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  • Amina Aitsi-Selmi

When a soldier waved a gun at me [Wise Wednesdays #354]

It was actually a drunken soldier carrying an AK-47. The nurse and I left our village base in South Sudan to take a walk in the bush, and a soldier walked up to us out of nowhere and started shouting at me in Dinka while waving his rifle in an alarming manner. We stood there very still, assessing our options. I remember the nurse looking at me, and I stayed very calm and breathed, trying to show we were friendly, during a few very tense moments. He eventually got bored since we weren’t reacting and walked on.

It wasn’t the first time. This kind of thing happened on humanitarian missions, and some MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières) colleagues were kidnapped or killed. Your life could change in an instant in a volatile environment like South Sudan at the time. But the feedback I got was that I was calm in a crisis. I put it down to the practice of presence. When an emergency arose, my mind became very focused and clear and I knew what to do (and what not to do).

[Photo: The main road in Abyei, South Sudan, near our Médecins Sans Frontières compound, 2007.]

The global need for presence

The World Economic Forum lists conflict as one of its top 5 pressing problems, which to me means one thing: we all need to become more present. Through presence, we can see the situation clearly, assess options, and choose the best course of action. Without presence, we reproduce the dynamics of conflict and war within our microcosm and feed the wider societal patterns.

The Practice of Presence

Presence isn’t an elusive state of consciousness that you can only access through meditation. It’s also a simple practice—the skill of being with reality as it is, not better, not worse. This skill comes under the umbrella of mindfulness, an attentional training that helps us make the simplest observations of a moment of experience—seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling, thinking, feeling. Even in the most chaotic environment or emergency, those are still the basic building blocks of experience - seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling, thinking, feeling.

Daily presence

Presence results from the mind’s ability to see through its own mechanism for creating your reality. It sees how it makes a movie out of the basic blocks of experience where you become the central character. The mind is always receiving sensory input, and creating a perception and its interpretation i.e. the movie of your life. Seeing this mechanism gives you a real choice in how to respond. Why? Because you can change the script. You become the director rather than just the actor. Seeing through the mind’s movie-making mechanism enables you to start responding from a range of options, not just your conditioned habits - you can rewrite the script instantly. Here are a few steps to cultivate presence:

  • Pause and breathe: Take a deep breath to centre yourself.

  • Observe the movements of  reathing: Note rising and falling of your chest or abdomen.

  • Describe your experience: Notice what you see, hear, think and feel (with your eyes open or closed). 

Notice the impact of the practice on your clarity of mind (it may not be obvious at first). Write it in your journal and notice patterns over time. To start with, 5-10 minutes a day will make a difference.

Presence in Leadership

I believe presence is essential for 21st century leadership. It helps to balance receptivity (perceiving reality) and proactivity (shaping reality) or what some call - Surrendered Leadership. This presence-based leadership can help find the clearest path amid complexity, whether it’s a significant career decision, organisational challenge, or life change. Presence helps us tap into wider collective intelligence by being more deeply present to the potential within ourselves and others, and to co-create a new, better reality.


Where are you seeing the need for more presence in your work or life? Where can you break the experience down into its basic building blocks of seeing, hearing, thinking, feeling, etc.?

You may not be able to change the present moment experience, but your response to it will shape the next.

Have a great week, 


P.S. I’m excited about tomorrow’s Surrendered Leadership session. I’ve added a new date for the next one on July 4th at 7pm UK / 2pm EST. If you want to deepen your presence off the meditation cushion and while in daily action, this is for you. Surrendered Leadership is a cutting-edge approach to communication and interpersonal dynamics that can transform your relationships and decision-making. I'm currently developing my own approach while training with the founders, integrating a systemic lens and nonviolent communication. For more information and complimentary registration for this small group practice, click here>>

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