writings and Reflections

Where We Begin: The Power of Presence
Tara Christie Kinsey

Amidst a flurry of New York City heat advisories this summer, I found myself thinking, rather oddly, about snow. This was not, as one might suspect, simply because I longed for cooler temperatures. I had gone back to read one of my favorite poems, “Snow,” written by Louis MacNeice, an Irish poet I enjoyed teaching in my high school and college literature courses. Here is MacNeice’s little twelve-line poem in its entirety:  

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:

World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and 
portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes— 
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one’s hands—
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

In some of their earliest encounters, my students noticed the poem’s riot on our senses: “On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one’s hands.” When I reminded them that this was written in the 1930s, long before one could reasonably expect to order flowers from halfway around the world through next-day delivery, they saw how startling and inexplicable it would be to spot freshly cut summer roses against snow. They could smell the roses, feel the cold of the snow, hear the sound of the fire, and taste the sweet citrus of the tangerine. 

As my students and I waded into the poem’s deeper waters, we uncovered so much more than a sensory experience. “Snow” is a poem about the act of paying attention, about being awake enough to notice something happening as it is happening. It is a poem about being open and curious enough to have one’s mind blown by everyday experiences and encounters, to allow oneself to feel the “drunkenness of things being various,” to understand that the “world is crazier and more of it than we think,” and to accept that the human experience is “incorrigibly plural” if only we let it wash over us. I loved watching my students wrestle with “suddener,” that word that is not a word and nowhere to be found in the Oxford English Dictionary, as the Oxford-educated MacNeice surely knew. And whenever a student asked if “suddener” was the poet’s way of capturing how words sometimes fail us when we encounter something that jolts us from our unawareness, I would always smile. 

For “Snow” is a poem about the surprising discoveries we make and the gratitude we experience when we live in the present moment. Meditation practitioner Jon Kabat-Zinn encourages us to “pause in our experience long enough to let the present moment sink in; long enough to actually feel the present moment, to see it in its fullness, to hold it in awareness and thereby come to know and understand it better.” In his classic bestselling book, Wherever You Go, There You Are, Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” 

It is one thing to practice presence when appreciating beauty, but it is quite another thing when we are encountering more thorns than roses, more dirty slush than gently falling white snow. In these moments, staying present is just as, if not more, important. This is extremely difficult to do. More often than not, when we encounter something that confounds or troubles us, or maybe just throws us off balance, we rush to judgement, make snap evaluations and decisions, react quickly in an attempt to resolve tension or conflict–sometimes even before we have the chance to get curious and ask a few questions. But what do we miss when we react quickly, dismiss, label, and categorize our experiences based on past events or anxiousness about the future? We don’t have time–we convince ourselves–to slow down, get curious, and live in the present. And so we miss the opportunity to apply our full attention, and we continue to live life in black and white when it could be in technicolor. 

As much as we tell others and ourselves that we appreciate innovation and new ideas, the truth is that our tendency to react quickly, judge, and reject anything that disrupts our equanimity and sense of order can lead us astray. Marilee Adams at the Inquiry Institute unpacks this tendency in the Choice Map.

As the Choice Map illustrates, whenever anything impacts us at any given moment–be it a thought, a feeling, or a circumstance–we can take one of two paths, each one leading to a very different outcome. We can react automatically and begin asking “judger” questions–“Whose fault is it? What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with them? Why am I such a failure? Why are they so stupid? Why bother?”–leading us to the “judger pit” of win-lose relating and a view that sees only limited possibilities. Alternately, we can choose to pause, get curious, and ask “learner” questions–“What happened? What do I want? What are the facts? What assumptions am I making? What can I learn? What are they thinking, feeling, wanting? What am I responsible for? What are my choices? What’s best to do now?–which puts us on the “learner path,” where adaptive and flexible thinking leads to a view of win-win solutions and plentiful possibilities.

In a culture that constantly urges us–“Don’t just stand there; do something!”–the learner path is hard to follow, for it begs us to do the opposite–“Don’t just do something; stand there.” Remaining present, suspending judgement, and asking learner questions requires sustained effort that is like swimming against a fast-moving current. 

How often do we take the time to sit with rather than act on as a first impulse? How do we go about allowing tensions to be tensions so that they can best be understood and so that creative solutions have the chance to bubble to the surface? What rituals do we practice when faced with something that disorients us? 

If you have ever visited or walked past my office, you may have noticed a painted, ceramic snail. My son brought it home one day from school when he was eight years old, and I immediately connected with the handiwork of his little fingers. The snail is to me what the tangerine is to the speaker in MacNeice’s poem, a visual reminder for me to pause, to be present, and—above all—to be a learner. I have found that the practice of learning over judging is extremely challenging, but also extraordinarily effective and rewarding both professionally and personally. Developing a learner mindset yields benefits that last a lifetime, and for those of us who have the joy of young people in our lives, those benefits may very well last long after we are gone and the children in our lives today continue on the learner path we have modeled for them. 

So as we take the first steps into the school year together, let us all try to model living in the present, to do more learning and less judging, and to make the small, everyday moments count. Let us join with our girls and young women as they explore what it means to be fully present, mindful, and open in their pursuits and their relationships. Let us together as one school community harness the truly life-changing power of presence.

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