Barriers to Presence

Let’s face it, being present is tough.  We are constantly being bombarded by information from our environment and bodies that we are biologically conditioned to react to, and our minds are endlessly churning out analyses, daydreams, and memories.  There is a LOT going on that interferes with our ability to be present.  

“The awareness that our every action is a construct of some constellation of influences can be devastating at first.  We don’t know what is ours, and what has been handed down to us. We don’t know who we are. Eventually, this understanding frees us.  We let go of all that we’ve been holding and realize that we never had anything anyway.” – Ruth Zaporah, “Action Theater

Why Is It So Hard To Stay In The Present?
The School of Life, a global organization dedicated to helping people live more fulfilling lives, dives into the challenges of staying present. 

What is Conditioning?

As we grow up, human beings are like sponges– we are extraordinarily sensitive and have a keen ability to soak up information.  Our power to learn and adapt in this finely-tuned manner has contributed to our success as a species. Ironically this skill has begun to disadvantage us in modern times by interfering with our ability to interpret and react to life in ways that serve our fulfilment and sense of joy.

Conditioning is being trained to behave in a particular way.  Throughout our lives, our human superpower of adaptation has enabled us to learn how to best survive in the environments and circumstances in which we have lived.  When we learn behaviors (most often unconsciously) that work to our advantage (such as helping us belong, impress or befriend others, get us jobs, help us avoid discomfort, etc.) we continue the behaviors and they become habits.  Most of these behaviors are taught to us by society before we even know it is happening! In this way, we are conditioned by the events and environments in our lives.  

Most of the barriers to Presence live in the realm of conditioning.  These barriers are ways of being or of perceiving the world and ourselves that we have been taught throughout our lives. We have practiced them so avidly that we no longer notice that we’re doing them- they simply become the way things are.  

Experiencing Presence often requires us to deconstruct our conditioning.  And, we must first notice what the conditioning is before introducing new habits and perspectives.  The most significant barrier to Presence is something we typically do not notice or question that influences every single aspect of our lives: our everyday state of consciousness.

Default Consciousness

Your Default Consciousness is automatic, conditioned by your history and culture, and is a way of being that you are not directly aware of.  Because you are not directly conscious of it, you identify with it as yourself. Refer back to the model of consciousness from the What is Presence section for a refresher.
Within conscious experience are the things we can be aware of: the Mind-Body Aspects.  If you recall from before, Mind-Body Aspects are processes of interpretation. They include Emotions, Sensations, Perceptions and Thoughts.  

Considering these elements, our state of consciousness is determined by how and on what we are focusing.  Default Consciousness is characterized by automatically paying attention to one of the Mind-Body Aspects at a time, typically whichever one is distracting us the most.  We do not intentionally choose to pay attention to whatever we are focused on in this state, it happens as a result of our conditioning to focus on whatever is the biggest threat or resource.

What’s the big deal?
Remember when we were discussing exogenous (stimulus-oriented) and executive (self-directed) attention?  Default Consciousness resides in the realm of stimulus-oriented attention, or exogenous attention. Our brains are wired to react to stimuli, and when operating from Default, we react without awareness or intentionality.  This process is opposed to choosing what we pay attention to and how we respond.

Attention Style Reacting / Default Consciousness Responding / Agency
Example Situation Unconsciousness determines automatic, unintentional reaction to stimuli. Consciousness of our experience of stimuli enables us to choose how to respond to them.
Your son knocks over and breaks an expensive and sentimental vase while playing in the house You become angry and blame him for being reckless.   You notice the upwelling of emotion within you, label it as anger and sadness, and take a moment before telling your son you’re angry that he wasn’t more careful.  You recognize it was an accident and do not direct your anger at your son.
Someone jumps out at you to scare you You scream and run away. You scream (most of us have a startle response after all) but notice quickly what has happened and are able to take a deep breath and stay put.  

When we are living a reactive life, we are not exercising agency over our experience and often get pulled into conditioned ways of being and thinking that lead to negative experiences.  Default Consciousness is not wrong.  However, it is not an intentional state of being and often leads to dissatisfaction, anxiety, and depression (which we will expand upon a bit later).  How do you know you are operating from Default? There are several ways to check in with yourself and notice Default Consciousness- and as soon as you are seriously asking yourself this question, you are not operating from Default any more.  Eckhart Tolle describes it as a state of ‘background noise’ that includes general unease, boredom, and regular identification with mind and emotion. As you read on we will go further in depth with identifying this way of being and ways of stepping beyond it.

