matter, I am keen to learn how to be present. Yet there is a tension: how do we know what is worth being present to? In one sense, when I was young, I was perhaps overly present, just not to the things others around me were. I understood the world of J.R.R. Tolkien, Rush and playing in the woods far better than I did people. Besides having to be home before dark, I don’t recall worrying about whether what I was doing, what I was fully present to (even lost in) was right. It was simply reality.
I suppose what was lost was innocence, though not at the hands of school or work, for one can be present in both. Instead, it was fear–fear of being present to the wrong thing. Daydreamers do not make for productive workers, a lesson reinforced through punishment by teachers and bosses alike. The other decides what is important, and measures you accordingly. Presence is reduced to paying attention, worth equals performance.
Inronically, we not only fail to reject this inversion of sanity, we become adept at it. What matters is not understanding as much as pretending to understand. To succeed (a word whose meaning is inextricably bound to failure as the baseline from which it comes and to which it inevitably returns), we pretend to master what we’re told to. Those who understand not only the material to be paid attention to, but the rules that decide what counts as important, go on to teach others. The small, dying system tries to prop itself up by rewarding those who reinforce its walls and polish the armor.
Yet the universe is immeasurably, perhaps infinitely, bigger. Being present means not being afraid of the consequences of this fact. By definition, there is no important thing to pay attention to, only reality to be open to. Even then, over the longest possible lifespan, we experience only an infinitesimal part. Who are we to make others pay attention to the myopic view from our particular corner? Better to recognize it as such, and be present to the views of each person we do not presently understand.