Readings on Presence
by Fiona Heath
“This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.” Mary Oliver
There is only one world, and we participate in it here and now, in our flesh and in our place.” Scott Russell Sanders
The ability to be fully aware of the present moment is also the ability to be “non-discriminating” between the experiences we like (because they are pleasant) and the experiences we don’t like (because they are unpleasant). Awareness is non-discriminating because awareness does not want to get and does not want to reject, it just is aware, and accepting of everything that manifests.
Chan Dao Lu
I began to see, in the place of emptiness, presence. I began to see not only the visible landscape but the invisible one, a landscape in which history, unrecorded and unremembered as it is, had transmuted itself into an always present spiritual dimension.
The word dis-traction is particular useful here. It suggests losing traction, losing our ground — which is precisely what happens when we slip and fall away from being present. It is only in the stillness and simplicity of presence — when we are aware of what we are experiencing, when we are here with it as it unfolds — that we can really appreciate our life and reconnect with the ordinary magic of being alive on this earth.
Our society would have us believe that inner satisfaction depends on outer success and achievement. Yet struggling to ‘get somewhere’ keeps us perpetually busy, stressed-out, and disconnected from that essential inner resource — our ability to be fully present — which could provide a real sense of joy and fulfillment. Our life is unsatisfactory only because we are not living it fully, because instead we are pursuing a happiness that is always somewhere else, other than where we are right now.
Nonetheless, many of us do manage to carve out some niche in our life where we can be fully present; and this is usually where we wind up feeling most fulfilled. Indeed, the things in life we most enjoy — lovemaking, beauty, creativity, sports or strenuous exercise, new and challenging situations — are those that brings us here most fully. Artists often feel most alive when their work demands their total attention. Great athletes become still and centered in themselves when playing because they are totally on the spot, having to keep their attention on the game at every moment. All real enjoyment, success, and excellence depend on this ability to be present.
Presence is like the air we breath; it is essential for our life, yet so transparent and intangible that we rarely give it particular attention or importance. For instance, as a writer I can easily become distracted by the results and rewards of writing — the finished product — and fail to see that what I value most about it is that it helps me focus and connect with myself more fully in the present moment. Yet when I give more attention to the product than to the here-and-now experience of writing, I lose my enjoyment and much of my effectiveness. Similarly, if athletes become distracted by hopes and fears about winning or losing, they will lose their stillness, their presence, and most likely the game as well. Or if lovers focus on the performance and outcome of sex, they will enjoy it less and may not even be able to ‘perform’ at all.
Cultivating the capacity to be fully present — awake, attentive, and responsive — in all the different circumstances of life is the essence of spiritual practice and realization. Those with the greatest spiritual realization are those who are ‘all here,’ who relate to life with an expansive awareness that is not limited by any fixation on themselves or their own point of view. They don’t shrink from any aspect of themselves or life as a whole.
“What would it be like if I could accept life–accept this moment–exactly as it is?” Tara Brach
I was on board the Taj Express train bound for Agra, with a stop at Mathura where I would get off. Traveling by train in India is full of rich lessons. The trains go slowly, express or not, and we moved at a prehistoric pace, the countryside creeping by, palm tree by palm tree, until I wanted to open the window and scream. But then something began to shift. Rather than resist the slowness and count the minutes, I told myself a little story. ‘This trip is going to go on forever,’ I said inwardly. ‘This present moment will never end. I’ve been on this train my entire life, and will never, ever get off. Now what?’
Meditating on this story, I began to surrender into the rhythms and speed of the train, looking out the window at the passing images without the anger of moments before.
Out of our busyness, we are called back into balance, back into ourselves and the silence of present being. But it is not just back into ourselves to which we are called; it is also the awareness of the continuous presence of the environment around us and within us. We are called to remember our relationships and our dependencies. We are called to once again feel the oneness which sustains our being in balance with creation, and to do so with wonder and appreciation.
The present moment, like the spotted owl or the sea turtle, has become an endangered species. Yet more and more I find that dwelling in the present moment, in the face of everything that would call us out of it, is our highest spiritual discipline. More boldly, I would say that our very presentness is our salvation; the present moment, entered into fully, is our gateway to eternal life.
A day so happy
Fog lifted early, I worked in the garden.
Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers.
There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.
I knew no one worth my envying him.
Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.
To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.
In my body I felt no pain.
When straightening up, I saw the blue sea and sails.
Witnessing and companioning take time and patience, which we often lack — especially when we’re in the presence of suffering so painful we can barely stand to be there, as if we were in danger of catching a contagious disease. We want to apply our “fix,” then cut and run, figuring we’ve done the best we can to “save” the other person.
During my depression, there was one friend who truly helped. With my permission, Bill came to my house every day around 4:00 PM, sat me down in an easy chair, and massaged my feet. He rarely said a word. But somehow he found the one place in my body where I could feel a sense of connection with another person, relieving my awful sense of isolation while bearing silent witness to my condition.
By offering me this quiet companionship for a couple of months, day in and day out, Bill helped save my life. Unafraid to accompany me in my suffering, he made me less afraid of myself. He was present — simply and fully present — in the same way one needs to be at the bedside of a dying person.
It’s at such a bedside where we finally learn that we have no “fix” or “save” to offer those who suffer deeply. And yet, we have something better: our gift of self in the form of personal presence and attention, the kind that invites the other’s soul to show up.
Now is the only time. How we relate to it creates the future. In other words, if we’re going to be more cheerful in the future, it’s because of our aspiration and exertion to be cheerful in the present. What we do accumulates; the future is the result of what we do right now.
“When you love someone, the best thing you can offer is your presence. How can you love if you are not there? The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.” Thich Nhat Hanh
“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” Alice Walker
A moving and tender story about a mother learning to be present with her daughter living with addictions and mental health concerns.
Buddhist Sharon Salzberg suggests presence arises out of interest and attention.
A UU Minister considers the practice of presence.
In this On-Being interview, a UU Minister explores being present at life and death.
February 02, 2018
February 02, 2018
February 02, 2018