The components of Default Consciousness that interfere with our ability to stay present include our identifying with the Thinking Mind, our Emotions and the Ego, as well as our concept of Time and the experience of Suffering. 

Barriers to Presence

Barrier Definition Example
Identifying with The Thinking Mind Our unchecked  inner dialogue operating from Default Consciousness “I am my thoughts.” (*This is typically not a conscious thought, it is an unconscious identification with thoughts.)
Identifying with the Ego The conditioned self, our sense of “Me” “I am my identity, the sense of self who is comprised of my thoughts and emotions and conditioned by my life.”
Identifying with Emotions Subjectively experienced negative or positive feelings associated with thoughts, behaviors, and patterns of physiological activity often in reaction to a stimulus. “I am anxious.”  “I am satisfied.”
Our Conception Time The way that we perceive time as linear. “The future and the past are as real as the present.”
The Experience of Suffering The resistance to the physiological experience of pain. “I do not want to experience heartbreak.”

The Thinking Mind

Scientists and contemplatives have explored our habit of automatic thinking at length.  

For practitioners of meditation and mindfulness, the nature of our untamed thoughts is described in several ways.  The Buddha referred to the thinking mind as Kapicitta, which translates as “Monkey Mind.”  He meant to highlight the constantly changing nature of our thoughts and their unyielding effort to compete for our attention.  When it comes to how science pins down the properties of our roving thoughts, it has become clear that the Monkey Mind is in full swing when the Default Mode Network is active. As it turns out, these two are synonymous.

Scientific Ideas on the Nature of Monkey Mind

As mentioned earlier, thinking is essential to navigating our lives.  Challenges arise when the thinking is overdone. Dr. Dan Siegel sees the mind as a regulatory process.  This means that its job is to process energy and information in an efficient and productive way. The mind does this by monitoring and modifying information, or in other words, it perceives and then responds to the information it gets.  While in Monkey Mind, our monitoring and modifying functions are not being utilized intentionally or with strength. We experience less depth, clarity, and control. Therefore regulation is not optimized and our brains are not optimally integrated.  

Research has pinned our Monkey Mind to the Default Mode Network.  Whenever our minds are wandering aimlessly, churning and churning over memories or future plans or anything other than an active task, the DMN is active.  This mind wandering is dominated by thoughts that relate solely to the self. It has been demonstrated that this self-focused mind-wandering leads to a sense of isolation, which in turn is correlated with states of addiction, anxiety, and depression. (Buckner 2008)

Perhaps you’re wondering, “The majority of my mind-wandering counts as self-obsession?”   When we really listen to the inner dialogue, it’s often talking about things we’ve done or want to do and what others think about those things.  Rarely are we going over something unrelated to who we are, how we feel, or what we want. How might thinking about yourself lead to anxiety and depression?  To put it simply, it leads to isolation. If you’re constantly worrying about how another person is receiving you, you cannot be fully present for the relationship due to thinking mostly of yourself instead of genuinely connecting.  Likewise for depression, dwelling on past failures or shortcomings traps us in a cycle of self-absorption that alienates connection.

While all this may seem daunting enough, the DMN is active at the expense of the TPN.  They are different ways of processing information and use different kinds of attention.  The TPN enables a more responsive and intentional way of being that we cannot access while stuck in the endless spinning of the Monkey Mind.  Experienced yogis have been known to activate both the DMN and TPN at the same time during states of Presence, enabling neural integration and greater wellbeing overall.

