Jeffrey Hollender is the president and CEO of Seventh Generation, a producer of environmentally safe household products. His previous ventures included adult education and audio publishing businesses. Hollender and his family live in Charlotte, Vt.
Six years ago, my younger brother Peter, who was my closest friend and the only remaining member of my immediate family, ended his life. Nothing I have ever experienced, or have experienced since, has had such a powerful impact on what I believe.
Until then, life often slid by me, my mind lost in reviewing what had just happened or anticipating what was to come. The present seemed to disappear between the past and the future. The life most of us lead is short to begin with; the more we miss, the shorter it gets.
I vowed to myself that I would honor my brother's death by being present in my own life. I found a new world opened up before me — a life of richer detail, both wider and wilder. The autopilot I'd been running on for God knows how long finally shut off. I began to see new possibilities for thought, vision, caring and action: to say what too often remains unsaid, to admit that often I have no idea what to do.
Being present isn't easy. On a good day, I'd say I'm conscious 1 to 2 percent of the time. The rest of the time I'm reacting. Usually those reactions are not particularly thoughtful. They're just responses, old patterns or the repetition of what I did yesterday.
Now I try to ask questions, not give answers. This isn't easy for me to do. I'm someone with a lot of answers. I have to restrain myself. Not reacting takes a lot of work, but the more I'm able to do it, the more I feel like I'm being the person I aspire to be.
I see that my own mind can be my greatest limitation (and on bad days, it always is), or the gateway to what matters most to me — the big stuff — environmental sustainability, world peace, the end to hunger, the beginning of true social justice for all. I used to think that these possibilities were beyond our reach; impossible to hope for, silly to believe in. But if we don't believe in our own ability to make them happen, they never will.
I've found that my decision to be present — that is, filled with attention to what is — is foundational.
I often cry when I think about my brother. It's one of the few things I let myself cry about. I missed opportunities with him because I wasn't present — missed opportunities I will never have again. In some ways, he was almost always fully present. He didn't know any other way to be. I don't want to miss anymore of my life than I already have. By being present and conscious, aware and awake, I believe that I can honor my brother, just a little bit, every day.
Independently produced for NPR Digital Media by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with Emily Botein, John Gregory and Viki Merrick.