Pathways to Presence

The trickiest and perhaps most empowering quality of learning to cultivate Presence is that no one can teach you explicitly how to have the experience of it.  Every individual will have their own conditioning to deconstruct and their own process to develop. Because every one of us is complex in unique ways, we will all have different maps to Presence. 

Presence is about embracing what is alive in the moment, and that will change drastically from person to person. Anthony Demello, author of “Awareness,” claims that techniques for experiencing Presence interfere with it: “The moment you pick up a technique, you’re programmed again.”  Presence is more a practice of deprogramming your current conditioning rather than programming a new way of being in the world.

All this being said, there are a host of resources out there developed by teachers, practitioners, and scientists to provide guidance on your journey.  Those who have experienced Presence are happy to share what has worked for them. What’s more is that people are also quite similar, especially within a given culture. Not only do we share 99.9% of our DNA, we also all generally have an incredibly prescribed educational experience.  We take for granted that we know what complex things, like cultural norms or even what a ‘house’ is. On top of that, we have a language that constrains us enormously. While there is not a guaranteed method that will work for everyone, because we are conditioned similarly in some of the most significant ways, we should be able to find success using the same general tools.  Hopefully, these resources will be helpful to you.

And, we urge you to take them as suggestions rather than laws.

Also, as you navigate your efforts in this realm, be conscious not to get stuck in the paradoxical trap of having Presence as a goal.  There is a delicate line to tread between practicing without attachment and being thwarted by believing you know the way and the destination.  In other words, being on the journey for the journey itself is the actual practice of Presence, while trying to achieve Presence will ironically displace it into the future!

Witness, Engage, Be

Looking into Presence and how it’s taught, you’ll find that there are different stages to the practice.  We’ve organized the ideas into the areas of “Witnessing”, “Engaging”, and “Being”. After reading these sections, head to the next page for Presence practices and exercises that include all of these stages. 

Witness

Witnessing is the process of noticing your own experience- what physical sensations, thoughts, and feelings are occurring within you?  By embracing what we are experiencing we gain a type of understanding beyond what our Default Consciousness can conceptualize. Witnessing is how we interact with our experience from a state of Presence- by paying keen attention to it.

“This is Water” is a commencement speech delivered by David Foster Wallace regarding the practice of inquiry in regards to what is real.  He urges us to pay attention to what we accept without question in our lives and advocates for us to take responsibility for how we interpret our experience.

“…Learning how to think really means learning to exercise some control over how and what you think.  It means being conscious and aware enough to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.” – David Foster Wallace

While “This is Water” focuses on how to think, and Presence eschews the intellectualization of experience, David Foster Wallace points out our tendency to unconsciously accept a conditioned reality.  Witnessing is about noticing and paying attention to the “water.”

Mindfulness Meditation

Meditation is the classic approach to cultivating the experience of Presence.  There are a wide variety of meditation techniques that all have different focuses.  Meditation practices as a whole have been divided into two categories: Focused Attention and Open Monitoring.  In Western culture, mindfulness meditation, a type of Open Monitoring meditation, became popular in the 70s when Jon Kabat-Zinn began promoting MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) techniques as a secularized use of meditation practices.  The objective of mindfulness meditation is to gain greater insight into the functioning of your mind through dedicated observation without judgment, then to modify these habits through acknowledging them and practicing techniques that strengthen your attention.  

It is important to emphasize that mindfulness is not Presence.  Mindfulness can serve as a stepping stone to Presence, in that it fulfills the stage of Witnessing.  Mindfulness is keeping consciousness attuned to the present moment, not necessarily being in the present moment. It often employs the analytical thinking mind to the experience being observed and the practitioner tends to maintain a sense of Ego.  Mindfulness and meditation in general are methods, while Presence is a state of consciousness.

None of this is said to demean the value of mindfulness meditation.  In fact, it is essential to the process of cultivating Presence. Check out our section on mindfulness to learn more about it and discover a variety of techniques.