Scenario/ Network Dominance DMN Dominance (Default Consciousness) TPN Dominance (Plays a part in Mindfulness) Presence(May be indicated by integrated TPN and DMN, but this is not conclusive)
Attending a popular concert Attention is drawn to the most compelling stimulus- the bass of the music, the attractive man passing by, the beer getting spilled on your shoe. Attention is directed at watching how the guitarist plays a particular part in a song. Attention is on Awareness and includes a rich experience of all aspects of the concert: Listening to the music, awareness of the presence and energy of others, awareness of joy and excitement in the body, discomfort in standing so long, the sights of the light show, smell of perfume, bodies, alcohol
Going on a date Attention is drawn to the most compelling stimulus.  This might be anxious thoughts of whether or not you are doing or saying the right thing. Attention is on a goal, and on this particular date you want to make the person laugh. Attention is on what to say, how to say it, gauging how the person is responding, and adjusting accordingly.   Attention is on awareness and includes a rich experience of all aspects of the date: Awareness of internal dialogue of anxious thoughts, the desire to make the person laugh, awareness of the cool evening and the texture of your sweater, sense of connection to something larger and to the person directly.  
Being in an argument with a parent Attention is on the most compelling stimulus.  In this argument it is the feeling of rage and sense of injustice.  You’re following defensive trains of thought provoked at each part of the discussion. Attention is on a goal, in this scenario the goal is to prove your innocence and therefore focus is on systematically uncovering and exploiting the faults in the parent’s points. Attention is on awareness and therefore includes a rich experience of all aspects of the argument.  You are aware of feeling rage, of the narrative in your mind about being right and the desire to make the parent wrong.  Awareness of the parent and compassion for their experience is present. The environment is sensed vividly as well.

Dissolving the Default Mode Network

Michael Pollan (an American author, journalist, activist, and Lecturer and Professor at Harvard University) explains the role of the Default Mode Network in maintaining a sense of ego and the implications for its dissolution.

Contemplative Ideas on the Nature of Monkey Mind

While there is nothing wrong with the Monkey Mind (it is completely natural, afterall), undesired states result when we identify with the unintentional thoughts themselves and believe them to be who we are.  One beautiful metaphor to illustrate this describes all of consciousness (the essence of what we are) as the ocean; massive and wildly deep.  Despite being the whole ocean, we tend to identify as the waves (our thoughts). However, the waves are simply movements on the surface of the colossal and mighty ocean. The waves are energy moving over and through the water. To confine our sense of ourselves to the to the temporary movement on top of a larger whole is to vastly under-rate the magnitude of what people have touched on in states of Presence:  massiveness like the entire ocean.

“We all share a common simple impediment: our judging minds.  Regardless of our intentions in any situation, we haul around our past and future.  To relax our attention to the present moment is extraordinarily simple, but for most of us, it demands a lifetime of practice.” Ruth Zaporah, “Action Theater

How can you know that you are identified with your thoughts?  Your quickest path to understanding this is to explore it yourself directly (which is true of all of these concepts!).  Try the following exercise adapted from Michael Singer’s “The Untethered Soul” to recognize the thinking element of your Default Consciousness. 

Your Inner Roommate

(Adapted from “The Untethered Soul”)

 

Every one of us has a persistent inner dialogue running at all times.  In this exercise, we are going to take a few moments to really LISTEN to that inner voice.  Michael Singer likes to refer to this voice as your “Inner Roommate.”

  1. Find a quiet space to sit without distractions.
  2. Imagine you are sitting beside or across from another version of yourself.  This is going to be your Inner Roomate, now outside of your mind.
  3. When you begin, you will allow your inner voice to be coming from this second self, your roommate.  Every single thought that goes through your mind you will imagine coming out of their mouth- even if it is something you are imagining saying to them.  Your role is purely to LISTEN and NOTICE this roommate and what they are saying.  
  4. Set a timer for 2 minutes, and begin.
  5. After the timer goes off, record some of the things you noticed about your roommate.  What kind of things did they talk about? How did it seem like their mind worked? What personality characteristics would you attribute to them?  Would you want to befriend or live with this person in real life?

Default Consciousness does not notice this inner voice- it considers the inner voice and its experiences as itself.  But after doing that exercise, what do you think of that ‘self’? Did you notice any of the following?:

  • It can often speak without stopping
  • It can speak for (maybe it defends) both sides of an issue
  • It makes a lot of judgments about things (negative or positive)
  • It is easily distracted and may switch topics rapidly
  • It narrates what is happening (even though this narration does not impact what is happening)

This experience is the thinking aspect of Default Consciousness.

By listening and noticing these thoughts, you have started along the path of witnessing, as you created some separation between yourself and your thoughts.  

Eckhart Tolle talks about how our inner voice “comments, speculates, judges, compares, complains, likes and dislikes.”  While these processes serve an important function in helping us act in the world, it can be argued that our minds are doing this in overdrive. Our thoughts become compulsive and addictive and we continually replay them, especially the ones that make us sweat.

