Experiential Portals to Presence
The human experience offers a wealth of stimuli, and each of these are a unique access point to a state of Presence. Our array of sensations is like a buffet of invitations to being present. We previously touched on emotional and physical suffering and will expand on that slightly here. In the following section we will explore other experiential portals to Presence including the body, breath work, nature, and the experiences of nothingness and emptiness.
The Body and the Breath
“Our bodies know that they belong; it is our minds that make our lives so homeless.” –John O’ Donohue (Irish poet, author, priest, and Hegelian philosopher)
By becoming deeply connected with the subtle and obvious energies of our bodies, we are embracing what is happening with heightened awareness and therefore welcoming Presence. For the vast majority of people, we block awareness of our bodies because there is so much discomfort there. The discomfort takes the form of our emotions, regular aches and pains, or even body-image dissatisfaction. Just as releasing resistance to any feeling can become an opportunity for learning and growth, paying attention to and allowing our physical experience to unfold brings us to Presence.
Tara Brach eloquently explains that we often dissociate from our bodies because we realize we cannot control them. She refers to them as the ultimate “wilderness.” As civilized creatures of modern society, we are often disconnected from our primal roots and may push away the untamed natural world. The wilderness can be a scary place of unpredictability, insecurity, and unknowns. On top of this, many of us are culturally conditioned to consider the body as a source of evil. Many of us have been taught that the body is the source of sinful urges and must be kept in check through discipline and spiritual devotion. No wonder we want to stay out of it!
“Practicing Presence is to practice being FULLY ALIVE.” – Tara Brach
Brach suggests that we can come to Presence through witnessing sensation in the body (not just conventionally physical sensations like hunger or a strained ankle, but also the physical correlates of our emotions like tenseness in the throat when we’re about to cry, or butterflies in our tummy when we feel anxiousness), surrendering to it and being with it. She points out that we develop many strategies for exiting the body (essentially the same as relief-seeking) and that the evidence of our will to dissociate is plentiful.
Exiting Strategies – (We may or may not be aware of why we are choosing to do these) eating, drinking, smoking, drugs, shopping, and media consumption
- Eating out of boredom when you are not hungry
- Drinking to relax after a tough workday
- Smoking a cigarette at a party when you aren’t sure what to do or who to talk to
- Getting high to be entertained
- Shopping for clothes you do not need when an advertisement has elicited your desire
- Binge watching a television program when you’re anxious about everything you need to do
Body Scan Meditation with Jon Kabat-Zinn
The following signs can be seen as invitations to return to the body:
- Fatigue, anxiety and shame around our exit strategies
- Not feeling love deeply (because you are cut off from the heart and have a mental conception of love)
- Not feeling powerful
- Not in touch with your Intuition
She recommends using mindfulness techniques around recognizing when exiting strategies are being employed, consciously interrupting them, and developing a daily body awareness practice.
Breathwork is one of the most fundamental practices in meditation for honing awareness of the body and sharpening attention. Almost all schools of meditation employ breathing practices, each offering a number of breathing exercises. Thich Nhat Hanh offers that breath “can become a wondrous tool to help us surmount situations which would otherwise seem hopeless. Our breath is the bridge from our body to our mind, the element which reconciles our body and mind and which makes possible oneness of body and mind.” (For a very useful list of free guided meditations, check out this page from uclahealth.org)
Dan Siegel encourages breathwork as a part of his Wheel Practice and Mind Training. He writes that breathwork stabilizes our attention, which strengthens our ability to monitor(witness). Strong monitoring leads to sensing with greater clarity, depth, and richness.
Practice: Guided Breathwork session from the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center
In the section on Engaging, we discussed how suffering is a result of resisting an experience, and that resistance happens in the mind. Suffering is a portal to Presence because it shows us that we are not present and can be used as an ally to enter the moment.
Tara Brach suggests thinking of pain as sensation to make allowing it easier. If we can release our interpretation of pain as bad, we can simply experience it as we might any other sensation. This is not easy to do. She suggests we soften around our pain and be gentle towards it.
The following are some personal anecdotes from various contributors regarding engaging with physical suffering in everyday life.
