What Is Presence?

If you haven’t already, please visit the introductory page on Presence for foundational definitions.  This page goes into the subtleties of what makes up the concept of Presence as it is discussed in scientific and contemplative works.  

A Metaphor of Types

Throughout the history of religious and contemplative practices, we find a wealth of ideas and beliefs that align with this concept of Presence.  A handful of modern scientists have also embarked on the journey of showing the intricacies of what is happening in our brains and bodies when we enter this special state of being.

In scientific and contemplative explorations of the concept, a spectrum of Presence with various depths arises.  If we were to envision the ocean as metaphor for Presence and these different levels as experiencing different depths of the ocean, we could use the beach, the open ocean, and a deep ocean trench (such as the Mariana Trench) as representative of the spectrum. 

Conventional Presence Presence Mythic Presence
Shallow water, wading into the waves at the beach but staying connected to the ground (conditioning).  Breathing is unconsciously occurring (Default Consciousness). Open water, submerged except for your head and unconnected to the ground (conditioning).  More awareness and effort applied to breathing (Awareness of unconscious systems and Default Consciousness). Deep ocean trench, completely submerged underwater (discipline applied to maintaining oxygen, hyper-awareness of normally unconscious systems) and suspended in the depth of the ocean.  Ground (conditioning) is not visible/accessible.
Intentional Mindfulness practices, practicing some meditations.  Basic self awareness in the present moment.   Hyper-awareness of consciousness, diffused focus on all elements of experience, awareness of Self and Ego but lack of identification with them. Total immersion with the Present moment and experience of consciousness to the degree that one is outside of time and the Self is replaced by the experience of unity with all things.

***Throughout the rest of this section, look for text UNDERLINED in these colors to signify which type of Presence is being discussed. Unless noted, we are talking about Open Water Presence***

For our purposes, the open water depth of Presence is what we conceive of as the most compelling and useful to the most people.  It is accessible and has practical impacts on your life. The shallow water, more conventional experience does not have the breadth of impact (cannot take you to as many places) that can be achieved through adventures on the open water.  On the other end, free diving in the pressures of a deep trench (while lauded and romanticized) may be an extreme beyond most human capacities, and is not of much practical use to every person.

 

Moving forward when speaking of Presence, it is the open water experience we are discussing unless otherwise mentioned.

Why Presence MattersEckhart Tolle explains that Presence is a state of consciousness that transcends thinking. 

(On “states of being without emotional or mental content”) 

“This enhanced state is much more challenging to define as it infers the absence of affect and cognition– an empty state with no phenomenological content.  This notion of emptiness has manifested in …spiritual/religious traditions and languages… However attempts to translate these terms to English have struggled to capture the ineffable and nonconceptual state of consciousness. As such, many different terms have evolved… The examples are numerous and include such ideas as: God Consciousness, Christ Consciousness, Buddha Consciousness, cosmic consciousness, pure consciousness, true-Self, non-Self, Non-Dual Awareness, absolute unitary being; and other terms such as Formless, Void, emptiness, and undifferentiated ‘beingness’ or ‘suchness.’” – Andrew Newberg and Jonathan Nash

“…a state of bare, transparent awareness; Effortless and brilliantly vivid, a state of relaxed, rootless wisdom; Fixation free and crystal clear, a state without the slightest reference point; Spacious empty clarity, a state wide open and unconfined;  the senses unfettered…” – Fourteenth Century Tibetan text

Descriptions of Presence

Anecdotal

As quoted by Andrew B. Newberg in his essay, “Varieties of Self Transcendent Experiences”

I felt myself one with the grass, the trees, birds, insects, everything in Nature. I exalted in the mere fact of existence, of being part of it all . . . I knew so well the satisfaction of losing self in a perception of supreme power and love . . . —(as quoted in James, 1985/1902, pp. 364 –365)

 I lost the boundary to my physical body. I had my skin, of course, but I felt I was standing in the center of the cosmos. —(as quoted in Watts, 1957, p. 121)

. . . . I could no longer clearly discern the physical boundaries of where I began and where I ended. I sensed the composition of my being as that of a fluid rather than that of a solid. I no longer perceived myself as a whole object separate from everything. —(Taylor, 2008, p. 42)

Scientific Explanations

The scientific community more recently took a keen interest in the efficacy and impacts of meditation on wellbeing.  A wealth of data has emerged from research on meditation and consciousness studies that has unleashed a new interest in the science of awareness and Presence in particular.  By weaving together evidence from neuroscience, psychology, and physiology, a greater understanding of the phenomena and impacts associated with Presence is appearing.