“What you judge you cannot understand.” – Anthony Demello, “Awareness”

Scenario (objective facts without interpretations) Story about scenario (Subjective judgments) Possible Payoffs (How the story serves us, most likely unconsciously)
My brother dropped his plate at dinner. My brother is clumsy. I get to feel superior to him. 

I get to see him as someone who needs help, which is a role I often fulfill and gives me purpose.  

I made less than a 65 on two exams in a biology class. I am stupid or incapable of learning biology. I’m bad at taking exams. I do not have to challenge myself to take more biology classes because it would clearly be a waste of time.

I can feel entitled to special conditions for exam taking (even though perhaps I don’t ordinarily struggle with them).

Every year my wife gives me an expensive gift for Christmas. My wife is generous and must love me very much. I get to feel loved.

I get to feel right about choosing to marry her.

I get to experience loving her.

While the events listed in the scenario column are objectively true, the interpretations and conclusions drawn from these events that are stipulated in the second column are not necessarily true.  Every narrative we have serves a function- it benefits us in some way. However, sometimes the benefit is to support a deeper narrative that is not ultimately contributing to our wellbeing, such as some of the payoffs in the final column.

When our minds are making up stories about reality, are we able to see what is happening underneath all of our interpretation?  Our minds are relentlessly trying to keep us alive, according to their evolutionary upbringing. They’re also using the myths and habits we’ve picked up during our lifetime. However, these things stop being useful when they begin to generate anxiety and depression.  Ruth Zaporah commented in her work on improvisation that “Analysis doesn’t create change. It only adds information to the already existing abundance.”

Ego

Ego is defined and used in a plethora of ways and in a wide variety of contexts.  There is very little agreement on how the scientific community defines it, especially in contrast to the Self.

 

Conventional Ego Self importance, self esteem
Psychological Ego According to Freud: The part of the mind that mediates between the conscious and the unconscious and is responsible for reality testing and a sense of personal identity.

Modern colloquial usage: “The narrating portion of human consciousness that reflects on one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions and inhibits or legitimizes them to one’s self and to others… similar to … identity.”

Philosophical Ego William James (a psychologist and philosopher of the mid 1800s) conceptualized a theory of self distinguishing an “I” and a “Me.” He considered the one we refer to as “I” the “Pure Ego,” (the experiencer) and “Me” as the object of experience.

Eckhart Tolle defines Ego as the unobserved mind that runs your life when you are not present as the witnessing consciousness.” 

Buddhism rejects the idea of a permanent, unchanging self or soul (Atman or Atta) and embraces the notion of a changing, conditioned self that is a combination of material and mental factors (Skandahs) that lead to desire and attachment.

While often used interchangeably, in the context of our discussion of Presence we will differentiate between the Self and Ego.  The Self is your sense of being “an autonomous individual with a coherent identity and sense of free will” (Sam Harris) and the Ego is the conditioned self, or your identity and self image. Somewhat akin to William James’ “I” and “Me”, the Self is the meta-observer of the Ego.  “I” observes “Me.”  

The reason it is important to differentiate the Self and the Ego in the context of Presence is because Presence is essentially an experience of Self-Transcendence.  Self-Transcendence is the subjective sense of losing the self replaced by a sense of being consciousness and feeling connectedness with something beyond the self. While it is impossible for a neurotypical person to truly dissolve the Self (it is our fundamental conscious experience and hardwired in the neural pathways that we have developed over our entire lifetimes) there are degrees of subjective experience of transcending the Ego and the Self that are associated with Presence.

Degrees of Subjective Transcendence in Presence

Default Consciousness Mindfulness Presence  Mythic Presence
Ego Identification Spectrum of Ego Transcendence Low end of Spectrum of Self Transcendence Furthest end of Spectrum of Self Transcendence
No awareness of an Ego.  The Self and the Ego are considered one and the same.   Still a strong sense of Self, but variation in how much one identifies with the Ego Still an awareness of operating from Self, but the sensation of Self is weak.  There is no association with the Ego, but an awareness of it is present. A sense of unity and interconnectedness with consciousness and everything beyond the conventional Self.  No direct experience of Self or Ego, but an awareness of them persists.
“I am happy.” “I notice that I am feeling happiness.” “There is consciousness, and within it there is the experience of happiness.” “All is one”

The Self is an Illusion
In this video, neuroscientist and author Sam Harris discusses the riddle of consciousness and the experience of being a Self.

