Cultivating Spiritual Presence
Presence… The very word evokes a depth and potency of character, a gravitas, a charisma based on inner substantiality rather than outward flash, a simple and quiet dignity. All of that, however, only describes the outward signs of presence. Our path addresses its inner manifestation.
True living absolutely requires presence: more presence, more life. Without presence, life passes us by: we neither participate in nor fully experience our life. Presence means being at home in ourselves, being here, not only in contact with our sensory experience, but also doing what we are doing. Presence means inhabiting our body, heart, and mind, inhabiting our space, inhabiting our actions and inhabiting our life, not just passively letting it all happen.
Consciousness, the distinctive quality of presence, is a timeless energy of wholeness and peace. However, our sensory perceptual experiences, including physical sensations, thoughts and emotions, cover and obscure consciousness, keeping it dispersed, submerged, and mixed with the energies of sensation. For that reason we practice sensitive awareness in our whole body, in our emotions, and in our mind. This intentional sensitive awareness organizes our sensitive energies and creates a workable and effective foundation for consciousness to emerge from sensation.
The foreground of life, the perceptual picture on the screen of consciousness, captivates our attention and we remain unaware of the screen itself. But we cannot find consciousness by focusing on its contents, on the ever-changing play of sensations. Consciousness possesses entirely different qualities: spacious, timeless, cognizant, and unchanging. However, our contact with consciousness does change. Presence is always available, but by habit, clouded perception, and lack of choice, we are not always available to it.
Perhaps you have seen the drawing of a black vase on a white background. You shift your focus to the background and suddenly see two faces kissing, the vase having merged into the background. This foreground-background perceptual shift presages exactly what we need with respect to consciousness: to bring consciousness to the foreground, as the basic container of our experience.
We can approach presence from the front or from behind. From the front, the side of sensory perceptions, we approach through quiet relaxation and meditation, letting thoughts, emotions, and sensations settle down, until we become aware in the gaps between them, and then aware of the consciousness, the pure awareness filling those gaps. As our energies settle, consciousness may coalesce like beads of water joining to form a pool. We rest in the still pool of consciousness, not entangled with its contents, not lost in sensations. Then the foundation for presence grows strong.
Approaching presence from behind, we search deep within ourselves for that vibrant space beneath all our sensations, thoughts, and emotions. As we step behind our ordinary perceptions, the vast continuum of consciousness gradually unfolds in a new mode of perception.
Yet consciousness alone is not enough: we need the will to be present, the will to be. If we do not intentionally choose to be present, presence will be rare and fleeting. That is our role in the work of presence, to make that choice again and again, to take every moment of awakening and decide to be. Just as God continuously creates the universe, our act of will in being present continuously creates us. In the act of presence we create ourselves, we become real, we inhabit this life. If there is no one home in us, it matters little how much awareness we may have of bodily sensations or anything else. The degree of someone being there, someone (will) who actually does the seeing and moving and thinking, determines the degree of presence, the quality of our life. Thus, our will-to-be is the central component of presence.
It does happen that presence arises spontaneously and effortlessly. But without effort, that presence soon evaporates. The effort required is a relaxed effort, but an effort nonetheless. For example, after a meditation session, we may find ourselves effortless present, due mainly to the settling of the conscious energy in us. But if our will does not enter the scene, that effortless presence, earned through meditation, gradually and subtly goes flat.
The will-to-be can pervade our entire body, heart, and mind, our entire being. Acting through our attention and intention, our will entrains some of the higher energy of creative light, carrying it into our body, into our energy of sensation, where the higher energy blends with the lower to create more consciousness, the middle of the three energies and the primary energy of presence. The in-the-moment effort to establish and maintain full-body sensation gives our will a ready and useful target. Our will plugging into the sensitive energy in our body creates a field of presence.
The key to this begins with being present in our energy of sensation, which resides in our body, not just being present in our body. The difference is subtle but significant. Established in our body sensation, we extend our will-to-be into the sensitive energy of emotion and thought, in our heart and mind. This completes us on the level of the sensitive energy.
This simple will-to-be supports our presence, giving us life. Our will-to-be suffuses our presence with a force, the force of will, like a wind filling our sails. When we accept to become our will-to-be, we raise ourselves out of the thrall of associative thoughts and other automatic and reactive processes, and we abide in presence. We experience this will-to-be as I, as I am, as I am here. As one writer put it: “It is not cogito, ergo sum, as Descartes thought, but opto, ergo sum: I choose, therefore I am.”