Before going further, let’s note that meditation (or mindfulness either for that matter) is not necessarily synonymous with Presence.  Presence is a state that can be achieved through the method of meditation, and it must be pointed out that not all states achieved during meditation qualify as Presence.  In regards to scientific studies on Presence, scientists have explored neurological correlations with the states achieved by meditators. The studies that are most relevant to our understanding of Presence are ones in which meditators used Open Monitoring meditations and subjectively would describe their experiences as having the quality of “nonduality” or “oneness.” 

Mindfulness Meditation Presence
Definition Intentional practices to cultivate enhanced awareness.  A type of meditation. Intentional practices to cultivate enhanced awareness.  Tends to be more disciplined and in-depth than most mindfulness practices.   An enhanced quality of consciousness experienced as a state of being.  Characterized by hyper-awareness of current moment and consciousness itself. 
Wikipedia Definition “the psychological process of purposely bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment without judgment, which one can develop through the practice of meditation and through other training.” “a practice where an individual uses a technique – such as mindfulness, or focusing the mind on a particular object, thought or activity – to train attention and awareness, and achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm and stable state.” N/A
Associated Practices Basic awareness and open monitoring of present-moment sensations, thoughts, experiences, etc. Includes breathwork or body scans.  Can be done anywhere and at any time. Accessing different states of consciousness through formal meditation practices like Loving-Kindness, Breath Awareness, Mantras or Visualization.  Includes Mindfulness. Can be Focused Attention based or Open Monitoring based. Accessed through various mindfulness meditation practices (Open-Monitoring practices)
Associated Experiences Focus, calm, heightened sensitivity to body states, thoughts, and feelings Can be used to achieve Presence.  Includes benefits of Mindfulness.  Sense of nonduality or oneness, peace, compassion, awe, gratitude, aliveness

“Meditation is the dissolution of thoughts in Eternal awareness or Pure consciousness without objectification, knowing without thinking, merging finitude in infinity.” – Voltaire

Consciousness and Presence

Consciousness is at the heart of several scientific fields of study and still stands as a fascinating frontier for discovery and insight into the nature of ourselves and reality.  While no agreed- upon definition for the term exists, when we say ‘Consciousness’ in the context of this section on Presence, we are speaking about one’s own awareness of internal and external events (regardless of identification with them). It is the quality of one’s ever-changing awareness of what is being thought, felt, sensed within and around them in objective reality.

Generally we conceive of consciousness as a phenomenon entirely housed in our minds, and hence, our brains.  In philosophy, this gives rise to a conundrum known as the Mind-Body problem, which concerns how our consciousness is related to our physical nature (by means of the brain).  Current researchers are beginning to consider consciousness as a phenomenon that includes both mind AND body, instead of presupposing they are distinct processes.

“We have bodies served by nervous systems, not brains served by bodies.” – Anthony Damasio

Antonio Damasio is a Portuguese-American neuroscientist. He is currently the David Dornsife Chair in Neuroscience, as well as Professor of Psychology, Philosophy, and Neurology, at the University of Southern California, and, additionally, an adjunct professor at the Salk Institute.

The brain typically gets all the credit for being the most complex and essential organ in our bodies- but let’s not forget that the brain is only a part of a huge network of information-sharing processes facilitated by our entire nervous system.  Evolutionarily speaking, nervous systems were not present in the first organisms. Bodies of cells came first and nervous systems developed later as organisms became more complex.  Nervous systems arrived to facilitate communication between new, disparate parts of the organism, thus increasing energy efficiency and survival abilities. We tend to elevate our mind/brain above the body, when in reality they are inextricably linked.

Matthew Crawford, a writer and researcher, even extends the relationship of mind-body into the world in his work on attentional commons:

“We think through the body.  The fundamental contribution of this school of psychological research is that it puts the mind back in the world, where it belongs, after several centuries of being locked in our heads.  The boundary of our cognitive processes can not be clearly drawn at the outer surface of our skulls, or indeed of our bodies more generally. They are in a sense, distributed in the world that we act in.”