The Ego emerges from the Thinking Mind and is the identity created by associating our sense of Self with our thoughts and emotions.  Many philosophers argue that the Ego cannot exist without our inner dialogue, and a host of neuroscientists (like Sam Harris and Bruce Hood) claim that the Self as a whole is an experience created by our various neural networks co-conspiring.  The Ego is a barrier to Presence in that it is comprised of labels and judgments, and therefore creates separation between the Self and the experience. In the spectrum of states of consciousness and how they relate to Ego, the experience of Presence is on the end of the range without labels and judgments, in which one has the sense that the Self is unified with the experience.  Mythic Presence would be just past this on the spectrum and be the total absence of these evaluations and the sense of a separate Self.

Thought Experiments on the Nature of Self and Identity

Ship of Theseus

Ship of Theseus has many proposed resolutions.  A conclusion of the thought experiment that supports our journey is that identity (a specific ship) is not determined by your qualities (the ship’s parts)- it is something beyond them and beyond a specific manifested collection of them.  Think of the components of yourself in this regard. An identity can be comprised of your age, job, passions, relationships, etc. If all of those things changed, would you still be you?  What is the essence of who you are, despite your labels and associations?

Descartes: “Cogito, Ergo Sum.”

People love to quote Descartes’ foundational philosophical statement, “I think, therefore I am.”  It became a core argument in Western philosophical thought — the knowledge that thinking is occurring is proof of our existence, that there is a thinker.  The validity or reality of the thoughts themselves are not as easily proven, but one can know that they know and thus know that they are.  

The tricky bit of this argument for the existence of Self is that beyond proving there is a thinker (Ego), it does not provide evidence that there is an “I” (Self) doing the thinking.  When we chase after the “I” and try to grasp it, it consistently evades us.  

The essential takeaway from these thought experiments is that you can disconnect from identifying with your thoughts (Ego).  In disconnecting, we notice that there is another way of experiencing and a different locus of Self.  You can sit in the awareness that holds all of these experiences and are not necessarily the one who the experiences are happening to.  Check out the following personal anecdotes of experiencing this perspective first-hand from real people.

Alex consistently has this experience in relation to his work.  As a computer programmer, he sits in front of his computer for the majority of the day resolving coding issues.  At least once daily he has the grounding recognition that he is a human being sitting in front of his computer, and sees the circumstances from a slightly distanced perspective while simultaneously experiencing them firsthand.

Chris typically gets triggered into this type of awareness when he flies.  As the plane takes off, he marvels at the miracle of flight. He becomes acutely conscious of being amongst all the other people, the force of the engine and the plane’s relationship to the earth.  While still directly experiencing being on the plane, he is also aware that he is experiencing being on a plane taking off.

During the birth of her son, Dana shared that she dissociated from her conventional identity.  While delivering her son in the act of pushing, she suddenly found herself separated from but intensely aware of the experience in a new way.  She expressed feeling that the birth was no longer personally happening to her, yet she was aware of consciously experiencing it. 

Just as our ability to think is a strategy we developed to maximize our chances of survival, the idea behind Presence is that the Ego developed as a refinement of that process.  Egos enable us to see ourselves as separate, vulnerable individuals. This can be an excellent survival strategy for a species as it generates individual desire for survival versus just survival of the whole.  While hive-mind does work for some species, our human individuality proved to be extremely successful.  It created competition and personal will to survive. The Ego motivates us to protect ourselves.

Eckhart Tolle claims that the Ego is always under threat because it is insecure and vulnerable.  The Ego spawns both positive and negative narratives, and the negative Ego-based narratives can create drama in our lives because they come from the perspective that the Ego’s survival can be threatened.  For example, our Egos react when we’re in an argument and become attached to being right. Being right allows the Ego (and ourselves if we are identifying with it) to feel safe, justified, knowledgeable, and in control.  There are also costs to this attachment to being right however, and Tolle’s perspective is that the reason we need to be right and win the argument is because being wrong presents the threat of annihilation of the Ego- and in the eyes of the Ego potential defeat is terrifying.  Annihilation is a strong concept, and it must be noted that is only one interpretation of causation for Ego behavior.  

“The secret to life is to ‘die before you die’ and find that there is no death.” – Eckhart Tolle

The Ego offers us many advantages, yet it often interferes with our ability to access Presence.  We no longer need to defend and protect ourselves in the same ways we did in earlier stages of our evolution because the threats we face today are different.   Disentangling the Self from the Ego enables greater degrees of Presence in our lives.

