On Being Present

Calm-Down-lRather ironically, when I read the first few pages of Presence by Amy Cuddy, I was most certainly not present. I was supervising a second year undergraduate Psychology exam. For two hours, it was me, them and the silence, broken only by the occasional cough or turned page.

How the book came to be in my bag is a story in itself. I’ve been a big fan of Amy Cuddy and her work since seeing her TED talk a  few years back. So was my dad. When I heard she had a book coming out, I thought ‘what a perfect Christmas gift that would make!’, and in an unusual display of organisation skills, I pre-ordered the book on Amazon. The release wasn’t until around the 23rd of December, so it would arrive a few days late, but that was fine by me. However, a few days before Christmas, I got an email from Amazon, explaining that the release date for the book had been pushed, and I would now likely receive my book in FEBRUARY.

So, like any rational person who gets such an email a few days before Christmas at about 11 o’clock at night would, I took to Twitter to have a rant. I then tweeted to Amy Cuddy herself, in a hopeful attempt to secure information about somewhere else that would release the book in time. Sadly, there was no such place – however, the very lovely Amy tweeted back, sympathising with the situation (even though it was of course not her fault at all, and clearly out of her control to rectify), and, long story short, my dad came to be in possession of a personally inscribed copy of the book, posted directly to him by the author. It even has the motto he reminds me of whenever life feels a little overwhelming – ‘eat the elephant’.

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Now, the phrase ‘eat the elephant’ makes no sense, without context. The context comes in the form of a question – how do you eat an elephant? The sensible answer is, of course, one small piece at a time. So whenever I feel like everything is getting a bit much to handle, I remember this quote, and am reminded to stop trying to eat my elephant in one go.

Not too long afterwards, I decided to quit my job. Well, one of my jobs. Along with being a part time PhD student, I teach statistics as a teaching assistant to first year undergrads, I work as a (voluntary) research assistant on research into eating disorders, and I am a volunteer with Childline. I’ve also worked in an admin job in a hospital since I was 16 . For the past 11 years, that has paid for pretty much everything else that costs me money. It has also, to a large part, formed part of my identity. So deciding to quit was a scary step, one that I worked around in my head, for about three months before making my decision. When it came down to it though, and as you can guess from that list above, I was burning out. I get recurrent Bell ’s palsy, and it flares up particularly when I am over-tired/worked/stressed/run down.It’s also clearly a very physical warning sign that I was doing too much.

Now I would argue that everything I do, I do for a purpose. I teach for experience (and now money), and to scare myself – teaching terrifies me, so it’s good for me to keep doing that. The research assistant work allows me to be part of a project that is the first of its kind in Ireland, and is good for me to build up my expertise. The work I do with Childline not only enables me to help others and develop my skills in doing so, but it also provides a source of social life from my pals on shift (who with the way my life is are sometimes my only social life!) and it also is sometimes the only place where I feel I make a difference. It also, when I am finding things tough, gives me a great sense of perspective and gratitude.

But when I thought about it, what did my other job give me? Money. But also stress, exhaustion, exposure to sick people all the time, a non-existent sense of routine, and little sense of accomplishment. It was a means to an end – paying for college – but most days recently I have been either too busy or too exhausted to do any college work. The means was beginning to defeat the end, and something had to give.

I have worries about the consequences for my future financial stability, but that is countered by a lessened fear for my physical health, some really wonderful support from my parents first and foremost, my family and my boyfriend, and my friends – none of whom said anything other than ‘go for it’. It has also, even though I am still working my notice, already improved my mental health. I was nearly constantly anxious, probably at the thought of trying to get ‘everything’ done.

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Now I breathe deeper. I’m still in a bit of a funny headspace about it, as I try to figure out who I am without that job. I know it wasn’t a big or important job, but I’ve had that job my entire adult life, a lot of my friends are from working there, and my experiences there have shaped me in a lot of ways – both good and bad. It will take some adjustment.

This led me to realise, I’m hardly ever fully present in the things I do – even, apparently, reading a book on presence. So, the week I handed in my notice, I asked my dad if I could borrow his book form his ‘to-read’ pile, and read it myself.

I’m looking forward to re-inventing myself somewhat – becoming who I want to be, and not having my entire life dictated by a roster, or a plan that is too much to carry. Reading more, and really blogging (about what I’m reading, and other things) feature in that new self. I’ll let you know how I get on, and how I find Amy Cuddy’s Presence.

What are you reading right now? Or are you making any changes in your life? Lemme know!

Grá mór,

Sarah xx

image credits to https://mylittlebookblog.com for ‘keep calm & read a book’
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