For our purposes and in light of these ideas, our model of consciousness considers the experiences of mind and body together, and their more discrete components as ‘Mind-Body Aspects.”    This includes Thoughts, Emotions, Sensations, and Perceptions

Mind Body Aspects

ASPECT>>> Emotions Sensations Perceptions Thoughts
DEFINITION A subjectively experienced negative or positive feeling associated with thoughts, behaviors, and patterns of physiological activity often in reaction to a stimulus Passive detection of stimuli, includes interoception. Active processing of stimuli through the five senses The processing of information through reason and related cognitive functions
EXAMPLES Feeling Joy, Grief, Desire, Anger, Boredom, Awe Sensing Pain, Hunger Seeing, Hearing, Touching, Smelling, Tasting Thinking, Judging, Remembering, Imagining, Language

Consciousness, represented by green, holds all content that a person can experience.  This does not mean that everything is actively being experienced. Some of the content (the Mind-Body Aspects) within Consciousness are not being focused on.  During an event, you may be experiencing several different thoughts, emotions and sensations. However, you will likely be focusing on only a few of them.

Example Event Consciousness Experience Mind-Body Experience Focal Point 
Jill is eating a sandwich Awareness of activity and Mind-Body aspects that are being focused on All happening at once: Sense of satisfaction, taste and texture of sandwich, sense of hunger, thoughts regarding future events in the day or memories of prior sandwiches  Jill is focusing on how much they love ham, are enjoying the sweetness of the ham they selected for their sandwich, and are entertaining a memory of a conversation with a coworker about recipes for ham on Christmas.
Carlos tripping on a sidewalk Awareness of activity and Mind-Body aspects that are being focused on All things happening at once: Pain, sense of embarrassment, confusion, worry about how injury may affect the rest of the day, memory of past injury, sound of pants tearing and shoe scuffing Carlos is focusing on the mild pain in his knee, worrying about ruining his new pants, and stressing about when he can buy a new pair before his meeting later that day
Bill falling in love Awareness of activity and Mind-Body aspects that are being focused on All things happening at once: Feelings of joy, satisfaction, anxiety, fear, peace, desire.  Sensations of the smell of his lover, the way their hands feel, the sight of their face, the sound of their voice.  Thoughts regarding their choice of sweater, planning for their next date, memories of what they said to him yesterday. Bill is focusing on his enjoyment of the way his lover smells and planning to buy them a sweater he noticed yesterday that he believes is superior in warmth to the one they are wearing. 
Mathilda preparing for a meeting Awareness of activity and Mind-Body aspects that are being focused on All things happening at once: Opening windows on her computer and accessing relevant files. Thinking about how to tie certain concepts together and in what order.  Prioritizing who needs to be communicated with. Feelings of anticipation, judgment of being focused and prepared. Sensation of the keys of her computer, the brightness of the screen, a slight sense of hunger and thoughts of what she will have for dinner.  Mathilda is focusing on how to organize and present the information for her meeting.  She is primarily aware of her thoughts and planning. 
Horace building a deck Awareness of activity and Mind-Body aspects that are being focused on All things happening at once: Aligning the wood according to initial plans, the act of measuring, placing nails and hammering.  The sensation of the sun on his back and his labored breathing as he hunches over. Pain in his thumb from a cut he got yesterday.  Sense of satisfaction in doing physical work. Memories of working on a house with his friends. Planning how he might stain the deck.  Judgement of his accuracy.     Horace is focusing on how to be accurate and precise with his project while mildly aware of the pain in his thumb.  He is considering ideas for how to stain the wood.  

As will be explored in more depth later, the focal point (where your attention is) can shift.  Where and how attention is focused in these models determines the state of consciousness (which is related to the metaphor on depths of Presence indicated by the underlined text throughout this piece) .  The state of Presence is characterized by attention being diffused over all of consciousness and including all conscious experience:

Example Event Presence Experience
Jill is eating a sandwich Jill is aware of her Consciousness, which envelops the event of eating her sandwich and the awareness that she is eating the sandwich.  She is aware of all Mind-Body Aspects that are occurring without preference. Because she is open monitoring all parts of her experience and the fact that she is experiencing it, Jill is both immersed in and slightly separate from her sense of satisfaction with the sandwich, the process of eating the sandwich, and her thoughts regarding the sandwich.  

The Wheel of Awareness

Let’s check out another perspective.  Dr. Dan Siegel, a psychiatry professor at UCLA, has done extensive work exploring the nature of awareness and consciousness in the realm of Presence.  He uses a model he developed called “The Wheel of Awareness” to explain this relationship.