Degree of Presence Default Consciousness  Mindfulness  Presence Mythic Presence
Degree of Ego Unaware of and directed by Ego Aware of some Ego and still influenced by it Aware of Ego and not influenced by it in the moment Free of Ego
Role of Ego Victimization- a sense that this is happening to you.  Full immersion in the experience of being the center of your world, lack of awareness of context. Perhaps trying to use mindfulness techniques to center yourself and escape the stress you are experiencing. You are aware of urges to change or control your experience but do not identify with them in the moment. Absent
Experience of waiting for a late bus Irritated by the bus being late, feeling stressed and thinking about how your boss will react when you interrupt the meeting because you’re late. Awareness of feeling irritated and thoughts about your boss, awareness of your elevated heart rate.  An objective lens of the experience of yourself waiting for the bus amongst all the other people and within the larger context of your day, week, year, and life.   Awareness of your awareness as you wait for the bus, leading to a rich experience of body sensations, emotions, and monitoring thoughts without identifying with them. Awareness of environment and other people.   Awareness of context of time and personal narratives. Sense of peace, compassion for yourself and others waiting for the bus, and awe.   The experience of Presence, with an intense experience of one-ness with all things and others.  A lack of self and feelings of peace, awe, gratitude, love, timelessness.  
Please Note: Presence is NOT indifferenceWhile Presence may relieve resistance to a situation you do not want to be in, this does not mean you do not/cannot prefer a different or better circumstance in Presence.  Consciously being aware of this and engaging with your reaction empowers you to make new choices in the future. Being Present with your stress around the bus being late may lead to you choosing to find other transportation on more time-sensitive days, or make conditional arrangements at work in case the bus is late in the future.  Presence used as an opiate is actually avoiding what is occurring.

“And in the process of following one story to the other, you can see mindfulness meditation in a new light, a light that emphasizes how much more than casually therapeutic it can be; a light that shows it to be one of the most radical undertakings imaginable, a rebellion against the very laws that govern human existence.”  – Robert Wright, Author and Professor of Science and Religion.  From his article, “What is Nirvana?

**Note on Practices for Presence: 

It is not necessary to meditate or have a sitting practice to access Presence.  You do not have to sit down and do breathwork for this to be a part of your life.  Presence can happen in little moments throughout your day that you dip into with skills that can be learned through mindfulness and meditation practices.  Many of the following skills and ideas are options to help you access Presence regardless of where you are or what you’re doing. You do not have to be sitting on a pillow with incense burning to cultivate these moments!  

Being Present in your life is about being Present while living- in the mundane moments of washing the dishes, attending a boring lecture, folding laundry, or getting dressed.  Things like listening to a friend, holding your lover’s hand, doing your taxes, drinking a cup of coffee, going for a run, chopping an onion, getting a splinter, learning to dance, singing a song, or holding your family are all moments with incredible potential for the richness and connection offered by Presence.

First, Recognize that You Are Not Present

A foundational step is noticing when you are not Present.  We mostly operate from Default Consciousness, which means we are on auto-pilot and not Present.  Instead, we are in our heads thinking about the past or the future. There are degrees of being Present, and noticing that you are not Present gets your foot in the door leading to full immersion in the moment.

To help us recognize when we are not Present, teachers have compiled some helpful questions  Using these gentle questions to bring your awareness to what is happening and inquiring within opens you up to the Now.  

  • Questions
    • “Am I at ease in this moment?”  (Tolle)
    • “What is going on inside me at this moment?” (Tolle)
    • What am I resisting at this moment?” (Brach)

See the following table for an example of potential answers to these questions in various situations:

 

Situation Am I at ease in this moment? What is going on inside me at this moment? What am I resisting at this moment?
Meeting your significant other’s family for the first time No, I am feeling nervous. My heart rate is elevated, I’m feeling strained to carry conversations and pressuring myself to make a positive impression. I’m resisting being my authentic self and connecting truthfully with these new people (likely for fear of being rejected by them and the implications that could have for ease in my relationship)
Picking out fruit in the grocery store Yes, I am not feeling pressured or anxious about choosing- more so excited to enjoy whichever one I pick. I have a sense of excitement and interest in experiencing an apple or/and orange.  I have a mild hunger.  I am not resisting in this moment.  
Watching a television show I’m slightly uneasy in that I feel bored and disinterested in the program.  I feel too lazy to change activities.  There is tension in my chest and my body feels heavy.  I sense a restlessness and dissatisfaction.  I’m not sure- I feel resistance to the entertainment I’m subjecting myself to and I feel resistant to making decisions or being active.  Perhaps I am resistant to the moment itself.  

