BOOKLOOK°05: The Power of Presence
“Being present” has always been a goal, a constant reminder for myself every time I think about what I need to be better on.
Since I started meditating in 2012, I know that the importance of presence is integral to the depth and quality of relationships I have with myself and with others.
But just as with most things that I’m trying to learn, my attempts at being present fall short of actually embodying them. The thought stays in my head, forgetting to put it in action.
That all changed when I started reading Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges by Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist and Harvard Business School professor.
I thought it was a perfect time to reflect on Amy’s book as I spent a weekend with my closest friends at Lake Tahoe. Throughout the weekend, we stayed at a cabin by Incline Village which overlooked the lake, surrounded by wood panels and warmth.
In the book, Amy breaks down the discussion of what presence entails, an expansion of her TED Talk that resonated with many around the world.
Her talk was centered around the power of body language—movements, really—to affect our emotions.
I’ve always known this fact consciously, something that my therapist and I discussed endlessly. But it wasn’t until I finished reading about the studies that Amy conducted that it finally sunk in—our bodies did indeed shape our emotions, and not the other way around.
"The body says what words cannot. The body never lies." --Martha Graham
I was curious about this fact; it has never been easy to shift negative emotions into positive ones. What Amy was suggesting, something that the psychologist William James has theorized decades ago, suddenly made sense.
Feeling anxious? Take some deep breaths. Feeling lonely? Move your body. It turns out that it is as simple as that—the body influences how you feel.
The link between anxiety and self-absorption is bidirectional; they cause each other. In a review of more than two hundred studies, researchers concluded that the more self-focused we are, the more anxious--and also the more depressed and generally negative--we become. Self-focus even makes us more sensitive to physical difficulties, such as stomach upset, nasal congestion and muscle tension.
And it turns out, there’s more to the way we move that causes a chain of positive reactions. Amy wrote about the connection of power, presence and movement, and the overwhelming advantages of “power poses” as ways of priming ourselves to presence, calmness and authenticity.
There’s the infamous V pose we do with both our hands, outstretched into joy towards the sky. It’s the same pose runners make when they cross the finish line, the same pose people in places or situations that evoke joy, wonder and accomplishment make.
Why do we do this pose?
Lake Tahoe was the perfect place to feel the expanse of my body, as I sat there gazing at the stillness of the lake with my hands outstretched. Every breath was centered on the moment, a testament to my own body’s joy of being there. In spite of my heavy workload and all of the commitments I have, I found power in knowing that I was there at that moment, embracing every single second.
Amy talked more about power as the book went on, this time on two kinds of power that we see around us: social power and personal power. Social power refers to the kinds of authority we see (or have) when certain people have more access, resources and the like than others which creates a hierarchy.
Personal power on the other hand is defined as:
Personal power is characterized by freedom from the dominance of others. It is infinite, as opposed to zero-sum--it's about access to and control of limitless inner resources, such as our skills and abilities, our deeply held values, our true personalities, our boldest selves. Personal power--not entirely unlike social power, as I'll explain--makes us more open, optimistic, and risk tolerant and therefore more likely to notice and take advantage of opportunities.
As we move forward in the new year, Amy’s words will continue to be guidance in living our most authentic lives. They’re tools that help us think about ourselves better, helping us narrate our stories about ourselves and others in worthy ways.