For me, if there is one skill underlying all of the others presented in these pathways to liberation, it is presence. Without presence, we can not deliberately engage the other skills because we lack real-time awareness; similarly, the practice of the other skills support the cultivation of presence. Presence is the foundational skill of maintaining moment by moment awareness of our unique personal human experience. With insufficient presence, our “aliveness” falters and suffering results.
For me, presence is an ever-increasing openness to the immediacy of experience, (i. e. what I see, hear, smell, taste, touch; from both external and internal sources). It is also an ever-growing capacity to cultivate choice about where I place my attention. Attention is the brush we use to “paint” our lives. Presence is the cultivated skill of consistently directing our attention in ways that create a life of beauty in the world around us.
The state of presence is characterized by a consciousness that is tuned in to what is actually happening, focusing clearly on the ever-changing flow of life. When presence is practiced with the other skills of personal liberation, the result is a natural opening of the heart and mind allowing access to the abundance of resources supporting our well-being. From presence, actions intuitively emerge that harmonize with our integrity, naturally expressing our deepest vision and mission. This growing consciousness supports a deepening awareness of our mutual interdependence with other people and expands our sense of belonging within the larger community and the ecosystem of life.
Sometimes, we can clarify our understanding of a concept or experience by noticing its opposite. The opposite of presence is absence. We become absent when our mind drifts away from the present moment into thinking about the past or the future. We become distracted from what is actually happening and instead get caught up in habitual patterns of thought often characterized by moralistic judgments, comparisons and fears. These patterns hijack our experience of the present moment and isolate us from our source of aliveness.
A first step in cultivating increased presence consists of training yourself to notice absence. As you have read these words, it is likely your mind has drifted at least once or twice, distracted by something else competing for your attention. Did you notice that?
Noticing absence stimulates presence. Simply by focusing one’s attention on whatever is distracting you has the paradoxical effect of fostering an awareness of what is actually happening. This shift in awareness opens up more choice about where you center your attention and how you can more fully open to the experience of the present moment.
Let me share a very personal account of this struggle. We’ve recently made a major life transition, moving from a city that we lived in for almost thirty years. We arrived in our new location to find that the home we had purchased would not become available to us until things beyond our control were accomplished by others. We entered an untethered phase, with no secure place to call home and no clear timeline in place.
During this period of floating from one friend’s house to another, I began noticing that I forgot appointments and the location of important things more often than usual. I noticed my mind easily slipping into anxious patterns: alternately “gnawing” on the feeling of loss caused by missing past comforts and then slipping into the anxiety of wondering “what will be?”, “when will it be…?”, and “how will I get there?” As I heightened my awareness of this mental drifting, each episode became an opportunity to awaken once again to what was actually happening. I trained myself to notice the slips, then to get curious about them – “…what are these anxious thoughts telling me about what is important to me right now? “
For example, when I remembered an appointment, I would reflexively activate a negative inner monologue characterized by judging myself severely for blowing it yet again. However, noticing this old pattern of self blame awakened me to the opportunity of centering on my present experience and so opened my mind to the possibility of other ways to handle the situation; constructive ways that allowed me to reconnect with the person I had the appointment with and avoid doing mindless damage to myself during a personally challenging time. So, for me, even slips out of presence have become opportunities for choosing once again to engage the present moment, and so increase the depth of my presence.
This gentle nudge to presence often awakened in me an appreciation for what was actually happening in my life, even as I mourned the lack of home or temporary access to the memory of the location of my lost car keys. By refocusing my mind and heart on my present experience, I engaged once again more fully with my life, often awakening to new options.
Here are the elements of a practice you can use to cultivate more presence for yourself:
1. Set an intention to become more present. Contemplate why presence is important to you.
2. Focus your attention on something specific. For example, you could use your breath or watch the second hand moving around the clock face or the seconds changing on a digital watch.
3. Notice that in spite of your intention, your attention is likely to wander. Simply notice that your attention wanders, and gently refocus on the object of your attention.
4. Become aware of the clues of absence. How can you notice your mind has wandered? Noticing the wandering mind can become a gentle reminder to return to presence.
5. Continue this exercise for 5 to 20 minutes.
6. Complete the exercise by considering what you learned through your practice.
As you develop your presence “muscle”, you can try this exercise in almost any context. For example, you can try it while watching TV, attending a movie, in the midst of conversation, or any other common activity.