It is important to note that it is normal and biologically programmed into us to want to avoid the more extreme tragedies of human life- things like starvation, addiction, rape, or torture.  If we are experiencing anything like those, it is clear that accepting such a situation does not suffice to resolve it. Naming and acknowledging our aversions is not tantamount to fixing the situation.  It is a means of relating to the present moment with peace that is often beyond our conditioning.  Accepting that we are experiencing suffering or pain and that we want things to be different does not imply ambivalence or acquiescence to the event.  Read the Engage section for more on this idea.

Another signal that can redirect your attention to Now is noticing if you are being affected by one of the Three Afflictions, or the Kleshas as they are known in Mahayana Buddhism.  The Afflictions are mental-emotional states that occur when we want the present moment to be different.  We believe that what is happening is not enough or could be better. Bringing attention to them and naming them allows us the opportunity to accept what we are trying to avoid.

  • Aversion (Dvesha)
    • Feelings of hatred or avoidance
  • Delusion (Moha)
    • Also described as ignorance (not seeing the ‘water’)
  • Attachment (Raga)
    • Feelings of clinging, strong desire, or greed

The following ‘Trance Signs’ were offered in a lecture by Tara Brach about Embodied Presence.  She considers Trance to be an unconscious state of being– essentially, being wrapped up in Default Consciousness and avoiding being Present.   If you recognize that you are experiencing any of the following Trance Signs, you will know that you are not Present. When any of these experiences are happening, we’re avoiding being HERE in the present moment, likely due to craving or aversion.

  1. Obsessive Thinking
    Any pattern of thought that is charged and continues to repeat itself and come back up.  Tara offered, “The intensity of our obsessing is in direct proportion to our unwillingness to feel what is in our body.”
  2. Judgment
    This process is an aversive and blaming action that shows up in the narrative of, “Something is wrong with them or me.”
  3. Distracting or Numbing
    Includes behaviors like eating, drinking, drugs, etc.
  4. Rushing Around
    Accompanied by the story, “I don’t have enough time, there is too much to do.”  Tara suggests countering this with the narrative: “I have no time to rush!”
Trance Signs Situational Examples
Situation Obsessive Thinking Judgment Distracting or Numbing Rushing
Feeling tired when coming home from work and the house is a wreck.  You have guests coming the next day. Repeatedly thinking, “I’m so exhausted.  This house is so filthy. I really need to clean it, I really need to chill out.”  This thinking does not translate to action. Thinking: “I am not capable of having a full time job and maintaining this home.  I’m a lazy person.” Coming home and immediately sitting down in front of the television and spending the evening binge-watching. Coming home and despite feeling tired rushing through all of the chores to clean the house.  
Forgetting a close friend’s birthday Repeatedly thinking: “She is going to be so mad at me!  I have to come up with a way to make it up to her.” Thinking: “I am a bad friend.” Choosing to keep scrolling on a social media site and focus on other subjects when you remember you had forgotten their birthday. Finding a dozen other tasks to engage with and rushing through them, rather than reach out to this friend.
Being around a friend or partner that you have recently had a conflict with but have not resolved Replaying the conflict over and over again in your mind- what was said and done is envisioned constantly. “They are being a jerk right now and overly sensitive.” Deciding to have a few drinks to calm down while you’re around them. Creating a list of tasks that feel urgent and engaging in them all evening.  (Clean the whole house, go grocery shopping, cook a huge meal).

Witnessing Mind-Body Aspects

The Difference Between Perceiving, Observing and Sensing

Sensing is how information is processed during Presence.
It can be confusing to understand how sensing relates to Witnessing and Presence itself.  To clarify how the three are related, the table below offers a breakdown.

Presence is a state of being. Witnessing is paying attention to your experience.  It includes Sensing, Perceiving, and Observing. Sensing is how information is processed (a type of witnessing) during the state of Presence.

Sensing is different from perceiving and observing.  Perception is a somewhat passive process in which we receive information from our environment.  On the other hand, sensing and observing are active, intentional ways to process information. While sensing acts as a channel of information, observing acts more to create information.  In order to observe there must be a localized observer that is narrating an experience. When sensing, there is little identification with (and none in the case of Mythic Presence) narration or a localized self.  The process is more akin to allowing things to unfold within your awareness rather than strictly observing them. 

