Last Updated: January 25th, 2019

It is a hallmark of human experience that we tend to miss the significance of the moment. Many things occur to us over the course of our lives, and it is often only when looking back that we see what it was that was happening. Perhaps the dramatic nature of certain external events can raise our quality of awareness, but typically this leads us to focus more on superficial factors. Perception of significance has everything to do with our ability to be fully present. Thinking about various experiences I’ve had over the last while, I realize that I’m only now in a position to understand something of what was happening then. You could say that I wasn’t fully present at the time to perceive it.

This happens all the time. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of walking out of a conversation and then later thinking, “I wish I had said that.” It’s only later that the words came because part of you was not fully present to be able to perceive and say what was needed in that moment. This lag is a reflection of our relative ability to be conscious of the vastness of the eternal moment.

Human beings, because of the narrowing of experience and perspective, have largely lost any sense of significance. So we try to invent one. We know in fact that meaning is always present. Many cycles are always underway, many levels at work, and many opportunities to participate fully and accurately in the moment. The expanded sense of significance only comes when recognizing what’s actually happening and isn’t distracted by the surface play—the immediate, apparent local factors.

It’s been said that “where there is no vision, the people perish.” I was thinking that at times when we see increasing intensification and difficulty, how rare it is that there are people who know what to do. I had a chance to be with a group of leaders last week who have direct responsibility for the chaotic situation in the Middle East. What struck me was their dawning realization that the only thing they had any ability to control was their own stability, their own resilience and capacity to be present regardless of the apparent surface play and swirling intensity of the situation.

This raises the question, what does it take to actually be fully present, and not require years of subsequent development to understand what happened “then,” or what is happening now?  There are, of course, many historic events that human beings look back upon, seeking to find significance in the past. Many reading this have likely had opportunity to be present during highly significant moments and cycles. I wonder to what degree we were actually aware of what was happening as it was happening? When we think back to Jesus’ time, we and many others believe we can recognize the significance of that time. Subsequent to his time people have developed an interpretation and narrative primarily motivated to further a religion. We know that what we read now in the biblical record is slanted in that direction, but we don’t have to look that far back to see this matter at work.

The question to focus upon is, what do I experience now? We have to do some work to be present. For instance, we are each emotional beings. Being present requires emotional maturity. Sometimes difficult memories from the past are often fused into our experience of the present and lead us to react and distort what is happening now in one way or the other. There’s significant work to be done emotionally to release these overlays and allow ourselves to come fully here.emotional-moment-mood-mindfulness-present

At the mental level we can also find ourselves subject to many distractions. Some of these distractions emerge through the nature of our language. A few years ago I worked with some Native American elders. Several of them had interacted extensively with physicist David Bohm. They spoke with him about the nature of native language and how it’s fundamentally based in verbs. Words in native traditions are used for precise description of the feelings of the heart and the movement of nature. This comes from their direct experience of movement in the moment. Western consciousness tends to see the world as composed of fixed objects. We use nouns to describe everything we see. This leads us to think that things just are what they appear to be—fixed entities. This is perplexing to many native people who seek to live in a world that is more fluid.

I think we can take something from this. As we know, everything is in motion. The present moment isn’t a fixed space. It is a flow, and as such is capable of continuous transformation and movement. Nothing stays the same for long. Our consciousness gets rigid if we remain attached to our words and to emotions emerging from our past. But we can begin to relax and see and perhaps more accurately feel the flow that is moving above, below and all around. Ultimately, the ability to be present is a function of the quality of what might be called the substance of living that we bring to any situation, which in turn is a precise function of the quality of Tone or Spirit that we express now. This is quite a simple equation.

It relates to the quality of transformation that is possible in the present. Our basic responsibility relates to the translation of Spirit into form. In so doing, we transform the spiritual substance that is present, which makes us enormously responsible, and conscious responsibility exercised in this manner is the ingredient that allows the significance of the moment to be known within the state of human consciousness.

There’s an old saying that I quite like: “How you do anything is how you do everything.” In other words, how you do the smallest of things is reflected throughout your world. Dov Seidman’s book How focuses on the importance of how people operate in the business world. He writes: “Consumers, customers, regulators, judges and juries have begun to view companies from a characterological viewpoint. They pay more attention to and care more about the inner life and character of the companies with which they do business. They’ve begun to ask themselves whether the company has integrity. Does it have character?  Today’s company is no longer judged merely by the quality of its what’s, but also its how’s. It is not enough to make a good tennis shoe if you exploit workers in Vietnam to do so. It is not enough to pay a good salary if you institute policies that make workers feel devalued.”