In Dr. Siegel’s model, the Hub represents the center of conscious awareness and the Spokes represents our focal attention.  The Spoke (attention) comes from the Hub (the center of consciousness) and observes objects on the Rim (anything we could be aware of).  Presence in this model would be the Spoke being bent back towards the Hub- in others words, it would be the experience of awareness being aware of/focused on itself.

What’s Going On In the Brain?

At the turn of the century, a community of scientists developed a profound interest in learning about consciousness by studying meditative experts (practitioners who have engaged in roughly 10,000 hours of meditation or more).  By monitoring the brains of Buddhist monks with fMRIs and EEGs during active meditation, scientists discovered surprising neurological correlates with deep meditative states that they had not witnessed anywhere else before.  

A fascinating result of some of these studies was the discovery of a significant increase in gamma waves.  Brain waves are a series of electrical pulses in the brain that transmit information. Different frequencies of brain waves correspond to different states of consciousness and have different benefits.

Delta (.5-4Hz) Deep Sleep Unconscious mind, dreamless sleep
Theta (4-7.5Hz) Dreaming REM sleep and deep meditation
Alpha (7.5-14Hz) Relaxation and daydreaming Heightened imagination, memory, and learning
Beta (14-40Hz) Awake and focused Logic, critical reasoning, alertness
Gamma (40Hz+) Highly focused, intense information processing Associated with sudden insight

What Do Different Brain Waves Mean?

While meditative states typically fall into a lower frequency of alpha waves (our normal functioning conscious state is in beta), highly-experienced meditators can generate high-frequency gamma waves when cultivating Presence.  Scientist Zoran Josipovic theorizes that this is a result of something called “neural integration,” which is a way of opening up communication networks in the brain that may have become blocked through repeated patterns of thought or behavior.  According to Dr. Dan Siegel, neural integration is a defining element of a healthy brain and determinant of overall well-being. Researchers Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson offer that gamma waves are produced when different parts of the brain are communicating with each other all at once, like when you realize the answer to a riddle.  Gamma waves typically show up in bursts, but in their work with expert meditators it was demonstrated that gamma waves could be sustained not only during meditation practice but continue throughout their daily lives.

SciShow Psych walks you through what brain waves are, what states they are associated with, and what they can tell us.

Superhumans: The remarkable brain waves of high-level meditators
Daniel Goleman explains his studies on gamma waves in his work with Richie Davidson in “Altered Traits”

The qualities that the expert meditators from the studies conducted by Goleman and Davidson describe about their experience of heightened awareness aligns with descriptions of Presence.  The most compelling conclusion from their study is that the state of consciousness achieved during their meditative practices carried beyond into their daily life. They describe their daily awareness as a type of “spaciousness and vastness,” with “all their senses… wide open to the full, rich panorama of experience.

“All of us get gamma for a brief period when we solve a problem we’ve been grappling with… we get about a half second of gamma, it’s the strongest wave… what was stunning was that the olympic level meditators … their brainwave shows gamma, very strong, all the time.” – Daniel Goleman

Integration of the Default Mode Network

A Brief Introduction to the Default Mode Network
“A particular group of brain regions actually increase in activity whenever we aren’t focused on a task.”

The Default Mode Network (“DMN”) is a network of regions in the brain that are active when the brain is in a resting state, or in other words not focused on a specific task (another network is active during that time called the Task Positive Network, or “TPN”, which is activated by attention-demanding tasks).  Basically, whenever you do not have a mental goal and your mind is wandering or daydreaming, your DMN is active.  

Dr. Dan Siegel refers to the DMN as our “O.A.T.S Circuitry.”  O.A.T.S stands for “Others And The Self.” Research points to the DMN as having an important role in developing our sense of self and locating ourselves in social dynamics, as mind wandering and daydreaming tends to concern the self.

When Zoran Josipovic theorized about gamma waves and neural integration, it was in reference to integration of the DMN with other regions of the brain.  In other words, EEGs measured that gamma waves were generated when the DMN and theTPN were active at the same time.  Most people can only use one network at a time- being either totally in their DMN or TPN.  However, when both are active it means that many parts of the brain are communicating with each other at once!

When integrated (read “firing simultaneously”)  with the rest of the brain and not running a tight, self-referential circuit on its own, the DMN has the ability to enhance our sense of empathy and connection.(1)(2)(3)  Unfortunately, it often goes untamed and can occasionally result in obsessive and compulsive negative thinking that leads to anxiety and depression. (A 2018 study reported that one in twelve adults reports having depression.)