Example Situation  Perceiving Observing Sensing
Having a drink with a friend The automatic processing of stimuli in the environment: hearing the sound of your friend’s voice, seeing things in front of you like the cafe and other people, tasting and feeling what you are consuming.  The interpretation of the perception data: Determining the sounds are your friend’s voice or cars driving by.  Determining that what you see is your friend’s face and that you taste your beer.   The awareness of and immersion in the information that is being perceived without labeling or interpreting it.  The intentional, vivid experience of hearing, seeing, tasting.
Taking a shower The automatic processing of stimuli in the environment: hearing the sound of the water coming from the pipe and hitting the floor, seeing things in front of you like the tile and your shampoo bottle, feeling the heat of the water and the softness of the soap.  The interpretation of the perception data: Determining the sounds is the movement of the water and your feet squelching on the ground..  Determining that what you see is a wall and that the temperature you feel is hot.   The awareness of and immersion in the information that is being perceived without labeling or interpreting it.   The intentional, vivid experience of hearing, seeing, feeling.
A first kiss The automatic processing of stimuli in the environment: hearing the sound of your lover’s breath, seeing their eyes, feeling their skin and the nervous energy in your gut.  The interpretation of the perception data: Determining the sounds are your lover’s breath.  Determining that what you see are their eyes and face and that the emotion you are experiencing is nervousness, excitement, and joy. The awareness of and immersion in the information that is being perceived without labeling or interpreting it.   The intentional, vivid experience of hearing, seeing, feeling.

The language around witnessing gets a little fuzzy here.  We tend to think of witnessing as ‘observing’ and ‘watching’ the mind.  The hang-up is our tendency to maintain our ego. In order to Witness in regards to deep Presence,  we cannot identify with the witness. While typically “to witness” is synonymous with “to observe,” for our purposes we will equate “witnessing” with “sensing” because sensing is the type of information processing that occurs during Presence.  An important distinction between Mindfulness and Presence is clear here: in secularized Mindfulness practice, observation is how one processes inputs. In Presence, however, inputs are conveyed through consciousness without the analytical labeling that is involved in observation.  This is the difference between mindfully observing that you are feeling nervous and sensing that there is a feeling being experienced without labeling it as nervousness or discomfort. To get a bit meta with you, one can also witness that there are thoughts occurring, such as the thought process of labeling the experience as nervousness.

Eckhart Tolle describes Presence as a flash of “no mind.”  This means there is no mental processing of inputs- they simply exist.  This would be an extreme example and would fall into the Mythic Presence category.  In accessible Presence, witnessing simply does not translate inputs into meaning the same way thinking would.  It notices the inputs and ideally does not apply labels or evaluations.  

Remember the ocean-depths spectrum of Presence we touched on on the “What is Presence?” page?  Further differences in the quality of these depths can be clarified in regards to witnessing.

Conventional Presence Presence Mythic Presence
Depth Shallow  Moderate to Deep Extreme
Relationship to information processing Observational Sporadic Witness Consciousness/Sensing Immersion in Sensing/ loss of self / sense of total unity with experience/ lack of awareness around sensing or processing
Practices in relation to listening to a song Listening to a song, knowing/ interpreting that you are listening to a song, knowing that there is a you listening to the song, judgments and evaluations in relation to the song Allowing listening, experiencing sound without interpretation, awareness of judgments and evaluations without identifying with them, sense of peace, satisfaction, and wonder. A sense of being the experience of listening, the experience of elation, peace,wonder,  and unity. 

Another way to describe sensing is to relate it to being.  Simply existing with what is occurring around and within you and paying close attention to those things is sensing them.  There is a distinct sense of aliveness and alertness to receiving whatever arises in the moment without clinging or aversion.

In Presence, thinking does not stop.  While you are sensing you may notice thoughts come and go as your attention ebbs and flows.  While cultivating Mindfulness (and subsequently Presence) the quality of thinking changes. It becomes less compulsive and obsessive and opens you up to choosing different ways of being. 

Acceptance and Gentleness

When Witnessing our Mind-Body Aspects through Mindfulness techniques, it is essential to approach the practice with acceptance and gentleness.  Meditation and Presence teachers urge others to notice emotions and thoughts without analysis or judgment. When we analyze or evaluate, we fall back into the trap of thinking and exit Presence.  