Emotion

Just as with many complex phenomena that we are discussing, emotion does not have an agreed-upon definition and varies depending on what discipline you’re approaching it from.  Dr. Dan Siegel defines emotions as signals that are passed to the central nervous system. When they enter consciousness, they show up as signals from the body that we experience as “feelings.”

For our purposes, we will define emotion as a subjectively experienced negative or positive feeling associated with thoughts, behaviors, and patterns of physiological activity often in reaction to a stimulus.

In the world of creative responsibility, the stimulus is always within us, in our mind.  When an event occurs, we interpret the event, and our emotions are a reaction to the interpretation of that event.   However, when operating from Default Consciousness, we assume that things are happening TO us and we are victims of life.  We react unconsciously to the events of our lives and perpetuate the stories that support our emotional reactions.

Emotions are a barrier to Presence in that we identify with them as ourselves and allow them to overwhelm us.  When we cannot see that we allow an emotion to take over us, we become consumed by it and dwell on it. This creates a cycle of thoughts reinforcing emotions, which in turn reinforce emotions, which reinforce thoughts, and so on. Some may call this ‘rumination’, which is one of the greatest quagmires of depression and anxiety.

In order to be released from this cycle, we have to recognize the emotion from a different location, that of Witness Consciousness, which is a doorway to Presence.

Suffering

Suffering is an aspect of Default Consciousness, deeply tied into our conditioning and our habit of identifying with emotion.  Society tends to lump suffering and pain together and use them interchangeably. However, suffering and pain can be distinguished.  Suffering is the emotional interpretation of pain, while pain is a physical experience often related to tissue damage. Suffering does not always need to come with pain; it is optional. 

Suffering is a barrier to Presence because it is a rejection of the present moment.  By resisting discomfort or pain and staying identified with the Ego, we are unable to experience what is present.  You cannot experience Presence if you are unwilling to experience what is unfolding in front of you in this current moment.

Some, like Buddhists, explain suffering as resistance to pain and discomfort in the body.  For example, if you were to break your leg there would be a great deal of pain there.  While this is extreme, the idea offered is that suffering comes because you do not want to experience the overwhelming pain, disability, or any other consequences of the event.  This is completely natural, as pain is incredibly uncomfortable.  This level of being with pain without resistance is on a monastic level, but there is a more accessible, everyday practice that is feasible for those of us without a lifetime of experience dedicated to managing our pain tolerance.

This everyday approach to reducing suffering is based in understanding how we interpret our lives.  By being aware of what we believe and how it colors our experience, we empower ourselves to choose narratives that serve us more effectively in the long run.  For example, the table below illustrates how suffering is an interpretation of pain.

Experience of Pain Experience of Suffering
The nausea and sharp stomach pains of food poisoning The resistance to and negative evaluation of the pain:  “This nausea is unbearable, I want it to stop.”
The feelings of heaviness, dullness, anxious energy, and exhaustion associated with heartbreak The classification of these sensations as heartbreak and the resistance to experiencing it: “I am heartbroken and deeply sorrowful— it feels like it could go on forever and I can’t get away from it.”

The psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach offers that we are more comfortable in our minds than we are in our bodies.  Bodies with all their autonomous functions and unpredictable pains or urges feel wild to us and beyond our control.  The mind feels as if it is more within our control, so when discomfort arises in the body, we choose to avoid it by going straight to intellectualizing the experience.  This resistance becomes suffering.   

This may surprise you, but it is possible to experience pain without suffering.  Of course, as mentioned before, there are various levels of intensity in this realm and the ability of not suffering under extreme circumstances is a life-long discipline.  By choosing not to resist our physical experience and electing to stay with discomfort in Presence or mindfulness, some studies suggest that it not only diminishes pain but improves immunity. (1, 2, 3) Check out Engaging in the Pathways to Presence section for more information on this process. Also check out our YSL section to learn more about perpetuating suffering by staying attached to limited narratives.