Yet most people’s understanding of significance has to do with the accumulation of things, ultimately the accumulation of money. There’s an association in human consciousness between large numbers and significance. People believe that large amounts of money, for instance, means great significance, or that large numbers of people at the gathering you arrange or attend means it is significant. I would suggest that this is not very accurate. Significance lives in the quality of transformational flow in the moment, the quality of the how.

Each of us, whether we fully realize it or not, are inheritors of a golden substance generated by people who have come before us—substance generated by those who understood the significance of the moment and revealed it in their living. At some level we’ve acknowledged this and accepted it into our experience. This golden substance has allowed a “thinning of the veil” in some—an awakening to eternal Being—and this in turn puts outer events, which seem so important, in proper perspective. Everything external becomes secondary to the natural expression of Being.

There’s another related dimension that we can derive from the insights of native people. From their perspective the flow of language and the ability to perceive the movement of nature in the moment requires the release of rigid ways of thinking and seeing, and movement to a verb-based way of feeling and being. One native writer puts it this way: “There’s no general generic word ‘tree’ because in Mic Maq [a native language] if you did have such a word it would be just showing that you didn’t know what family a tree belongs to. So when you do talk about different trees, you refer to the sound that the wind makes when it blows through the leaves of the trees during the autumn.”

Precise awareness of this flow of the movement of Nature has been held unconsciously in escrow for the rest of us in the forms of language used by native people. What is needed now is a way of thinking and functioning that embraces the movement rather than the fixed and isolated nature of everything around us. Another related native saying is that one must “listen not only for the wind, but the wind behind the wind,” which is to say the movement behind the movement. I would propose we listen for the tone behind the Tone, the flow of the immensity of Being as it is present and animating expression now. This active creative current that I Am carries enormous power and is related to movement everywhere in the universe.

Many years ago there was a group of people who called themselves alchemists. The mythology around them was that somehow they were able to turn base metals like lead into gold. I think this was a partial interpretation primarily focused at the level of physical form, so alchemy to some was just the art of manipulating form. Modern chemistry emerged some fifteen hundred years later out of these explorations. Another thread of alchemy, however, was based in the awareness of and interest in creating golden substance to transform the human experience of life. The transmutation of substance in this sense comes as we are fully present and allow a very different order of significance to emerge. This could be thought of not only in terms of our immediate circumstance but also as the movement of the whole, the alchemical movement of the creative process, the elemental life force activating the cosmos.

To be fully available and present to perceive the significance of the moment has to do not only with time, but also with timing. There’s an old saying that “timing is everything.” This implies an ability to perceive cycles, to perceive what is meant to happen and when to act. Having a pre-established idea of what is meant to happen obscures what is really happening. A true understanding of timing goes far beyond not taking a misstep. It is more a matter of letting what is present, what is unfolding, continue to do so, while being grateful and thankful for whatever transpires. It means letting things be as they are.

Missing the significance of what is unfolding in the moment leads to missed opportunities. Creative possibilities are constantly lost because we’re simply not available as needed. We carry an immense responsibility to remain focused and attentive to the invisible patterns that are unfolding , for we have much greater influence at these levels than the human mind acknowledges. Though not a new thing, the world is intensifying, which prompts such questions as:  “How do I handle what arises around me?  What emotional learning do I need to do?  What release of the fixed or narrowing of perceptions must I allow in order for me to perceive the verb of Being?  What substance do I need to generate to maximize the release of the creative process through my capacities of expression?”

To accommodate the eternal moment is not a job for occasional duty. Human nature (for instance, my own!) really likes some days off every so often to indulge its old habits. I trust such habits arise less often than they used to. Think what it means not only to see the moment but also to carry the significance of Being now, in every moment!  We can carry the authority of that if we have sufficiently relinquished our addictions to the past, coming into position to perceive the remarkable wonder and vast significance of the moment that can move through us. There’s no one else who can do that for any of us. It’s an amazing privilege to have been given this responsibility and to carry it fully.

William Isaacs is the founder and president of Dialogos, a consulting and leadership education firm based in Cambridge, MA, and Chairman of the Board of the Dialogos Institute, a not-for-profit action research organization. He is a leading authority on collective leadership, the design and development of organizational learning, and the practice and theory of dialogue. He is also a Senior Lecturer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management. His 1999 book, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together (Doubleday), has been translated into seven languages, including Swedish, Chinese, Hebrew and Farsi. It was featured in Fast Company as a guide to “the secret of good informal conversation,” and has been acclaimed by a variety of reviewers as the definitive guide to profound change through speaking and listening.

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