Beginners may actually benefit from a labeling exercise (which constitutes “observing”), but only to help sharpen their witnessing ability.  Labeling can easily cross the line into judgment and evaluation, ultimately interfering with Presence by putting us in the world of language and concepts. However, it is an excellent place to begin.  Related: we are all working to understand our feelings better.

Example Situation: Thoughts, Emotions, Mind-Body Aspects Labeling (Mindfulness, Observing) Judging/Evaluating (Without Witnessing becomes Default Consciousness) Witnessing  with Sensing, Presencing
“This conversation is taking too long.”   That thought is a criticizing thought.  I notice a feeling of anxiety. That thought is a bad thought to have.  The anxiety I feel is a sign of weakness. There are thoughts that come and go.  There are rich and unique sensations in the body. 
“I wish I were already in Hawaii.” That thought is future focused.  I notice a feeling of boredom. That thought is not serving my present situation and therefore bad.  My boredom is unwelcome. There are thoughts that come and go.  There are rich and unique sensations in the body. 
“I love my mother.” That thought is present-focused but regarding something that isn’t in front of me.  The emotion of love is present. That thought is positive and justified.  Feeling love is good for me.  There are thoughts that come and go.  There are rich and unique sensations in the body. 
Simple Labeling Exercise

After coming to a restful state through grounding breathwork,  and establishing an awareness of body, mind, and external space, shift into a state of open awareness to receive whatever arises.  

Wait alertly in this state, sensing emotions, thoughts, sensations and perceptions.  

When thoughts flow through your mind, allow them to bubble up and dissipate.  Notice their content but do not identify with them. If you get swept up with the thought, gently bring yourself back to a state of open awareness in which you feel anchored and clear. Remember to let, not make this happen.

While noticing the content, label thoughts in any of the following ways:
Past, Present, Future
Planning, Inventing, Fantasizing,  Remembering, Regretting, Criticizing

Other options are to work with body sensations or emotions.  We recommend choosing one category to focus on for the exercise.

Name body sensations as they arise:
Hard, Soft, Warm, Cold, etc.

Label emotions that you notice:
Happiness, Sadness, Anger, Anticipation, Fear, Joy, Peace, etc

Once a thought or sensation or emotion is labeled, allow it to pass and remain calmly alert for others to arise.  Continue until your chosen time has elapsed.

You may have noticed from the exercise that it is important to allow thoughts to come and go without clinging or aversion.  Allowing them to flow without judging is a way of being gentle with what is arising and ultimately with yourself. Thich Nhat Hanh advises us to treat ourselves and our discomfort as we would a frightened child.  We must “be there” for ourselves with loving kindness.

Questioning the Nature of Self and Reality

Witnessing can also be employed to discover greater truths about our reality.  Refer back to the Inner Roommate, Ship of Theseus, and Descartes to explore this concept further.  When practicing deep inquiry as to the nature of ourselves, consciousness, and existence, we uncover elements of Presence.  

Witness Processes Summary:

  • Mindfulness Meditation
    • Recognize you are not present with Questions, the 3 Afflictions, or Trance States
    • Sensing Mind-Body Aspects (Emotions, Perceptions, Sensations, Thoughts)
  • Personally questioning the Nature of Self and Nature of Reality

Engage

“Feelings, whether of compassion or irritation, should be welcomed, recognized, and treated on an absolutely equal basis; because both are ourselves.”  – Thich Nhat Hanh

“This belongs in this moment.” Tara Brach on giving permission to the experience of pain.

“The intensity of pain depends on the degree of resistance to the present moment, and this in turn depends on how strongly you are identified with your mind.” – Eckhart Tolle

Engaging is the act of accepting what is without resistance.  It is allowing what is occurring in the moment to exist without trying to change it, fix it, or avoid it.  This practice is especially difficult when what is occurring is painful or uncomfortable.   

As we discussed earlier, resistance to an experience creates suffering.
Perhaps this sounds intimidating.  The suggestion that we would fully engage the most painful experiences we could have is terrifying for most of us, and against all of our conditioning.  This practice implies not only opening the floodgates on our euphoria, our love, our passion, but also on our grief, our longing, and our physical pain. We have strategies to avoid these painful experiences for a reason!

