Unmasking Presence:What 'Sleep No More' Can Teach Us About Being Present

search.size.s-sleep-no-more-ss “Please turn off your phones, don’t talk, and put on a mask.” Just one of those instructions would be enough to make most people freak out. But that triple-threat directive is the peculiar (voluntary) state you are asked to slip into during the interactive performance art piece, “Sleep No More,” at the McKittrick Hotel in New York. You are instantly disconnected, quiet, and anonymous – in public.

Perhaps you’ve seen or heard of Sleep No More during the 2+ years it’s been running.  Its persistent popularity speaks to its ability to tap into something for which we long – something I would define simply as “presence.”  Everyone is both actor and audience in Sleep No More, and the performance is an exercise in being present and having presence. But what does it mean to be present in a world of perpetual mediation? Is it a state of mind or a condition of the body – or both? And what do people with presence look like? How do you turn it on and radiate it?  My experience at the McKittrick inadvertently revealed some answers to these questions.

As I walked toward the elevator at the beginning of the performance, I was pulled aside by the hosts and purposefully separated from my companion.  “Come with me. You’ll be fine on your own – you’re a strong one,” one of the performers presumptively told me, with nothing to go on but my appearance and demeanor.  He led me into the elevator with a group of strangers. “Take good care of this one,” he instructed the elevator operator who looked at me knowingly.  A few floors up, I was swiftly pushed out into the literal and metaphorical darkness – alone – suddenly without not only my companion, but any group at all.

Why had they singled me out? Was it something about my physical presence that indicated I was “strong” and could handle the unknown alone?  Wandering aimlessly, unsure of what to expect and refusing to break the “no cell phone” rule, I found myself in a heightened state of self-awareness.  Being and having presence demands a sort of physical groundedness.  It’s not the absence of the mind, but at the very least, a (re)connection with the body. And while it’s not about having a certain “look,” it is anything but invisible.

If you’ve ever been on stage, you know what it means to “have presence.”  It allows you to command attention, to captivate and enthrall. Actors, political and spiritual leaders, athletes – we often associate presence with these individuals. But it’s not limited to the stage or performative experiences like Sleep No More. Every situation -- at work, in your personal life, even the mundane tasks of everyday life – is an opportunity to exercise and exude presence.

Sleep No More looks like a deleted scene from Eyes Wide Shut. It’s sexy, mysterious, and replete with uncertainty. It’s difficult to remember a three-hour period in recent memory in which I’ve been more present.  The show is strange and enigmatic, to say the least.  But what happens at the McKittrick is far less significant than the imposed restrictions and what consequently doesn’t happen there:

  • The absence of technology allowed me to fully commit to that physical reality and engage in the here and now.
  • My verbal silence forced me to communicate exclusively with my body and permitted me to observe my surroundings with enhanced richness and detail, creating the space to thoughtfully reflect – instead of instantly reporting or discussing my experience.
  • The mask invited me to roam and interact facelessly, anonymously. It eliminated a level of self-consciousness that so often inhibits our desired behavior. I was therefore free to behave based on instinct, not reputation.

I eventually reunited with my companion, and given the organic path that led us back together along the show’s journey, the reconnection was more thrilling and satisfying than if we’d been linked throughout. Periods of absence and temporary deprivation do indeed enhance satisfaction and diminish the likelihood that anyone or anything might be taken for granted.

But as much as I enjoyed the extreme altered state I was allowed to slip into, turning off my phone, keeping my mouth shut, and wearing a mask around town are not practical everyday options (as appealing as they all are at times).  So barring your ability to move into the McKittrick Hotel (spoiler alert: it’s not a real hotel), how can you create more outlets and opportunities for presence in your life – and why does it matter?

In most situations, 93% of our influence and impact stems from "how we show up" (leaving a mere 7% for whatever we say while there).  Even if that's slightly high or even mildly exaggerated, it's still incredibly lop-sided and speaks to the extreme importance of presence. The IEP Method or "Intentional Energetic Presence," operates on the idea that we can control (some) outcomes by consciously manipulating our presence. It promises to help people "work better together, show up more fully, and create the impact they want."  Those sound pretty good to me, and go well beyond the idea of cultivating presence exclusively for selfish gain. IEP looks at presence holistically -- yes, you benefit individually, but so can the group or organization in which you operate. This brand of presence still has integrity and is still "authentic" (if we must use that word).

So ask yourself: What do you want to achieve through your presence? What’s the effect you’d like to have? Are you the cause -- or the reaction? Then work backwards – that end goal determines what your presence will “look” and sound like.

There are no words spoken during the production of Sleep No More.  No quotes to cite or clever lines to reference. Just bodies in motion and multi-sensory stimuli.  The show is elusive, and yet it lingers in your mind long after you exit the hotel. You remember its presence.