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Columns, Leadership

Surrender to the present

The experience of presence is a doorway into both personal growth and professional development.

Surrender to the present
Presence is an internal state. It’s being fully here and being fully present with reality as it is, not as we would like it to be.

We love the veterinary profession. It attracts some of the most passionate, caring and down-to-earth people — people with servant hearts who will give you the shirt off their back and who don’t suffer from superinflated egos. You can’t get much better than that. If you’re reading this, we’re talking about you!

It’s also true that many of these same people are professionally driven high achievers who have a bias for action and results. It’s not uncommon to see some perfectionistic tendencies. All these things are, of course, necessary ingredients for being recognized experts and thought leaders in any field, especially medicine. These attributes serve us well in a complicated world that’s characterized by predictability, where cause and effect are either known or at least predictable and where it is possible, with the right expertise and effort, to find the right solution.

We are naturally wired to solve problems, make progress and achieve results. The challenge comes when we link our identity and our definition of success solely to the ability to predict situations and control outcomes.

The complex, unpredictable world we find ourselves living in is calling for something more from us. As the saying goes, “What got us here won’t get us to where we need to go.”

As leaders and influencers, we are all daunted by complexity in some form. While we all care greatly for the important work we do for people and animals, game-changing disruptions make it challenging to plan. Distractions abound, and never-ending to-do lists divert our attention from what’s really important. Our education was not designed to prepare us for this kind of complex world. Our traditional narratives about success implicitly, and often explicitly, teach us that we should be able to largely control and direct things according to our wishes, although realities suggest otherwise.

In his book “Presence-Based Leadership,” Doug Silsbee describes complexity as something of a crapshoot. He reassures us that the gap between the needs of the moment and our ability to effectively navigate this new territory should come as no surprise since we’re all facing conditions different from what we’re prepared for or could possibly anticipate. He writes: “Doing what has worked previously is understandable. It’s a predictable reaction to a new and mysterious set of conditions. And it’s wrong.”

Silsbee suggests that a radically new way of leading requires developing a new way of seeing ourselves and the world around us. He states, “We begin by recognizing and acknowledging that we are struggling, accepting that we want things to be simpler and more predictable than they actually are, and that we are at an impasse as to how to navigate.”

An Invitation to Surrender

The last sentence hit one of this column’s co-authors, Jeff Thoren, like a ton of bricks. Here’s Jeff:

“Life over the past year and a half has been anything but controllable or predictable. And, in retrospect, I have definitely struggled with the uncertainty of it all, frequently feeling like I am stuck in a constant state of limbo. On a cognitive level, I appreciate that I have been presented with a significant opportunity for learning and growth and, on another more emotional and visceral level, I have found myself resisting and resenting the process, even expressing anger at times.

“I realize that I have been resisting complexity itself, often voicing the desire for things to be simpler and easier. In essence, ‘The cheese has moved’ and I have not yet fully changed and adapted. (If you’ve read Spencer Johnson’s iconic book ‘Who Moved My Cheese?’ you know what I’m talking about.) An important first step for me to embrace is the idea of surrender.

“Surrender has been an important concept in my faith journey over the years. I was recently reintroduced to it in a new way through a post by Ipek Serifsoy, Ph.D., president of the Deep Coaching Institute. In her post, available at http://bit.ly/2MzG0Fy, Dr. Serifsoy notes that ‘The ego knows itself through efforting while resisting what it cannot control.’ Yes, that would describe me! She goes on to say that ‘Our habitual egoic patterns take us away from presence and into reaction and suffering.’ That definitely got my attention since it was consistent with my current experience. Thankfully, there’s an alternative possibility: surrendering.

“Surrender has nothing to do with weakness or being passive and lazy. In surrendering, we’re not waving a white flag and giving up. Instead, we’re allowing the natural flow of life. And we’re being honest with ourselves by acknowledging that most of what we think we can control is really an illusion.

