Presence - Reflections

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    I wrote these reflections for the Ways of Knowing class the week we discussed Presence.

    Note:  For the "short version" of this report, see Dao's Report.  Thank you, Dao!

    When I use the word Presence I'm thinking of a holistic quality of experience, rather than some abstract metaphysical substance that could exist without an experiencing subject.  I define it relative to the experiencer.  That mainly means "myself", of course, but I'm not going to define it as "personal", because often experience (and therefore presence) seems to go beyond that.

    I'm going to use the word "have", as in "I have presence" or "I have  awareness", but it doesn't mean presence or awareness is an object that I possess that is separate from who I am. In fact, "to have presence" seems related to saying "to have (awareness of) myself".

    I think presence is in a way related to Will, including the ability to direct ones attention -- that is, the capacity to "attend" to experience in some way.  There seems to be a yin (receptive) aspect and a yang (creative) aspect.  The receptive aspect could be called Openness -- in which awareness accepts and reflects like a mirror or the surface of a still lake (to use a traditional metaphor).  Or maybe like a clean window.  The active form would be something like the ability to change, focus, or move attention from one form to another.  This includes dropping and re-forming identifications and attachments, although that seems more involved than moving between already-established pathways.

    How can I recognize presence as an experience?  That's tricky, given that it has to do with quality of experience, but also experience is sometimes unconscious or fragmented, and yet the character of unconscious or uncognized aspects of the self also play into it.  In addition to observations based on qualities or characteristics of an experiential type I believe "indirect" observations are a valid source of knowledge about the self.  I'm not a purist in terms of the method(s) for obtaining knowledge. 

    What is presence like, as a more direct experience?  It's not yes or no, like am I "paying attention" or not; it's a matter of degree.  When experience is deeper, subtler, involves more "parts" of me, has greater resonance and significance, more of a flow feeling, more of a "unity", feels fresher and more flexible, brings into play more varied cognitive capacities (including perceiving, feeling, moving), and so on.  I think of the term "the greater present moment". 

    One of the main indicators is the ability to have more omnidirectional attention; for example, awareness extended in (the felt sense of) space in many directions;  or in (the felt sense of) time.  Even more generally this includes noticing at the same time "inner" and "outer" experience -- for example, noticing myself and my responses and subjective activity along with what is going on "outside" as perceptions of the world around me.

    What are some possible indirect correlates of presence?  The human capacity for attention and awareness seems limited.  But it does seem possible to move more fluidly between different attentional states, and in a more unified way;  a counter-example would be thinking about past perceptions while ignoring the present.  I also think one can notice the effects of presence in a lot of different "realms" of experience and in different types of situations, as if one were to make a list or map of the rich varieties of types of human experience and capacities, and then track whether they had been brought into play. 

    Examples of when do I have (the experience of) presence?  Driving on the freeway: having awareness of many vehicles around me, at the same time able to think and feel about my upcoming meeting.  At the supermarket:  noticing the room full of people; noticing emotional responses to each of them that feel differentiated.  Having an impression of a person or place, and registering a feeling that I could remember and "unpack" later as a rather fast act of learning a fair amount about that person or place.  Or when I feel really "moved" by some ordinary situation, and notice its unique character and depth. 

    Examples of when do I NOT have (the experience of) presence?   It's easier to notice when awareness "returns" than when it subsides.  I notice a memory lapse -- don't really recall what I've been doing in the near past. In states of fatigue, awareness becomes irregular or oddly-focused.  Or I'm watching two men talk, and one of them is clenching his fist a little (it takes some presence to notice that) but I also notice that I have some emotional reaction to my assessment he has the potential of violence, and that pulled my attention away from a deeper understanding of what he has been talking about.  Or when I notice my response to something is more about general personal preferences and attitudes (likes and dislikes) than about what is actually happening.  Or when the scene outside my window has a kind of picture-like flatness, while I "know" there's depth, dimensionality, and subtlety to what is going on in the world around me.  Or when I notice various emotional states that get triggered, things that set me off and start a "process" that saps attention and is not part of my usual sense of self. Or when I have body tensions or "symptoms" that don't make sense.  Or when I feel "confused", "bored", or other such emotional states. 

    I think on the basis of these "negative" descriptions one could formulate a picture of positive human consciousness but I it wouldn't be good to imply that presence or awareness can't function until these are somehow removed.  The existential situation is that suffering and awareness are mixed, and as a matter of practice, suffering consciously can test and develop awareness in a useful way.

    One general word for NOT having presence is "identification".  This means that my attention (and presence) has been narrowly "captured" by a specific experience, in the sense that I am aware of it but "forget" a broader awareness of myself, my participation and choice (will), and greater possiblities for experience and action.

    Can one be "present" during sleep or dream states?   I think one can be more or less present to "oneself" in these states, even though not aware of external sense experiences.  I believe this self-awareness is present during normal waking states.  The awareness or presence to "self" doesn't take the self as a separate "object", but sometimes shows up projected onto the apparent world -- for example, after a meditation, the "self" might be said to be different and more open, but the world around is what looks more spacious, nuanced, or richly colored.

    Can I notice when other people have or don't have presence?   There seem to be subtle and mostly unconscious ways people "resonate" with each other, and the sense of there being another awareness present, and of being affected by that person; with the sense of alertness, or shifts in one's feeling state, or fresh insights arising that seem uncharacteristic of ones own habits.

    Can presence be practiced or cultivated?  In principle, maybe "everything" can be a practice.  There are many ways to do this, beyond the basic effort of trying to "pay attention" or stay "awake" in some way.  Humans have many specific capacities of experience and observation that can be trained, developed, or refined, and applied in different circumstances.  I wouldn't say these are in themselves, presence, but the process of developing them requires presence;  having a variety of such skills can give "awareness" different ways to enter into experience at any given time; and one may become more aware of gaps or unused capacities. 

    There are various reasons and principles for choosing to engage in practices, including those that involve presence.  One is intrinsic -- based on the idea that presence (and other human capacities) work in given way(s) for all humans.  The other is to choose based on an assessment of oneself and take into account character, personality, and/or current state of development.  This second category includes cultural influences also. This self-knowledge and state is an evolving thing. 

    What specific practices have I found most useful? 

    In my own experience I've found several different types of practices to be most important, and in which "presence" plays a role.  However, in the bigger picture I think of these practices categorically based on the areas of human capacity in which they function.  After a while they seem to integrate together.  I think that slowly-developing "integration" also leads to capacity for presence.  My personal choices have been:

    • Awareness-based meditation methods.
    • Body-centered practices that involve body sensing and sensitivity, movement, embodied intelligence, and "internal" (subtle) energies.  Martial arts, tai chi, chi gung, dance, yoga, latihan, to name a few.
    • Work with the feelings and emotions, including but eventually going beyond psychology and "therapy".
    • Self-observation -- that is, the effort to remain aware of myself while engaged in activity, and to do something with that information to make it into useful knowledge.


    Those might be considered person-centered in a way, but I think that they form a basis for more "outward" focuses:

    • Contemplation
    • Nature awareness and meditation.
    • Practices in the realm of human relationships such as deep listening, communication, and dialogue.


    Based on these considerations I would describe my own notion of "presence" as referring to a developing integrative state (and also a structure) of consciousness in which there is a full(er) awareness and dynamic access to the full set of human capacities and potentials.  A unifying principle (to avoid making it all seem complex and remote) is simply to be fully engaged with whatever is happening in the present moment.

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