The Roles of Attention and Awareness

In understanding Presence, it’s important to differentiate attention from awareness.  According to Dr. Siegel, “Attention and awareness are mental processes that enable the mind to shape the brain in integrative ways that strengthen the mind itself.” 

Attention

 Attention is a process that directs energy and information flow,  facilitated by awareness. It could be imagined as a direct beam of light.  You are shining the light (attention) on an object. Attention is NOT the same as thinking about something- it is the active focus on stimuli. Again, this is the ‘spoke’ in Siegel’s model. And it can only point to one thing at a time.

Attention“is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what may seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. …It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.” – William James “The Principles of Psychology”

There are two kinds of attention.  One is called exogenous, or stimulus-driven attention, and the other is called executive, or goal-driven attention.  Essentially the difference is that in exogenous attention, something outside of us distracts us or causes us to pay attention- we do not have a choice.  However, in executive attention, we choose what we are focusing on.

When cultivating the open water level of Presence, we use executive attention to focus on our experience.  This enables us to receive all the information within our awareness, which is an unusual thing to do with a process defined by its singularity.  This is called Open Monitoring. Focusing on something generally means keeping our attention on a single thing. This is the aim of many types of meditative practices.  However, Presence is characterized by the process of attention focused on awareness, within which experience occurs. Thus, both the TPN and DMN can be active at the same time.

“Tsongkhapa, an eminent Tibetan Buddhist contemplative and philosopher, highlighted the importance of attentional stability and vividness for the cultivation of contemplative insight, by referring to an oil lamp which is both radiant and unflickering and which with its light allows shapes on a tapestry to be observed in detail and vividly at night. When the light is dim or the wind induces flickering, the perception of shapes is lost.” – from “The exploration of meditation in the neuroscience of attention and consciousness

Awareness

For our purposes, awareness is synonymous with Consciousness.  It is our general alertness and our ability to both know things and to know that we know things.  Almost all mental, physical, and emotional experiences take place within awareness. In relation to attention, awareness has the ability to both apply and be attention.  Most often, our awareness is passive and automatic.  However, in mindfulness practices, most meditations, and Presence, awareness becomes intentional.  In Presence, the role of awareness is the awareness of consciousness itself and all that it envelops in a particular moment. 

Scenario Attention Awareness
Default Consciousness, Reading a book Applied to understanding the symbols on the page and inferring their meaning.  General alertness to current activity 
Mindfulness breathing exercise Applied to breathing pace, texture, depth.  Intentional alertness to object of attention (breathwork), slightly diffused awareness to other Mind Body Aspects
Presence Applied to awareness, therefore includes all Mind Body Aspects. Intentional hyper-awareness of personal awareness, and open monitoring of Mind Body Aspects, environment, etc.

The Implications of Psychedelic Research on Presence

Recent research in the field of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy has introduced exciting data to the discussion of states of consciousness and how they are reflected in the brain.  Psychedelics have been a tender subject since the late sixties. Although they have been traditionally incorporated in ritual throughout human history and were involved in formal scientific research beginning in the 1940s, they eventually became popular recreationally and were not moderated carefully by the public.  Fear around their uncontained impacts lead to their being banned on a nearly global scale in the early seventies, inhibiting research on how they affect the brain.  

In the past couple of decades there has been a resurgence in research on what psychedelic substances (such a psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca, MDMA, and even marijuana) can contribute to the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Alcoholism, Depression, and stress related to the fear of dying in terminally-ill patients.  A fascinating complement to this work has been a boon of information on how subjective states of consciousness are reflected neurologically. 

States achieved during psychedelic sessions have been found to be similar to brain states achieved through meditative practices, and subjects themselves report similar experiences during these sessions as have been reported during states of Presence.  Primarily it comes down to experiences of self-consciousness: “…many contemplative traditions explicitly aim at dissolving the sense of self by eliciting altered states of consciousness through meditation, while classical psychedelics are known to produce significant disruptions of self-consciousness, a phenomenon known as drug-induced ego dissolution.” (1)  This state of drug-induced ego dissolution is indicated by a significant reduction in activity in the Default Mode Network, just like states of intense mindfulness and Presence.

Additionally, it is worth noting that patients undergoing psychedelic-assisted treatment sessions report the following sensations and experiences that overlap with descriptions of Presence: “…acute and lasting alterations in their perceptions of self, in the quality of their baseline consciousness…  In these cases, experiences of catharsis, forgiveness, self-compassion, and love were at least as salient as classic mystical content. Finally, feelings of increased ‘spaciousness’ or mindfulness.” It is possible that the same circuitry affected by psychedelic substances is involved in the neurological reflection of states of Presence, as subjective reports are so similar. 