Allowing a Migraine
“I’ve personally struggled with intense migraines for several years. Prescription medication makes me feel like a zombie and wipes me out for the rest of the day, whereas if I allow a migraine to run its course, I’m slightly more functional and more myself than I am after the prescriptions. Unfortunately, this means dealing directly with the pain. For several years I would lie in anguish and cry throughout the 2 to 3 hours of an attack. Based on some books I’d been reading at the time I decided to engage with the pain differently and really try to feel into it. While it wasn’t a magic fix, the nature of my experience shifted. The pain became a sensation that I was curious about and could explore. I admit that sustaining this level of attention for more than 5-10 minutes at a time was exhausting and challenging, but when I felt strong enough to allow it, the new approach provided refuge from the emotional anguish I ordinarily experienced with the migraines.”
“I feel like I’m allergic to my own spine. The nerves and bones that twist and turn to form my lumbar vertebrae seem to be inherently working against all intended purpose. Pain is my number one enemy and I constantly resist the voice in my head that SCREAMS to do anything possible to mitigate the circumstance.”
“I strained two shoulder muscles on a backpacking trip this summer. The pain hit a level 9 on my way up a set of switchbacks on my 6th day on trail. Every step was filled with tears, I knew the pain would not go away and I would not end the trip early. I was out there to learn from the trail in order to lead students on it in a few months. I sat with my pain differently for the next 48 hours. I did not let it consume me, but chose to pay attention to it and pay attention to the nature around me as I hiked up to the summit and made camp. That night I experienced my favorite sunset and peace with my pain for the remainder of the trip. I could not speed up time or change my pain, but I could notice other things at the same time. “
“Look deep into nature and you will understand everything better.” – Einstein
Nature is an incredibly powerful portal to Presence. There is a deep stillness that can be connected to in nature. Eckhart Tolle puts it eloquently: “Whenever you bring your attention to anything natural, anything that has come into existence without human intervention, you step out of the prison of conceptualized thinking and, to some extent, participate in the state of connectedness with Being in which everything natural still exists.”
“I love Nature partly because she is not man, but a retreat from him. None of his institutions control or pervade her. There a different kind of right prevails. In her midst I can be glad with an entire gladness. if this world were all man, I could not stretch myself, I should lose all hope. He is constraint, she is freedom to me. He makes me wish for another world. She makes me content with this.” – Thoreau
Nothingness and Emptiness
Acute awareness of silence and space lend themselves to cultivating Presence. Rather than focusing on the content of your life, focus on what the content fills. For example, instead of noticing the noises and music that come into your awareness, redirect your attention to the silence filled by the noise. Likewise with objects in space, try to feel into the nothingness that holds the content around you. Tune your awareness to what is not there and how this creates the opportunity for objects to be there. Playing with ideas that are not concise and instead are open and expansive like Nothingness and Emptiness have the ability to expand our sense awareness, challenging our inclinations to interpret reality in conventional ways.
Check out Tara Brach’s Guided Space Meditation
Conceptual and Contemplative Portals to Presence
The following collection of conceptual and contemplative portals are counter-intuitive approaches to understanding and accessing Presence. As has been repeated extensively, Default Consciousness and its “monkey-mind” tendencies are a block to Presence. However, our primary means of relating to the world is through our conditioned, egoic-minds. Science would offer that it is impossible to drop that aspect of ourselves entirely (yet there are tales of this being done by figures deemed as enlightened). Instead, we can use it to our advantage and explore ideas that help us de-condition ourselves. You cannot think your way to Presence, but you can set up context for your journey.
Please view this list as an opportunity to mull over options explore Presence. We recommend using them as journaling prompts or as inspiration for conversation with other curious seekers of Presence.
Eckhart Tolle urges us to “Realize deeply that the present moment is all you will ever have,” and “Always say yes to the present moment.” Contemplate the nature of timelessness and eternity in the Now. What is it like to consider that nothing other than Right Now is real? How does that impact your experience?
Time is a funny thing. According to many contemplatives, our sense of self is dependent on time. If you think about who you are, you may notice that this is likely made up of a narrative of qualifiers like your relationships, job, age, etc, as well as a log of your experiences- such as where you grew up or what you aspire to be. Many contemplatives emphasize the notion that the self cannot exist outside of time, as the concept of identity is dependent on having a past and a future. The only moment we can be sure of existing is the one we are currently experiencing- right Now.