 

Alan Watts

“Because consciousness must involve both pleasure and pain, to strive for pleasure to the exclusion of pain is, in effect, to strive for the loss of consciousness.”

Philosopher Alan Watts proposes in his book, “The Age of Anxiety,” that all things within consciousness have an opposite.  In order to experience pleasure, pain will be possible. He posits that to avoid pain is akin to avoiding consciousness and thus aliveness.
He goes on to conclude that in order to experience the richness of our joy and pleasure, we also develop heightened sensitivity to pain.

“To drink more fully of the fountain of pleasure, it has brought forth capacities which make man the more susceptible to pain.”

Resistance to our experience (and we can resist both negative AND positive experiences for various reasons) actually empowers and reaffirms that which we are avoiding.  Most of the time what we are avoiding is an interpretation of the situation, versus the situation itself.  

You may feel that being broken up with is painful and want to resist the experience and anger that accompanies it.  The interpretation that being broken up with is bad and can cause you pain may inform choices you make in your relationship.  Perhaps it creates a dynamic that pushes your partner away. Likewise, you may become uncomfortable with an intimate connection that develops because you fear the potential pain of the relationship ending after you’ve become attached.  Even though you have a strong connection with this partner, your story of possible future pain may lead you to avoid the relationship altogether. By deciding that something is wrong and then confirming that judgment by making choices to validate it, we further lock in that narrative and make it more challenging to release or overcome.

Some experiences are far more extreme to engage with and would be best supported by the help of a professional counselor.  Cognitive Reappraisal, a psychological strategy to reframe how a subject interprets an event to lower an event’s emotional impact, is a common therapeutic approach to dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  For example, someone recovering from rape is very likely to have been heavily traumatized by the experience. To engage with the trauma is to engage not only with the emotions and memories, but also with the narrative that rape is wrong and how that interpretation impacts the person’s present life experience.  

To be clear, we are not in any way justifying rape or deeming it morally passable.  Instead, we are looking at how qualifying an experience or action as wrong creates resistance and therefore suffering in the current moment.  How do we continue to allow the trauma to impact our present reality? One can recognize an event as wrong and tragic, and not want it to occur to themselves or others, all while consciously choosing not to give the event power over their current experience. 

While there is not a need to “overcome” positive experiences in the same way as negative, becoming attached to a positive experience can still lead to suffering and remove you from the full joy that is possible in the moment.  It is normal to attach to positive experiences, of course we want more good feelings! However, when we begin to focus on wanting to sustain a positive experience, we begin to project into the future and can become distracted from the richness of Present joy by a fear of lacking the current feelings later on.  

It is often easier to be Present with joy than it is to be Present with sorrow- and we are suggesting to treat them with equal engagement and non-attachment.  It is challenging to fully feel or experience something when we are distracted by a fear of the feeling ending or lasting forever. This doesn’t mean one should not desire more good than bad in their life, as this is a natural and healthy ambition.  However, we can elicit more from this desire for goodness by honoring the motivation and consciously working toward it rather than being swept up by fantasy or fear.

“…feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.” – Pema Chödrön

Contemplatives, scientists, and spiritual practitioners of Presence implore us to ‘surrender’ to these emotional and physical experiences.  We can reframe our fear-based interpretations of these events as negative and traumatic (or perhaps as ‘not enough’ in the case of positive ones) to opportunities for growth, learning, and healing.  These feelings, sensations, and ideas are our personal maps to Presence. By sensing them and allowing them to flow through us, we come deeply into the moment and reap a host of powerful benefits.

Engaging is a conscious choice involving acknowledgement of what is present through witnessing and then permitting it to exist.  In many contemplative explanations, words like ‘surrender’ are used for this same concept.  It can be easy to mistake surrendering with being passive, or in other words, a way of not addressing challenges.  However, it is vital to the point to see this surrendering as fully stepping into and engaging an experience. Surrendering to what is alive in you is not the same as resignation, which would be essentially “giving in” or “giving up” in the face of these experiences.  Engagement is an active, empowered choice to feel and permit what has arisen. Further action may be inspired by surrender/engagement, and these choices will be more powerful because they will not originate from a desire to suppress or avoid- they will be positive action toward what you do want, not away from what you do not want. In other words, engaging with what’s alive in us allows us to find our integrity, acting closer to how we truly want to act.