Michael Pollan on the DMN and Psychedelics

“What the drugs appear to do is disable, for a period of time, the part of the brain where the self talks to itself. And it’s called the default mode network. And it’s a group of structures that connect parts of the cortex – the evolutionarily most-recent part of the brain – to deeper levels where emotion and memory reside. And it’s a very important hub in the brain. And lots of important things happen there – self-reflection and rumination, time travel. It’s where we go to think about the future or the past – and theory of mind, the ability to imagine the mental states of other beings – and I think most importantly, the autobiographical self. It’s the part of the brain, it appears, where we incorporate things that happen to us – new information – with a sense of who we are, who we were and who we want to be. And that’s where these stories get generated.

And these stories can be really destructive. They trap us. And what happens – and this was a big surprise with the modern period of research – was that this network is down-regulated. It sort of goes offline for a period of time. And that’s why you experience this dissolution of self or ego, which is a quite – can be a terrifying or liberating thing, depending on your mindset. And this is what allows people, I think, to have those new perspectives on themselves, to realize that they’re – they needn’t be trapped in those stories. And they might actually be able to write some new stories about themselves. And that’s what’s liberating, I think, about the experience when it works.”

Presence in Daily Life

The following is a collection of examples of what it would be like to navigate daily life experiences from a state of open-water Presence.

Waking Up

When the alarm goes off, it takes me a moment to conceptualize what it means.  I take a deep breath once I realize I am awake and tune my awareness to my state of mind and surroundings, noting that I am conscious and aware.  I notice resistance to getting up, annoyance forming as a knot in my throat at the sound of the alarm. I reach over to turn it off, feeling the softness of the sheets move and the cool morning air in the room, as well as the stretch in my side.  I notice the relaxed state of my body, my mind feels clear, I’m tuned into the space around me. My thoughts begin to chatter about what there is to do and all the things I must consider making decisions about today. I notice how they make me feel, recognize that I am not the thoughts, and let them pass, returning to moment.  After a few more deep breaths, I get out of bed.

A Boring Conversation

I’m aware that my mind is wandering and I’m struggling to listen to this person or generate authentic responses.  I become curious around this lack of Presence and choose to sharpen my focus on the moment. In a very quick moment I expand my awareness to my body, the room, and the person I’m interacting with.  I feel the moment within the context of what led to it and what may occur next in my day. I notice the distraction of my mind and tension in my body, the desire to leave the situation. As I’ve re-grounded, I come back to the conversation and person with renewed vigor.  I notice their expressions and energy, noting how they may be experiencing this moment. I consciously empathize with them, making eye contact and being present with my full body to our interaction.

Commuting to Work

I’m stuck in traffic and my phone warns me that my commute home will be extended by 20 minutes. My irritation at this situation acts as a trigger for me to step into Presence.  I consciously orient my attention to my own awareness and my intake and processing of information. I notice my thoughts and feelings (frustration about wanting to be somewhere else, feeling tired and trapped, the list of things I need to do when I get home).  I allow what I’m feeling to be experienced, then let it pass. My sensory experience becomes heightened (the clouds are beautiful today, the sun is gleaming off that windshield, I hear honking and the fuzz of the radio station, there is discomfort in my legs from sitting today) and I notice a new spaciousness and lightness in my experience.

Showering

I choose to be fully Present in the shower.  I’m aware of my consciousness, my mind, my sense of self, and my body in the context of this room and my day.  There is a stillness and spaciousness in the air that holds the sound of the water rushing from the faucet and the steam rising in the room.  I step into the shower and am very sensitive to my physical experience. I allow the sensation of the hot water to envelop me, and notice an alertness and chill sweep through my core and limbs, then relax.  I’m savoring and notice joy and peace. As I begin to wash, my mind starts to contemplate the events of yesterday. I track the thoughts, allowing them to flow and release, as they aren’t intentional or serving my focus in this moment. I continue to experience the richness of sensation within an awareness of myself as an agent and the context of the room, the day, and my life.