Time

“Your outer journey may contain a million steps; your inner journey only has one: the step you are taking right now.”  – Eckhart Tolle

Our concept of Time is a massive barrier to Presence.  Our belief in the past, present and future is a useful tool in our lives when it comes to getting things accomplished out in the world.  There are many perspectives on what Time is and questions regarding how we experience it, and new theories are being born and debated amongst physicists, cosmologists, and mathematicians regularly.  One idea that is relevant to Presence postulates that the conventional experience of Time is an illusion. While this is just one of many theories, it provides interesting thought experiments related to Presence.  If we conceive of Time as an absolute truth beyond subjective experience, it can be a hindrance to our experience of Presence in that focusing on the past or future can distract us from the vividness of the current moment.  

At the intersection of physics and philosophy, there are three main positions on the existence of time:

Eternalism Past, present, and future all exist equally and at the same time.  
Growing Block Universe The past and present exist but the future is undetermined. 
Presentism Only events and objects in the present exist.  The past and future only exist subjectively.

While we’re not about to elect a staunch position in this massive debate regarding absolute reality, we will posit that Presentism invites us through an open door to immersion in the richness of the Present moment.  How we choose to interpret our experience has massive implications for our wellbeing, and the view that the present is the most valuable point in time to focus on can offer compelling opportunities for wellbeing.

Eckhart Tolle is a huge proponent of this concept.  He argues again and again in his works on Presence that the past and the future live only in the mind and all that we can know without a doubt is what is occurring at the present moment.  The past is memory and the future is imagined, and while what is occurring presently is also a mental construction, it is the only point in time we can directly experience. Tolle’s theory is that the mind-identified self, our identity as Ego, is dependent on the existence of past and future.  As human beings, we are inclined to create cohesive narratives about our lives in order to affirm our sense of self, and this story of who we are is reliant on having a past and a future. While it may be extreme for the average person to try to totally dispel their connection with the past and future, Tolle suggests that the best way to free oneself from the mind is to “end the delusion of time.”  There are ways to loosen the grip of these time-based narratives without completely quashing them and thus enable more Presence in our lives in a more accessible way.

Choosing to believe in the future and past creates other complications.  By imagining what might happen we can generate fear in the forms of anxiety, dread, worry, tension, and phobia.  You cannot respond to events you imagine might occur in the future because they are not happening NOW- you can only plan for them and anticipate them.

“All forms of fear are caused by too much future and not enough presence.” – Eckhart Tolle

Other than these negative experiences, we also project salvation into the future.  By believing that what we want is in the future, we deny ourselves the possibility of experiencing joy NOW, which is the only time joy could ever be experienced.  This is not to say that in the event of an exceeding painful (or even simply uncomfortable) present, it is unreasonable to hope for change and improvement. That is normal – and it is possible in less extreme situations to both allow the pain and plan for future goodness. However, the vast majority of the time when we are not in such dire circumstances we still tend to focus on that next promotion, the future lover, or the party we’re going to on Friday instead of the lunch break we’re taking right now.    If you struggle to cultivate joy regarding this moment of respite and nourishment on your lunch break, will you be able to experience it to its fullest potential when you finally arrive at the moment you’ve been anticipating? Perhaps at the party on Friday you’ll be distracted by thoughts about the presentation you have to give on Monday. 

That being said, we have lives to live and we do (even if only subjectively) experience the passing of time.  It is only reasonable to be practical about contributing to a satisfying future present. This excerpt from an interview of Tolle by Oprah explains that we can dedicate all of our attention to planning (read: “be present with the act of planning”) without fantasizing about or dreading the future.

Our identities reside in the past, in our memories and the stories we’ve constructed to tie them together in a meaningful way.  Tolle talks about how our past experiences inform our present experience and how we often still have to deal with the past in order to access Presence.  The key to this is dealing with the past on the level of the present, and meeting what is alive in the current moment (in regards to trauma, this becomes more complex and likely requires much deeper psychological and therapeutic work). Dwelling on events that are not relevant to what is happening Now can create unnecessary suffering.

Other Barriers to Presence

Conceiving of Presence

On the Presence landing page we discussed how Presence is ineffable.  It is not an idea that can be sufficiently understood with language. Language is a series of symbols and abstractions that point to the thing, but are not the thing itself.  When it comes to trying to understand Presence, we can sometimes block ourselves from experiencing it by having expectations about what it is.  This experience is easy to have when we are conditioned to use our minds to understand things. Knowing Presence is not possible through language and thinking.  There are many layers to peel away to gain greater understanding of what it is- and it is most certainly a peeling away. In order to get as close as we can to understanding it without knowing it through direct experience, we would need to uncondition our thoughts and expectations regarding what we imagine it could be.