Things get very interesting when you consider that not only is the experience of self reliant on time, but our past and future only exist as ideas in the present moment. You cannot touch or interact with a memory of a conversation you had with your mother last week. Nor can you listen to or ask questions of your future daughter.
Pema Chodron writes about the practice of compassion in her work, “The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times.” She offers that practicing compassion and connection is a powerful strategy for overcoming the ego and experiencing expansion through love for other beings and things. She claims the reverse is equally valid: practicing Presence leads to genuine compassion:
“When we hear about compassion, it naturally brings up working with others, caring for others. The reason we’re often not there for others – whether for our child or our mother or someone who is insulting us or someone who frightens us – is that we’re not there for ourselves. There are whole parts of ourselves that are so unwanted that whenever they begin to come up we run away. Because we escape, we keep missing being right here, being right on the dot. We keep missing the moment we’re in.
Yet if we can experience the moment we’re in, we discover that it is unique, precious, and completely fresh. It never happens twice. One can appreciate and celebrate each moment – there’s nothing more sacred. There’s nothing more vast or absolute. In fact, there’s nothing more!
Only to the degree that we’ve gotten to know our personal pain, only to the degree that we’ve related with pain at all, will we be fearless enough, brave enough, and enough of a warrior to be willing to feel the pain of others. To that degree we will be able to take on the pain of others because we will have discovered that their pain and our own pain are no different.” – Start Where You Are by Pema Chodron
Dan Siegel includes in his mind-training practice a section on loving-kindness and connection. The practice of feeling connected to others leads to a sense of expansiveness and love, and ultimately contributes to neural integration.
Dr. Barbara Frederickson, a Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, focuses her work on positive emotions. In her book “Love 2.0,” she deems love the “Supreme Emotion,” in that it encapsulates all other positive emotions. Frederickson argues for a definition of love beyond our typical romantic conventions, striving to replace our limiting myths on traditional love with the idea that it is a micro-moment of shared positivity that can happen between any two people. Like Pema Chodron and Dan Siegel, she encourages us to practice loving-kindness meditations to enhance our capacity for connection. Her work on love is pertinent to Presence in that her conception of love “requires you to be physically and mentally present. It also requires that you slow down.” By tapping into these moments of “positivity resonance” with others, she argues, we can feel a sense of expansiveness and meaning.
An approach to entering Presence that may seem over-simplified is to drop everything else. This means instantaneously dropping interpretations, thoughts, and limiting emotional cycles. What would it be like to fully let go and drop into the moment?
Thich Nhat Hanh discusses the practice of Arriving in the present. Deeply consider that you are constantly arriving at your destination, the Here and Now. What does it feel like to envision yourself as a flowing body of water, such as a river, constantly flowing into the present moment?
Be Around Conscious People
Choosing to be around people who embody the traits you hope to cultivate will influence your state of awareness and quality of Presence. Choose to be around people who are self-aware, curious, and Present with their experience (including being fully Present with you!). What impact do the people you spend time with have on your current state of being?
Temporary Shortcuts: Shocking Ourselves into the Now and Toning
Some experiences leave no space for being lost in the past or future- they shock our systems into the present moment. This can be achieved through novelty. Doing something you have never done before, going somewhere you have never been before or learning a new skill has the ability to heighten your state of presence. High-risk, adrenaline-pumping experiences like skydiving force you to be totally present. By intentionally adding our awareness paying close attention to our experience in these states, we may be able to shift into Presence (beyond simply being in the present moment) and better able to recreate such an experience at other times. However, be careful of the trap of using external experiences to force you into Presence- it can become a crutch.
In a recent study on Toning (the practice of actively listening to a tone, chant, mantra, or singing) it was demonstrated that participants were able to curtail mind-wandering (read: the nature of the mind in Default Consciousness) at a success rate higher than some mindfulness practices can achieve. It was also correlated with many of the emotional and physical benefits that mindfulness practices offer.
The missing ingredient in taking a short-cut to Presence is intentional engagement. If we can choose to engage with the heightened-experience we shock (or tone) ourselves into, we can come to a level of Presence.
