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Presence, Beyond the Clichés and on to Connection

If you have been anywhere near a personal growth, self-help, spiritual, or psychotherapy book (or article) in the last 20 years, you have very likely encountered the word “presence” as a good and important thing. However, I would like to help make that word more helpful to you, because “presence” is very often described in ways that make the eyes glaze over, or that lead to misconceptions.

Allied with the concept of presence is another phrase, “being in the moment.” At first glance it may seem that being in the moment or being present will require us to prop our eyelids open with toothpicks, and stare intently (and listen intently) at whatever or whoever is right in front of us, without shifting awareness for even a moment.

Yet, to do that would be exhausting, and cannot be carried on for very long before the brain aches and wants to be less present, i.e. go on a brain vacation. That would be mission not accomplished.

What if we use a different model for presence? What if we understand that a mind cleared of internal conflict is automatically present, and that presence is our natural state (but not so easy to attain)? Our brain’s language is frictionless and spacious energy, experienced as connection with others and with ourselves.

Internal conflicts cover over that comfortable, enjoyable, powerful, clear brain function much like clouds can cover the sun: the sun is still there, but if there are enough clouds, the sun’s effect is dimmed considerably. Similarly with our naturally expansive brain.

Blue hand holding a red heart shape, on a golden sunrise-like backgroundAs I have learned through direct experience, true presence leads to comfort, friendliness, responsiveness, and clarity of thoughts, among other things. In other words, mental gymnastics in the effort to be present are not effective, but a well-balanced mind is.

As Michelangelo said, “The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.”

Even more important and dynamic than that, we have everything we need within ourselves, if we can take away the tensions of inner conflict and get out of the way of ourselves! The obstacles include even the mental gymnastics intended to make us more present.

So if mental gymnastics are not effective, what is effective?

After 50 years of working on this central issue, I can share an answer: developing presence can be accomplished via efforts to express kindness to others, through authenticity, honesty, and an ethical life (probably don’t build nuclear weapons, for example).

These are some of the crucial elements for developing a mind of true presence, the kind that feels good and natural and that is grounded in reality. Meditative practices such as meditation, Tai Chi Chuan, and time spent in nature, are also helpful as part of a balanced life.

A present mind is stable and sustainable, and benefits others along with oneself. Well-founded efforts to find a present mind are often felt as speaking or acting from a caring heart/mind, replacing the idea of intensely concentrating on the physical aspects of what is perceived in front of oneself.

If I may sum it up, empathy and wisdom are how we start, and also how we continue, to develop true presence.