What we’re reading: What Does It Mean To Be Present?

presentI’m a day late on Children’s Book Week but I hope you will forgive me!

I work in the school library on Fridays, and the best thing about that is that I get to peruse the shelves and get an idea of what is new and popular in the world of children’s literature. If I knew when I was starting out in my adult life what I know now I would have been a children’s librarian. Ah, well, there’s still time for that….

Anyway, a few weeks ago there was a new series on the shelf by Rana DiOrio, “What does it mean to be….?” and the one that particularly caught my eye was What Does It Mean To Be Present? Usually I am underwhelmed by books that try to teach children lofty concepts like presence and environmentalism (a notable exception, The Peace Book by Todd Parr, is one of my favorite children’s books ever written ever). I find that they are usually very preachy and over-simplify things to the point of missing the real truth of their subject. I usually prefer story books that get at these lessons in a more oblique way, like The Forgiveness Garden or Max’s Words.

But this one I love. The illustrations by Eliza Wheeler are and adorable and pleasingly understated while profoundly enhancing the concepts for young children. Harry spent a long time studying the page about “focusing on what’s happening now, instead of thinking about what’s next”, noticing how the girl in the picture was half-heartedly working on her school work while gazing longingly at the playground outside. The book shows instead of tells, presenting examples of presence that are meaningful and doable for children such as listening carefully, tasting your food while you eat slowly, practicing gratitude, and enjoying the feel of your dog’s fur. The book is intended for children, but I know plenty of adults – myself included! – who would benefit from the lessons it contains.

We purchased the NOOK Kids Read-to-Me version of the book and my kids love listening to the child narrator whose voice makes the concepts all that much more accessible for them. And if you need one more thing to love about this book, the publisher, Little Pickle Press (founded and run by Rana DiOrio) is a Certified B Corporation with a commitment to social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency. (If you were looking to buy a dead tree copy of the book you can order directly from the publisher, or my favorite book seller, Better World Books, which is a Certified B Corporation as well.)

The future of the world passes through the family

Calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh

Calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh

The future of the world…passes through the family. ~ Pope John Paul II

Actually the full quote is, “The future of the world and the church passes through the family.” Though I’m not concerned with the future of the church (all due respect to those who are), the recognition that the future is determined by what goes on in our homes is extremely compelling.

Compelling, and a little intimidating.

I chose parenthood and entered into it with the benefit of personal, marital and financial stability. I actively prepared for it and continue to make it my priority. Still, I feel unequal to the task of nurturing two future changemakers. I make mistakes every day. I lose my temper and raise my voice. I work more than I should, and spend less time with my kids than they deserve. I don’t feed them enough fruits and veggies, and sometimes we have pizza three times in a week.

But at least I have a road map when it comes to my own family; I have an idea of what I want to accomplish. My obligation to my own family is clear to the extent that my goals are clear. What is significantly less clear to me is my obligation to the community at large. It is not my responsibility – indeed, not my right – to tell others how to live. Yet I have a deep conviction that our world would be a much better place if people developed a more peaceful approach to life, and I want to facilitate that shift.

If I want to see non-violence in the world, how can I support other families as well as my own?

I work hard to practice non-violence as I understand it. I encourage my own children to do the same. But we are just one small family, and while our family is important I want to do more.

On my home altar, I have the above message from Thich Nhat Hanh: Peace in oneself, peace in the world. On the one surface it seems obvious, hardly worth stating even, that peace on a large scale begins with individual people making individual choices that support peace. But this is one of those teachings that has layers of meaning that are peeled away the more you sit with it. Taken to a deeper level, peace is more than the absence of overt violence, and cultivating a peaceful heart has more subtle and more profound effect than simply refraining from causing obvious injury to another.

Recently I was listening to a lecture by MIchael Nagler on non-violence and mirror neurons. Neuroscientists have found that we have neurons that behave the same way when we do something as when we watch someone else do it, which helps explain why we feel nervous when someone checks out the strange noise in a horror movie and we cry when we see a Kleenex commercial.

I understand this as an anatomical or physiological underpinning of “vibes”. When I am around someone who is stressed out, I feel stressed. Spending time around someone who is angry leaves me feeling a bit angry myself. But when I am with someone who is peaceful and centered, I take a bit of that with me. My own state of mind is impacted by the people around me.

But it works the other way, too: we impact the states of mind of others. In this way, we can promote peace with everyone we meet without saying a word. If we walk in the world with peace in our hearts and minds, others people’s mirror neurons will reflect that and they will feel a bit more peaceful than they otherwise would have. The more we elevate the level of peace in ourselves, the more it is elevated in the people around us, and around them, and around the world.

How will you boost the peace factor in the world today?