The Importance of Daily Practice
“The real meditation practice is how we live our lives from moment to moment to moment.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn
All practitioners of Presence stress the importance of daily practice. Repeated practice leads to growth and ensures neural integration. Choosing something that works for you that can fit into your schedule is vital. Even if it is five minutes a day, being dedicated and consistent has an enormous impact. Check out the Process Summaries section for start-to-finish step-by-step guides for Presence practice.
Below you will find a few useful Presence practices. There are many resources out there, but we discovered the following to be concerned with the biggest challenges people face in their practice. These offerings are very simplified and are not as they are originally presented from their sources. This is because they are to be complemented by the rest of the resources in the Presence section as a whole. None of them are to be taken as comprehensive pathways to experiencing Presence, but they can contribute to your journey. Follow the related links to learn more about each process.
Similarly to the sentiments expressed around the contemplative practices, the following processes for Presence practice are to be taken as GUIDES and not as direct “how to’s.” No one can teach you Presence, and each person’s journey will be different. It is tricky to approach an ineffable, non-conceptual state of being with words and ideas about what it is and how to get there. Part of the practice, ironically, will be undoing and going beyond skills you use to do what these processes guide you to do. Remember: these offerings are maps, not the territory.
Adapted from “The Power of Now”
(Practice can as long as desired, process continues to repeat)
- Focus your attention on feeling, on the inner body.
- Accept anything you find there. Say yes to it as if you had chosen it.
- Refrain from thinking about it, judging it or analyzing it
- Stay alert, stay present with the feeling and continue to witness.
Dan Siegel- The Wheel of Awareness
Please visit his website for more in-depth material! (20-30 minutes)
- Do a breathing exercise to stabilize your attention.
- Begin moving through the sections of the rim, starting with the 5 senses. Practice bringing your awareness to each sense.
- Bring awareness to the inner body, sensing the energy there. Do a full-body scan.
- Bring your awareness to your mental experience and witness the behavior of your thoughts. Notice gaps* in thought.
- Bring your awareness to your awareness- in other words, notice that you are conscious and feel into the quality of that consciousness. Do this for about a minute.
- Feel your connection to people in your life- begin with close family and friends, then move out to those you are not as close with. Eventually feel your connection with acquaintances, then strangers, then all living beings.
- State kind intentions for all beings, then for yourself, then for the community of life that includes yourself and all beings.
- Bring your attention back to your breath, ground yourself in your day and end your practice.
The Art of Focusing
Adapted from Tricycle magazine article,
“Focusing: A Practice to Complement Meditation,” by David Rome
- Begin with a body scan, noting any pain or discomfort
- Focusing on the fact that you are an embodied being as a whole, feel into your sense of being a body.
- Let go of tension in the body and become grounded on the earth, trusting it to support you.
- Bring an uncomfortable, stressful, or painful situation from your life to mind. Think about it for a minute or two.
- Drop the storyline- let go of your verbal account and details of the event and bring attention to the feeling inside your body.
- Note if there is jitteriness, tenseness, hardness, heaviness, or lightness brought on by your thinking about the situation. You are feeling for the body-sense of the event without thinking about it.
- It may be unclear or subtle. Welcome any feelings gently and lovingly. Allow the felt sense to become clearer and stronger.
- Continue to patiently recognize and hold this felt-sense. This invites it to show you new insights and experience the problem situation in a new way.
Practical Presence in Daily Life
We do not always feel we have the time to do sitting practice. While you are more likely to access a greater depth of Presence when you can devote your entire awareness to the moment (versus having it divided amongst listening to a coworker, walking across a chaotic office, and making dinner plans), you can reach a practical and impactful level of Presence (think of the open water metaphor) without sitting down to meditate by employing dedicated mindfulness practices throughout your day.
- Check in with yourself regularly. Without disengaging with your current activity, can you monitor what kind of thoughts are you having right now? What kind of emotions or physical sensations are occurring?
- Take a few deep breaths.
- Engage more intentionally with the sensations you are experiencing. Give your full attention to the task, person, or experience you are with.
Adapted from “Awareness”
- Become aware of and in-touch with negative feelings
- Know that the feeling is within you and not outside of you. It is not externally caused.
- Dis-identify with the feeling.
- Understand that when you change, everything changes
While we touched on some of these on the introductory page to the section, read through this page to learn more information on how exactly Presence can improve your quality life and create more meaning for you.