What if your life could feel richer, more vivid, more abundant, more meaningful?
What if all you had to do to create that experience was pay better attention to the life you’re already living?
There is a state of consciousness characterized by reflective awareness and heightened consciousness of the present moment. It is accompanied by feelings of awe, connection, unity, vividness, love, and meaning. This state is called Presence.
Welcome to the corner of A Meaning of Life dedicated to the topic of Presence. The following pages are chock full of cutting-edge and exciting science, fascinating philosophy, and renowned contemplative wisdom explaining what Presence is, what inhibits it, practices for cultivating it in our lives, and why it matters. Here on this introductory page you will discover a little taste of all of these things just to whet the palate. However, to fully digest the intricate nuances of the subject and reap the rewards, we encourage you to dive deeper into our collected and summarized material by feasting on it yourself!
At the bottom of each page of this section, you’ll find a clickable red navigation. Feel free to read from one page to the next, following the green buttons on bottom. Or, just click around on the red nav to jump from one page to the next.
Presence is a state of heightened awareness of your conscious experience. With an intentional focus on what is occurring in the current moment, Presence allows us to embrace our experiences with openness and more clearly see the mechanisms at work that determine them.
“We are concerned here with understanding something which is—the present moment. This is not a psychological or spiritual discipline for self-improvement. It is simply being aware of this present experience, and realizing that you can neither define it nor divide yourself from it. There is no rule but “Look!” – Alan Watts
When asked what surprised him most about humanity, the Dalai Lama said,
“Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”
Your Life is Happening Right Now- Don’t Miss it!
In studies done with terminal patients, the top five regrets of the dying consistently involve wishing they had more of the following: connection, emotional expression, leisure, permission to feel joy, and being true to oneself. We reach the end of our lives looking back wondering where all the time went and how it passed so quickly, having somehow missed out on all the things we cherish most. Our lives get tied up in pursuing our futures and reflecting on our past- and once the future ceases to exist for us we realize that we missed it.
So how do we make sure we don’t miss our lives while they’re happening? Maybe a better way to ask this is: When does life happen and how do you show up for it? What does it mean to be fully alive?
Scientists, philosophers, religious texts, and contemplative scholars have put a great deal of brainpower, heart, and sweat into these questions. A rich contemplative history exists charting the path to feeling fully alive and accessing the supreme depth of human experience. Modern psychology and neuroscience coupled with several religious and contemplative traditions point to Presence as an answer to this question.
Scientists (some of many) Whose Works Support Presence
|Dan Siegel||Richard Davidson||Sam Harris||Antione Lutz|
Contemplative Leaders and Philosophers Who Explore Presence
|Eckhart Tolle||Alan Watts||Thich Nhat Hanh||Tara Brach|
“Presence is a state of conscious awareness. You will know you are in a state of presence when you are bringing a sincere curiosity to a situation. …Presence accepts what is without judgmental righteousness and acts in all situations from a deep preference. Presence welcomes all authentic feelings and is possible at any time.” – Conscious Leadership Group
On par with transformative experiences like Flow, Peak Experience, Love, Awe, and Mindfulness, Presence offers a host of incredible benefits to our lives. As Presence is similar in quality to these states, we can conjecture that it offers the same benefits although there has not been a large body of direct research on the state of Presence itself.
*The following statistics are based on research regarding Mindfulness, Peak Experience, Flow, and Love.
- 63% decrease in depression and 12% reduction in depression relapse
- 58% reduction in anxiety
- 40% reduction in perceived stress
- 25% decrease in rumination
- 26% reduction in fatigue
- 33% improvement in sleep quality
- 43% Increase in Telomerase
So Many Benefits!
*Please go to our Benefits page to more fully understand what these are!*
|For the Brain||For the Body||For Subjective Experience|
The Spectrum of Presence
There is a Difference between “Presence” and “Being present”
Before anyone gets confused, it is important to note that there is a difference between what is typically referred to as “being present” and the state of “Presence” (capital P). “Being present” is as simple as being where you are, reading these words. You are engaged in what you are doing, to a degree. However, there is a much greater depth achievable through the intentional application of your attention to your awareness itself. Two golden retrievers playing together in a field are present (engaged in their activity with one another, physically in the field), but not in a state of Presence (self-aware and consciously engaged with their reality of playing together).
There are Degrees of Presence
Because states like this are typically shrouded in mystical lore, it is easy to disregard them as reserved for the spiritually enlightened or simply as myth. However, there is considerable research that suggests that Presence is a measurable, qualifiable state of being that can be accessed by the dedicated pursuant. Presence can be conceived of as a spectrum of levels, and some levels have a broader impact and a greater accessibility to a wider range of people. While we will discuss the more extreme levels of Presence (referred to as “Mythic” in this article), the most practical and attainable level is what we are talking about most generally (highlighted in the scale below). There will be several tables to break this distinction down for you in more detail throughout the various sections of this topic.
|Being present||Conventional Presence||Presence||Mythic Presence|
Personal Experiences of Presence
“I was camping with some friends over the summer. I stepped away to lay by the river and look at the stars. While I was laying in the grass, looking at the moon, I heard all of my friends by the fire, laughing, talking, strumming the guitar, fire crackling. I realized that everything I had done in my life had led me to that specific moment. I felt absolutely present.”
