Mindfulness practice helps us to cultivate presence in our life, by paying attention to what is happening in the here and now. But what is presence?
What is presence?
The meditation teacher and clinical psychologist Tara Brach describes presence as “the felt sense of wakefulness, openness and tenderness that arises when we are fully here and now with our experience. (…) Presence is the awareness that is intrinsic to our nature. It is immediate and embodied, perceived through our senses.”
You can reflect on a time in your life when you felt really present and alive to your experience, body and mind united, as the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says. Maybe it was during a hike in the mountains, witnessing the birth the of a child, surfing the ocean waves, creating art, cooking your favourite dish or gardening, playing with your children or grand-children…
Bring that experience to mind and reflect on what constituted presence for you… how did it feel in your body, in your heart and mind….notice what is happening inside of you now as you bring back that experience of presence….
And if you can’t think of any time that you felt really present, that’s ok too, no need to judge yourself for it… see if you can simply notice the quality of your presence right now… or the absence of presence and see what you can notice…
The two wings of Presence: Clear seeing and Heartfulness
Presence is made up of two wings: The first wing is the wing of awareness, clear seeing of what is present here and now. The second wing is the wing of loving presence, not judging or trying to manipulate or evaluate, but a loving care from which a wise response can be born
Tara Brach uses an image attributed to Joseph Campbell to teach about presence. Picture in your mind a line dividing a circle. Above the line, we have presence, what we’re conscious of, what we’re awake to. With presence, there is a level of self-awareness, openness, connection with emotions and sensations and also in abiding in a field of awareness, that’s presence.
Beneath this line is the opposite of presence, which Tara talks about as being in trance. This is what we are not aware of or unconscious of or dissociated from. When we’re in a trance, we’re by definition half conscious, we’re more likely to be run by habitual patterns, lost in thought, identified with emotions or disconnected from our present moment experience. Waking up out of these trances over and over is really at the core of contemplative teachings. This is learning to live a life where we are as much above the line as possible as opposed to being in a trance.
A key supportive attitude is unconditional friendliness and acceptance toward all our experiences, especially when we notice that we are lost in thoughts, or in a state of reactivity, denial, resistance or disconnection from our experience. This is not a time to judge ourselves for it, but to bring kindness and compassion to ourselves for being in trance. To recognise that this strategy might be serving a purpose, or might have been helpful at some point in our life, to protect us from hurt and to keep us safe. So we want to be really gentle and patient with ourselves as we practice, and we realise that we have left presence.
Coming home to ourselves
One way of speaking about presence is ‘coming home to ourselves”. The poet Rumi asked: “Do you pay regular visits to yourself?”
And a large part of this training is about paying regular visits to ourselves, to deepen our listening presence throughout the joys and sorrows of our life.
The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says that when we touch this experience of coming home, it is like finally arriving home after a long journey: it brings us a sense of peace and freedom, no matter our circumstances. it is a state like belonging: it holds us and it enables us to hold others. In his meditations, Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us again and again “I have arrived, I am home” here and now.
This is important because we can live our whole lives separated from our true home within ourselves: planning the future, rehashing the past, lost in thoughts, reveries or worries, caught in our emotions, and unaware of our bodies. If we stay away for a long time, we can accumulate tension and stress in our bodies and minds, and over time it may lead to illness, both physical and psychological.
But we can always return home to ourselves, our home is always there, waiting for us to come back.
There are numerous ways we can come back home to ourselves: by being aware of our breath, our body sensations or bodily movements, and by connecting with the reality around us, like the sounds in the environment or what we can see in that moment. And when we come back home to our inner landscape, we can see clearly what is needed to take care of ourselves
Especially in times of transition and challenges we are tempted to abandon our homes and look for answers outside. But it is precisely the times when we need to return to ourselves in the present moment, feel our bodies deeply and take good care of ourselves now, in that moment, even if it is difficult.
Sometimes it might be difficult for us to come back to ourselves because of unresolved accumulated pain and trauma that we don’t want to face. It might be that we have become used to avoiding our home completely, numbing the pain with food, alcohol, drugs, video games or social media… if that’s the case for you, it is important to bring a lot of compassion to yourself and slowly doing the work of turning toward the places of suffering within yourself. It is key to find support and to go slowly and gently to avoid becoming dysregulated or overwhelmed when we practice.
Sources: Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance; Kaira Jewel Lingo, Come Home to Yourself, The Lion’s Roar, Sept 2021