Yet this “I” is not separate from others, but rather an element of the Whole. This will-to-be, this wind filling our sails, does not begin in us. Its source lies in the higher worlds. The challenge is to open ourselves sufficiently, so as not to block or divert that wind flowing through us from Above. God may see through our eyes and act through our hands, but only to the extent that we are present, that we engage in this moment, in being here, and in opening to the higher will.
Our will-to-be thus takes on a two-fold character. First, we are active toward the outside, toward full sensation in the body, toward full contact with sensory experience, toward activity in the world. Second, we are open to the innermost, the higher, allowing it to warm our very being with love and infuse us with proximity to the Ultimate. Between them, in consciousness, the two act in harmony as simple, relaxed presence. Thus not merely a personal matter, the effort to be present itself fulfills a sacred duty incumbent on all human beings, to serve as a bridge between heaven and earth. Presence sets the stage for love, good works, and the transformation of energies.
Presence has several measures: frequency, duration, intensity and depth. Frequency connotes how often we return to ourselves, how often we remember to be within ourselves and make the effort to be present. We aim to decrease the lapsed time between falling out of presence and coming back to it. Every activity in life transforms into an opportunity for practice. Former sources of frustration, such as waiting in line, become openings into which we pour our spiritual effort. Whenever we notice that we have fallen out of presence, out of consciousness, we immediately rouse ourselves back to the moment.
Duration reveals the stability of our presence. It indicates the length of any given period of presence, how long we are able to stay within our awareness before we fall back into sensation or down into autopilot. We may effectively gauge our day by estimating the percentage of our waking hours during which we were present. Our goal is 100% unbroken presence all day, every day. But as with every other aspect of the spiritual path, we start where we are: somewhere less than 2% on a good day. Being honest with ourselves clarifies our situation. If we remain under the illusion that we are present all the time, we shall never come to the necessary effort and determination.
Intensity of presence depends on two factors: the quantity of energy and the strength of our will-to-be. The more energy brought together in our being, the more intensely present we can be. The more steadfast our will-to-be, the more intensely present we are. Intensity of presence should not be confused with tension of any kind. Presence comes with an inner relaxation. An intense will-to-be does not imply an experience of tension, but rather a strong, vivid, and current intention to live in presence, which enables us to actually be here at home in this body, in this place, in this very moment.
Lastly, depth results from the combination of the degree of stillness and the clarity of will in our presence: the quality of energy and will available. Is our presence underscored by the deep silence underlying everything, conferring a conscious, unifying wholeness to presence? Am I actually here in this silence? Is the whole of my attention and intention engaged in being in this moment? Our external will-to-be opens inwardly to an alignment with and devotion to the higher world. We open the very core of our being to the higher. In the center, between the open will toward the inner/higher and the active will toward the outer/lower, we stay relaxed in being conscious.
There is yet a deeper level of presence: opening to the higher to such an extent that the higher affirms itself in us, as us. We invite that affirmation from beyond consciousness. In this case our true I is subsumed into the greater, sacred I of the Whole. We experience ourselves as ourselves, with no loss of freedom or independence, yet now aligned and connected with the sacred. Typically there is a great influx of higher, sacred energy into our being in those moments, but the essential action is the purification of who we are: we become ourselves and the higher sacred, both and without contradiction. Rather than aggrandizing us, this action results in humility, in knowing that we are all the same in our connection with and as the sacred. In that moment, we are whole and complete and fully here; the universe is whole and complete and fully here.
Presence builds on awareness, awareness encompassing physical sensations, emotions, and thoughts. Strong contact with sensation throughout the whole of the body serves as an excellent foundation for consciousness to arise. Contact, in turn, with the pure, underlying screen of consciousness serves as the foundation of presence, a vehicle to carry presence, an invitation to presence to reside in us. Into this basic consciousness, we, our true will, can enter. To really live, means to live in presence. Without presence, our time passes, lost like yesterday's sunset. With presence, we bring the timeless to time, transforming it, as well as ourselves and our lives.
 Goswami, Amit The Self-Aware Universe (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1993) p. 107
 Tracol, Henri, The Real Question Remains (Sandpoint: Morning Light Press, 2009)
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