Comparison of Engaging vs. Passive Surrender
Situation Active Engaging/Surrender Passive Surrender
Being unsatisfied with your job Feeling and then examining your dissatisfaction and it’s causes. Perhaps the problem is your attitude or perspective?  You acknowledge that you are choosing this situation. This engagement may lead to choosing to leave the job, realignment with what you value at this job and making peace with the inconveniences, or taking steps to address the things that bother you about it. Acknowledging that you are unsatisfied and seeing the situation as something you have no control over.  Choosing to accept that the job is unsatisfying and not addressing or trying to understand what makes it unsatisfying.
Having an unhealthy and upsetting relationship with a relative Noticing the irritation and thoughts that come up in this person’s company and examining the nature of the relationship.  Acknowledging that you are choosing this dynamic and asking if you want it to continue. This may lead to defining more severe boundaries, or perhaps confronting the conflict, revealing judgments and feelings, and finding new understanding or agreements. Acknowledging that you are unhappy with this relationship while believing that this person will always be this way and there is nothing that can be done to change the dynamic.  You do not address the situation.

Consciously Choose the Present Moment

To surrender, we must take responsibility for the experience we are having by consciously choosing to experience it.  When we empower ourselves to elect what is happening in the moment, we become aligned with the flow of our experience.  By choosing to see events as our allies, we welcome the unfolding of growth, learning, and change, versus attempting to force these things.

Accept the Unknown

Our minds naturally attempt to understand things by projecting information from past experiences onto the future or things that we do not understand.  This process is an adaptation that has served us tremendously well in predicting threats and acquiring resources. However, we can limit ourselves by assuming the nature of things or dodging that which is unknown.  When something is unknown, we feel out of control. Our minds work to understand or predict the unknown to give us a greater degree of control, or in one sense, a greater chance of survival.  

We often resist the unknown because it feels unsafe.  We resist the intimidating wilderness of our bodies because it feels out of our control; we resist challenging conversations because we project our fears onto the outcome.  In Presence, surrendering to the unknown is essential to being in the Now. Allowing the unknown to unfold is a powerful step in cultivating Presence.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

— Jellaludin Rumi

Be

“Rushing into action, you fail. Trying to grasp things, you lose them.” – Tao Te Ching

Folks who struggle with meditation often comment that being still is too challenging for them.  A reason this becomes an issue for people is because they are trying to do “being.”  Ironically, being is totally effortless– we are “being” by default all the time.  Our thinking mind and our exertion are what interfere with allowing it.  

Once we surrender to our experience, being with the experience is sensing it within a state of open awareness- ultimately, this is the experience of Presence itself.  We might be sensing the ebb and flow of emotion or physical discomfort, or perhaps experiencing space that exists between the content of our Mind-Body Aspects. Being is being in-touch with and dwelling within our consciousness in a hyper-aware manner.

Dan Siegel portrays the experience of Presence with his Wheel of Awareness.  

In this model of Awareness, Presence occurs when we operate from within the “hub,” or awareness itself (center of the wheel).  Instead of being on/identified with the rim (Mind-body aspects and Default Consciousness), we are focusing our attention on awareness itself, which in turn encompasses attending to everything that is happening on the rim.  If the spoke (attention) is represented by a beam of light and the hub (awareness) is like a flood light, Presence is directing attention back on awareness and therefore shining light on all elements of the rim.

When we can settle into this ultra-conscious state of being, people report feeling clarity, aliveness, vividness, peace, euphoria, connection, unity, openness, and the list goes on.  

Eckhart Tolle describes this state as a special kind of waiting.  In this particular definition of waiting, we enter a state of calm alertness, consistently and sharply receptive to what arises around and within us.  He tells the story of Buddhist monks sneaking up on students during meditation practice to see if they are alert or distracted in their practice. If a student is present, they will notice their teacher approaching.  Otherwise, they are lost in thought or sensation and might get hit with a stick!

Put what you’ve learned into practice. The next page in this chapter is considerably full of action-oriented approaches to presence. We’ll look at different avenues into presence as ‘Portals’ as we exercise our knowledge so far.

Presence What Is Presence Barriers to Presence Pathways to Presence Benefits of Presence Presence Practice and Exercises Presence Quotes Presence Resources