“If I spent enough time with the tiniest creature—
Even a caterpillar—
I would never have to prepare a sermon.
So full of God is every creature.”
– Meister Eckhart
One early Sunday morning, I heard a piercing howl. It iced my heart and stopped my breath. I sat immobilized in bed for a few seconds, when the second howl came. I went to my window. Two beautiful Huskies were running aimlessly across my back yard; they seemed terribly lost. As I stood watching and listening to one of the dog’s frightened howls, there was only the sound of pain—suchness or presence, the way things are, the Absolute, the true reality of the nature of any particular moment. Cutting through all constructs is the moment of “suchness.”
What is presence? Presence is the pure, unconditioned nature of who we are. It is always there although it may be hidden from our personal consciousness (“ego”) because we don’t know how simple and transparent the sense of Being actually is. Presence can be experienced in many different aspects and dimensions. The first thing we may notice is that there is a lightness—an open, clear, pure sense of Being. This open lightness, while descriptive, is not a “thing.” It is beyond our minds.
So, how does this paradox actually work with everyday phenomena? We must “understand,” not from words, which can sometimes seem to hide presence, but from immediate, direct experience.
When I see individuals who are suffering, they see their suffering as a problem. This division creates dualistic conflict. Instead of allowing any experience to be simply a revelation of perfection, there is a rejection of experience, a need to make different what is appearing. When we are able to transcend the notion of good and bad, when we have a sense of the ego’s game of polarities, we can remain undisturbed and find freedom in unconditional presence. Everything finally boils down to simple presence, which is not identifiable but also not separate from experience.
“The shell must be cracked open
If what is inside is to come out.
If you want the kernel,
You must break the shell.
We must learn to break through things
if we are to grasp God in them.”
I recently saw a couple where the minute they walked into my office, my body became physiologically on alert. I sensed an agitation, an unrest, and an edginess; I felt pressure to get things right, a pressure that I hadn’t experienced prior to their arrival. Upon talking with the husband, he let me know how worried he was. He reports always thinking about the future and trying to make good choices that will guarantee his wife’s and his comfort. The irony, however, is that his wife was identifying that she didn’t feel his presence; she felt a hollowness, an emptiness within herself despite his bodily presence. She couldn’t “find” her husband and was feeling alone in the relationship. Despite his constant concern for her future comfort, he wasn’t available to the immediate moment, either through his sensations or his deeper awareness of his experience.
When asked to unpack their grievances, anything that kept them from simply being with one another in the present moment, they had a hard time dropping what was going on in their minds to simply turn and look at each other from a heart-felt stillness that involved simply seeing each other. They had lost touch with each other, but more importantly they were losing touch with their respective “I’s.” When we hold onto grievances, we tend to participate more with our complaint than the unfolding of the present moment that reveals itself spontaneously and is always new.
Presence includes sensing all our experiences and all the discriminations that are part of experience. Most of us can feel our bodies most of the time. We can sense our emotions. We can hear our minds chatter. This is the level of presence equated with embodied awareness. The first “level” of presence is when we are connected with the sensations of our body. By bringing awareness and a gentle curiosity to the physical sensations in any part of our body, we make direct contact with it. To do this, we take a moment and sit in a comfortable chair. We embrace the power of our abdomen through conscious breathing and allow our attention to move throughout our bodies, starting with our feet and progressing to the crowns of our heads. In doing this exercise, we notice how connected or disconnected we are to the experience of our bodies. If there are areas that seem numb, tense, cold, hot, tingling, sharp, we are present to the sensations and breathe into them.
Emotional awareness requires the same skills as body awareness. We sit experiencing body tensions. Body experiences move into a felt sense. A felt sense is a non-conceptual knowing which often initially appears amorphously. It doesn’t have a form; it is without shape and lingers to be defined in an act of resonance with itself. This process requires patience and a willingness to work in a trial and error manner. This is the critical aspect of presence—that we are able to sit with the unknown until it reveals itself. Ultimately, we allow a knowing and a sitting with our emotional experience; we are, as a result, less likely to project any emotional pain onto others or blame them for our denied or disowned experiences.
Another aspect of presence is the ability to witness our constant thought stream. If we were to sit quietly and just watch our mind, we would notice that thoughts are constantly arising and dissolving. As we observe our mind chatter, we become aware of how our “scripts”—our conditioned beliefs—contribute to our difficulty staying in the moment. We tend to get lost in a belief, which is just a thought, which then evokes an emotion and, before you know it, we’re completely reactive. Based on a thought, we think we know what’s happening rather than allowing what’s happening to reveal itself—the “suchness” of the moment. So, in developing presence, we learn to sit and watch how the mind works, while making contact with our body sensations and our emotions. In couples’ work this “practice” is a part of the process of resolving conflict.
How can presence help our couple start to resolve their conflict? While Scott has been doing a lot of the talking and taking most of the responsibility for the current impasse, he still appears preoccupied. I ask about when his body feels relaxed, and he admits that it never does. He reports that his father was a musician and his family lived through many lean times. He started working as a young adolescent and his life has been a compensation for the financial insecurity that he experienced as a child. He sits experiencing how his words are experienced within his body and notes how anxious he feels.
Meanwhile, Julie reports that she has a tendency to be cold like her mother. She notes that her current circumstances cause her to be critical so that even when Scott wishes to be present, in the sense of noticing what’s happening in the present and not worrying about the future, Julie is rejecting of him. As she notes her pattern of rejection, she becomes aware of how it is contributing to her present difficulty.
Patterns need to be acknowledged. Once there is acknowledgment, there can be an opening and an allowing of what might be behind Julie’s grievance against Scott: like her mother, he isn’t there for her and she feels invisible. She can grieve her lack of nurturing, her lack of soothing by her mother, and begin to stop projecting that onto Scott as the “bad other,” our internal image of the one who doesn’t love us or treat us well.
Both are instructed to make contact with that which causes them pain. At this point, it can be tempting to go into what it all means, but instead we’re just making spontaneous contact with what arises. The suffering, which is leading us to stop and pay attention, is Julie’s dissatisfaction and Scott’s guardedness. Sitting with their own discomfort they are acknowledging the sensations (moving beyond the ego’s preferences) into what is the truth of what’s happening for them—spontaneous, unconditional presence. They are able to recognize that the need for soothing motivates them to open to themselves right where they are. When the judgments and divisions are dropped, there is a spaciousness and an ability to make a self-connection that revitalizes. The conflict evaporates. Relief is experienced. As they make contact with unconditional presence, they become more compassionate with one another and there is connection in that.
Unconditional presence gives us the ability to see the ways in which we are contracted and to allow that—to see, to feel, to bring awareness to the process of being with where we are stuck. We are not adding to anything or telling ourselves stories about it, we are just entering into the immediacy of our experience and in so doing awakening to what’s already there: pure presence—our essential, spontaneous nature.
References and further reading:
Fox, Matthew. (1983). Meditations with Meister Eckhart. Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Company.
Welwood, John. (2006). Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships. Boston, MA: Trumpeter.
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