Being Late for an Appointment

The hastiness and anxiety I feel is a trigger for me to become Present. I acknowledge that my desire to be on time not being met is resulting in me focusing on the future instead of what is occurring in front of me (a situation I do not want to be in).  I recognize that I am currently doing the best I can with the circumstances I have control over in this precise moment, and choose to allow this moment instead of trying to escape it. I take a few deep breaths and pay attention to my body and its energy, I remind myself of my conscious experience and notice my train of thoughts and perceptions.  I see my situation from a birdseye view at the same time as I experience it directly. Now my driving through the endless parking lot looking for an open space doesn’t feel so desperate. I focus on the task and continue to move at a fast and deliberate pace. However, there is a sense of resolve and groundedness now.

Working on an Undesirable Project

I sit down to do my taxes and instantly feel filled with dread and anxiety.  I feel overwhelmed by all of the information and how long it may take to complete the task.  I choose to do the task consciously. I tune into my awareness and processing of information.  I can hear the house’s electronics humming and wind outside, note the reflection on my computer screen, the firmness of the seat I’m in, and the smell of my coffee.  I note both pleasant and unpleasant sensations in the body, a fogginess in my head, and then choose to allow my emotions to be there. I notice the worried stories my mind is chattering on about and let them pass, regrounding in the moment.  I choose to apply my thoughts actively to the task of sorting the tax information and engage with the process. Throughout the process I am continually breathing, scanning my body and the space around me, staying alert to the moment.

Connecting with a Loved One

We’re cooking dinner together while she tells me about a drama taking place at work.  I’m conscious of my awareness and choose to open myself to all the information available in the moment:  that we are together in this space, hunger in my stomach and a warm feeling from the wine, the smell of garlic, the sizzling of the sauteed vegetables, the cold darkness outside contrasting the warmth inside.  I’m aware of listening to her, imagining her experience as she details it and sensing her feelings and reactions. I feel connected to her through sharing this experience, making eye contact and laughing occasionally.  Although she speaks fast, it feels like there is a great deal of time buffering us from where we were or where we might go later. We resonate with one another over the topic of discussion and feel a sense of love and safeness.

Going for a Walk

I decide to be Present on my walk and become aware of my consciousness and my processing of information.  I feel into my body and notice both the satisfying rhythm of my gait and a sensitivity in my ankle as I step with my left foot.  I recognize a feeling of excitement for the evening activities and allow the accompanying fantasies to pass through my mind. There is a quiet in the mind now as I observe my surroundings, simply taking them in.  The warm, humid air, the colors of the sky, the dusty road. I feel a lightness and deep satisfaction, a connection to the world I am moving through.

Having a Backache

I’ve had a nagging backache all day that has been contributing to a state of general emotional agitation and reactivity.  In the morning I popped some ibuprofen but the pain was not fully relieved and has returned fully blown. I decide to engage with the discomfort, rather than let it distract me.  I become aware that I am conscious and experiencing this pain, as well as grounded in my environment and life situation. I sensitivity to my perceptions and physical experience, as well as note any errant chattering in my mind that is commenting on the situation.  My mind is complaining about how it would like the backache to stop and how it interfered with my productivity throughout the day. I elect to examine the back pain with curiosity instead of resist it. I notice tenseness in my body and a mild nausea, and a strong aversion to the experience.  I continue to pay attention to the pain while releasing resistance. This does not necessarily diminish the pain, but relieves some of my suffering.

Presence in Religious and Contemplative Practices

If you do a web search on Presence, you’re likely to come across a score of articles devoted to honing your personal power and your ability to exude it as a social tool.  However, traditional notions of Presence are introspective or mystical in nature and revolve around the awareness and even the nature of reality.  

Although rarely referred to directly as ‘Presence,’ many religions and schools of philosophy align on its general conception.  All of these ideas and practices are concerned with understanding reality and experiencing what they consider the most fundamental state of being, with consciousness itself being the vehicle of experience and information.  The following are a few examples originating from East Asian religions and philosophies, where absolute reality is conceived of as non-dual and impersonal (these are explained in more depth below).

Nirvana in Buddhism

In Buddhism the concept of Nirvana has a striking resemblance to Presence.  “Nirvana” literally means “quenching” or “blowing out” and is considered the ultimate spiritual ambition.  Robert Wright, a scientific and religious journalist, explains it as an “unconditioned” state of being. Similar to Presence, it cannot be described directly.  The Buddha offered that trying to understand Nirvana was a barrier to experiencing it. When asked what it was by an insistent student, the Buddha explained that trying to conceive of Nirvana was as useless to his ultimate goal as a dying man shot by an arrow wanting to know the name of the person who fired it.