“Dr. Serifsoy summarized it this way: ‘Life has a mysterious way of unfolding moment by moment — and we’re a participant in that unfolding! Our choice is to say ‘YES’ and trust the unfoldment, to be fully present to what’s really happening, to show up for each moment in the creative way it’s meant to be met. Or we can say ‘NO’ and let our egoic tendencies dominate our response.’

“I don’t know about you, but I want to say YES and trust the process. For me, surrendering means letting go of striving, accepting the rapidly changing and uncertain (i.e., ‘complex’) circumstances around me, and adopting an attitude of curiosity and a spirit of experimentation. Instead of blaming myself or others for not having a tried-and-true strategy for dealing with complexity, I can accept the fact that we’re in a totally new game and there is no strategy to be had.”

Being Present to “What Is”

Do you ever find yourself responding to “How are things going?” with some variation of the answer “Busy”? In our Western culture, we seem to wear busyness as a badge of honor, somehow thinking that busyness is the path to success and happiness. It makes sense that we would think that way since strong unconscious value systems of “no pain, no gain” surround us and are reinforced in many ways. However, as Silsbee and Dr. Serifsoy have alluded to, the secret sauce needed to more effectively navigate complexity begins with being present, not with being busy. Gandhi put it this way: “There is more to life than increasing its speed. Speed is irrelevant if you are going in the wrong direction.”

Have a Presence

So, let’s explore an alternative to busyness: presence. Presence is an internal state. It’s being fully here and being fully present with reality as it is, not as we would like it to be. Silsbee offers, “Presence requires us to stay with even what is uncomfortable, so that it becomes tolerable and so that we can organize ourselves towards what matters, rather than away from discomfort.”

Presence is how we:

  • Stay with whatever is arising in the moment.
  • Recognize and inhibit old habits, allowing new choices.
  • Access multiple perspectives.
  • Settle our inner state to be calm and creative when our context feels challenging.
  • Extend that calm resourcefulness to others.
  • Develop greater capacity for adapting and responding well to complexity.

The good news is that the experience of presence is a doorway into both personal growth and professional development. The bad news is that it’s not always comfortable and is often accompanied by feelings of rawness and vulnerability. Get used to it. In the spirit of surrender, that’s a good thing, since being present to “what is” is always new, real and useful.

How to Become More Present

What are some practical ways to develop a greater sense of what’s really happening in the moment and strengthen your ability to be fully present? In “Moving Toward Mindfulness,” an article in the International Coach Federation’s 2016 Coaching World newsletter, David Clutterbuck, Ph.D., says it all starts with awareness — greater awareness of what is happening (and not happening) around us and greater awareness of what is happening within us, physiologically, emotionally and intellectually.

When people are more aware, they make better decisions, are more empathetic toward others, and act more in alignment with their personal values and beliefs. They are better able to connect with their internal and external worlds and explore and understand the connections between them.

It’s important to create the time and space for allowing insight and wisdom to occur. Here are self-coaching questions to help you get started:

  • What am I doing and feeling right now and why?
  • What emotions or concerns am I trying to hold under the surface? What’s causing me to do that?
  • What’s truly important to me right now, and what is just a distraction?
  • How can I become more internally aware of my emotions, physical feelings, assumptions and intentions?
  • How can I become more externally aware of what is happening around me and within other people?
  • What kind of space am I creating for reflection before action?
  • What kind of space am I creating for reflection during action?
  • What kind of space am I creating for reflection after action?
  • What are the triggers that push me either toward or away from self-awareness?
  • What unbidden associations or comparisons am I making right now? Am I being truly non-judgmental?
  • Am I letting what I think is important overlay what’s important to the person I’m listening to?

As veterinary professionals, we are being challenged to respond in new ways to the complex environment we find ourselves in. And yes, we are up to the challenge. Individually and collectively, we can rise to meet it by surrendering to the present and seeing it for the gift it really is.

Yesterday is history,

Tomorrow is a mystery,

But today is a gift.

That’s why we call it


Go With the Flow co-columnist Trey Cutler is a veterinary transaction attorney. Co-columnist Dr. Jeff Thoren is president of VetPartners and founder of Gifted Leaders, a Phoenix company offering leadership and coaching services.