“A time I was extremely present was when my partner at the time said he felt like he was slowly dying. All I could do was sit with my head against his and cry while I visualized me sending all my healthy cells and energy to his back. I wasn’t thinking about the future, whether he was, or what that meant for us. But being present with him and his pain was the only authentic way to love him in that moment. We held the space together in silence and even though is was a troubling time, I felt most alive in sharing it with him.”
“After a 10-day silent meditation retreat – a Vipassana – I experienced sustained presence. My brain had quieted from the noise of thoughts in a way that allowed for presence even with things that seemed mundane: doing the dishes, getting dressed in the morning, taking a shower. There was a calm beauty to each thing that I did for a time after that retreat, and I have taken steps to integrate that experience – and the mindfulness practices involved in getting there – to my life.”
“…a recent present moment of mine was saying bye to my host brother. Saturday morning I woke up with a pit in my stomach because i felt so sad about leaving (I left Santiago on Sunday) and when he woke up i rushed to his room. We hugged for 20 minutes. In that time we embraced and we both cried. I could feel my tears bleeding into his shirt and he patted my back and gulped his sobs. This is such a sad moment to share haha but it was beautiful. We just stood breathing and i could feel our stomachs and lungs in synch. I wrapped my arms around his waist (he’s way taller than me) and he laid his cheek on my head, wrapping his arms around my shoulders. We stood like this for 15 mins just trying to take in our last hug for awhile. I felt very in touch with every part of my body: my arms which felt too weak to fully embrace my host brother, my face which felt hot from my tears, my feet in socks which touched his thinly carpeted bedroom floor and our lungs breathing at the same pace.”
“I drive for Uber and Lyft and spend a lot of time behind the wheel. Much of that time is spent in silence and gives me the ability to become fully present while driving. In that process, I take a step back into the witnessing presence while I watch driving happen. I don’t need to think in order to drive. Driving just happens. I direct attention into the energy in my body and allow my gaze to soften, thereby taking in more of my surroundings. Stories and labels about what I see fall away and everything becomes much more alive and meaningful. There have been a number of occasions where I have been driving along and just started crying tears of joy about the beautiful scenery all around. Thoughts take on less significance and are just seeing as other aspects of the display. Insights, realizations and clarity come from being fully present and allowing the present moment to be as it is.” (offered by Trey Carland)
Celebrities Comment on Presence
The following videos are from famous figures. They describe their spiritual or philosophical approaches to life, and while they do not name is directly, Presence is inherent to their view.
Oprah on her Daily Spiritual Practice – 2.5 min
What Really Exists – Under the Surface – Jim Carrey – 4 min
Ray Dalio on the Value of Transcendental Meditation – 5 min
Go Off the Map
Presence is Ultimately Ineffable
While it has been explored for a significant portion of recorded history, there is not a definitive and discrete description for Presence (especially of the Mythic variety). The reason for this is that at its most fundamental it is an ineffable experience, which means that it cannot be described using language.
Even though it is not possible to describe higher degrees of Presence using language, it IS possible to use words to point to what Presence is. Presence can only truly be known through experience; it cannot be known purely through the common faculties of the mind.
“The Map is not the Territory” -Alfred Korzybski
This dictum is indispensable to gaining a deep understanding of Presence. In essence, it means that the description or model of a thing is not the thing itself. For example, the word ‘apple’ is not itself the apple; it is an abstract term that refers to the actual apple and implies the entire experience of eating it. The word ‘apple’ is not the same as experiencing its texture or sweetness. In the same manner, our conception of Presence through language and ideas are not the reality of Presence.
“I am a finger pointing to the moon. Don’t look at me; look at the moon.” -Buddha
Another way of expressing the same concept as “The Map is Not the Territory,” the Buddha admonished his followers not to confuse the symbol for the thing itself. Let the symbol (the finger) point your awareness to what it is directing you to understand. If you confuse the finger for the moon, you will never know what the moon is.
Take the Tour or Immerse Yourself
Consider these pages your tour guide to Presence. Imagine you’re on a Presence Safari and we are showing you all the stops, all the places you could get off the bus to visit. While we can show you the landmarks, you will have to get off the bus yourself and immerse yourself in the environment to truly understand and know what it is.
We recommend reading the sections in the following order (as many of the concepts introduced build on one another and are interwoven):
Introductory Page (this one!) —> What is Presence? —> Barriers to Presence —> Pathways to Presence —> Benefits of Presence
Additionally, we have a Presence Resources page with a massive collection of links, videos, quotes, books, scientific papers, researchers, and more.
It is our hope that you find the following pages to be a valuable guide and source of inspiration on your journey to cultivating more meaning in your life.