Nirvana, as a tenet of Buddhism, is the cessation of being afflicted by the “three poisons”: aversion, desire, and ignorance.  The three poisons are the result of being attached to outcomes in our lives, and Buddhist philosophy posits that once we are free of these attachments, we are also free of suffering.  The concept of freeing oneself from the three poisons to experience Nirvana aligns with research around how our thinking mind creates suffering. Presence, an alternative to our default way of thinking, frees us from this.  And like Presence, Nirvana is likely not a state that the average person can live in, rather a state that can be accessed from moment to moment.

Brahman and Nonduality in Hinduism

Hinduism adheres to the belief in an ultimate reality called Brahman.

Brahman connotes the highest Universal Principle, the Ultimate Reality in the universe. In major schools of Hindu philosophy, it is the material, efficient, formal and final cause of all that exists.  It is the pervasive, genderless, infinite, eternal truth and bliss which does not change, yet is the cause of all changes. Brahman as a metaphysical concept is the single binding unity behind diversity in all that exists in the universe.

Brahman is characterized by Nonduality, which is “a mature state of consciousness, in which the dichotomy of I-other is ‘transcended’, and awareness is described as ‘centerless’ and ‘without dichotomies’.”* The concept of Brahman and Nonduality are similar to descriptions of the experience of Presence in that they are ineffable in nature, held as the source of existence, and are fundamentally concerned with unity.

In the Chandogya Upanishad, during a dialogue between father and son, the true nature of the self in relation to reality is discussed and ultimately summarized with the phrase “Tat Tvam Asi,” meaning, “You are that.”  The meaning is illustrated in the father’s words to his son:

Just as by knowing a lump of clay, everything that is made of clay can be known, since any differences are only words, and the essential reality is clay. In the same way by knowing a piece of gold, all that is made of gold can be known, since any differences are only words, and the reality is only gold. 

The father is implying that by knowing your own true nature (like knowing the essence of clay) beyond all labels and definitions, you know Brahman, the nature of everything.  To experience pure consciousness (Presence) is to experience the nature of reality. “Tat Tvam Asi” essentially means that you are at your most fundamental of the same nature as all of reality.

Enlightenment in Hinduism is defined as one recognizing their identity as unified with Brahman- or in other words, knowing “Tat Tvam Asi” personally as truth.

The Intention of Yoga in the Yoga Sutras

The Yoga Sutras are a collection of texts on the practices and theories of yoga.  Based in Hindu philosophy and originating in India prior to 400 CE, they discuss similar ideas of Non-duality and accessing an ultimate reality beyond language and conceptualization.  It frames yoga as a practice of unpatterning consciousness in order to allow pure awareness to exist in its most natural form.  

The Tao is Taoism

The “Tao,” meaning “the Way” in Chinese, is considered the flow of the Universe.  It is ultimately unknowable in conventional terms and ineffable. The first chapter of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching speaks of it as follows:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name;
this appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.

There is a distinction here between the world of formlessness:  “The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth,” and the world of form: “The named is the mother of ten thousand things.”  As with the experience of Presence, the concept of the Tao is beyond forms and labels and “the gate to all mystery.”

Western Non-dualist Philosophies

It is easier to directly relate conceptions of Presence to Eastern philosophies as they more often reference a distinguished state of being and incorporate it into their spiritual and contemplative practices.  The experience of Presence is at the root of meaning for many of these cultures. But this is not to claim that there are no similar instances that appear in Western cultures.  

The ideas that can be related to Presence that show up in the West are nondual philosophical explanations of reality.  As mentioned above when explaining Brahman, nonduality is the idea that reality is unified and separation within it is an illusion.   While Eastern approaches conceive of this as a state of consciousness that can be achieved, Western approaches to the idea use it as an argument for the ultimate nature of reality despite our natural perceptions (as opposed to the ultimate truth AND something that can be directly experienced).

Western philosophical ideas on the topic can be divided into the camps of Monism and Reductionism.  Monism posits that everything is one (like Brahman) and can be broken down into Non-materialism (everything is God/spirit or consciousness), Pantheism (God or consciousness is in all things) and Idealism (reality is ultimately mental).  Reductionism offers that everything complex can be reduced to simpler components and includes such philosophies as Materialism (everything is a result of physical interactions) and Atomism (everything is made of miniscule, invisible particles).

What inhibits the experience of Presence?  Learn about how our default way of being (including how we conceive of ourselves, how we think, and how we resist our experiences) in the world keeps us from benefiting from the richness of the present moment.

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