“You cannot think about Presence.  You can only BE it.” – Eckhart Tolle

Cultural Conditioning and Attentional Commons

We’ve been talking a lot about conditioning.  We have a massive amount of cultural conditioning to reconcile along the path to Presence- that is, we’ve been taught to value and pay attention to things in our cultures that may interfere with our ability to allow Presence to occur.  A significant barrier to Presence in this realm is the exploitation of Attentional Commons.

Matthew Crawford, an American author and research fellow at the University of Virgina, suggests viewing attention as a resource like water or fuel.  It can be exploited like water or fuel, too. Our attention gets monopolized by advertising and the ubiquitous pressure of social media everywhere we turn.  Unfortunately, we are wired to pay attention to distractions (exogenous attention) and therefore become helplessly captured by the excessive information being played against our innate responses to stimuli. 

The exploitation of attention is a cultural barrier to Presence in that it is possibly shortening our attention span, which in turn makes it more difficult to stay present and hyper-aware.  Paying attention is a skill that must be built, and our culture is currently set up to make that task very difficult.

The Paradox of Objectives: Spiritual Bypass, Repression, Relief Seeking, and Passivity

An easy trap to fall into is having an objective when practicing Presence.  Paradoxically, if we are seeking to achieve something (such as enlightenment, healing, joy, or relief), our objective can interfere with our ability to be present.  When we are focused on an outcome, we are focused on the future and have designs and expectations on the experience. When we have expectations, we are not open to what is actually there, and being fully accepting of exactly what is occurring is a fundamental prerequisite for being present.

It is also possible to fall into the trap of repression or spiritual bypass in the practice of Presence.  It is the phenomenon of excluding or avoiding negative experience by directing your attention toward pleasurable or peaceful experiences instead.  Spiritual Bypass is a form of repression specific to spiritual practices, and while cultivating Presence is not fundamentally spiritual, many may choose to approach it that way.   Repression can occur when trying to cultivate Presence when practitioners prematurely ‘transcend’ unresolved psychological wounds before making peace with them. People can effort to align with what they perceive as a more valuable way of being in the world and end up avoiding the uncomfortable and ugly parts of their humanity in favor of a persona that they believe to be right or better.  You may be repressing or spiritually bypassing if you do not experience a depth of uncomfortable emotion in your practice and maintain beliefs around what things should or should not look like for you and others.  

Relief Seeking is another paradox-of-objective type of barrier to Presence.  This is slightly different from repression in that it is a conscious approach to avoiding negative experience, while repression is not.  Relief Seeking is the process of looking for relief from discomfort outside of ourselves in the external world. These are habits that dull or lessen the intensity of our emotions, but do not resolve our emotional challenges long term.  Relief Seeking habits can include eating, drinking, smoking, drugs, shopping, and media consumption to name a few (even meditation could be relief seeking!). These ‘Epicurean Diversions’ are a big topic in the subject of happiness. In fact, ‘Happiness’ in this way can even be a hindrance.

“What you resist, persists.” – C. G. Jung

A final trap (or misinterpretation, rather) that may befall a novel practitioner of Presence is mistaking accepting a situation for resigning to it.  As discussed in this section, Presence is neither passive nor without preference.  When first being introduced to these concepts, it may be easy to establish awareness around an experience without consciously taking responsibility for it or using the awareness to neutralize our attachments, therefore creating a passive practice.  From a state of true Presence we are actively engaging with a situation and therefore more intimate with its causes and effects. By showing up in this way, we empower ourselves to make informed decisions and take action. This is different from allowing an experience to be and choosing to accept it when you have a preference for it to be different, which is more akin to repression.  

As an extreme example, imagine a situation where someone was inflicting violence on you.  Using the state of Presence as a means of neutralizing your fear or acquiescing to your lack of control over the situation would be an avoidant strategy and not truly Presence.  Presence encompasses your fear, your lack of control, and your desire for the situation to be different, without making any of that wrong. It puts you in deeper contact with what you care about and enables wise, informed choices.  In this particular example, the reality may be that you do not have control over the outcome- a tragic reality that befalls so many people.

So now that we know what it is and what gets in the way, how do you cultivate Presence?  This section dives into approaches to creating the experience of Presence in our lives.

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