“If we look even a tiny bit below the surface of our robotic habits of body, speech and mind, most of us would have to admit that we feel lost much of the time”. So begins the chapter on presence.
I wonder what brings you into awareness of the yawning sense of lostness that sits just under the radar? Perhaps the nagging feeling that everyone else knows something you don’t about how to navigate life? Perhaps the occasional realisation of the frivolity of what is occupying your time and energy? Perhaps a nameless sense of drag? The inability to rest? The sense of belonging which is always elusive?
Kathleen goes on to observe that most of us are so rarely here, so seldom at ease in now; for most of us, the lights are on, but no one is home.
And yet this moment, this now, this here, in the vulnerability and intimacy of presence is where grace flows. Not only that, but you already know this. You already know the yearning towards presence, because you remember it – we all enjoyed it once – the capacity to be present, to be here with your whole being.
This is good news – the capacity for presence is something we re-gain, re-cover, re-store…. you have always known the direction of home.
The present moment is the portal into the flow of grace which is almost obscured by our contruct of time and the shadow of our selfing.
So what does it look like?
Presence is the willingness and capacity to be open and compassionate with whatever arises. The courageous heart does not turn away from what is difficult to face, but offers patient attendance, compassionate responsiveness even in the midst of great anguish, strong fear or profound confusion. Presence anchors us in compassion and allows us to open to the boundless flow of love that is our refuge so we become a refuge for others.
So what keeps us from it?
Fear and resistance. We fear being overwhelmed by strong and powerful emotions that are too big for us to hold. We fear being lost in the tsunami of grief, anguish, confusion, anger. We habitually flee these feelings. We look for distractions, we smother them and numb them. We lock ourselves out of our own home to avoid them and wander lost in our own habitual patterns of thinking, acting and speaking.
We also resist being present to the fullness of our being in each moment by our fascination with our inner cinema. We allow our thoughts to become so mesmerising and important that we don’t want to miss a single one. We’ve all found ourselves arriving at our destination and having no memory of the journey, having made it on autopilot…but this isn’t just true of driving to work or back home – this is true of our most important relationships, our most precious moments as well as our everyday.
And one more thing
Habit. We are creatures of habit and we habitually fall into the patterns of how we manage stress, how we restore energy, how we connect, how we disconnect. We also expect others to manage their side of the relationship in their habitual way…changing anything about this creates stress for all, so there are often strong countermoves (inner and external) to stick to the habitual pattern. This is true for the change of becoming increasingly present to yourself and others because this will cause other relational changes…you’ll find yourself less keen to engage in gossip, less prone to blaming someone else…less likely to create distance or move into over functioning or under functioning as a way of coping with stress and anxiety. If that last sentence has piqued your interest, I suggest reading Harriet Lerner’s The Dance of Fear and/or The Dance of Anger (short reads, big print, even some diagrams!). You can listen to Brene Brown talking about over/under functioning here.
Pause to reflect…
Where are you most often Missing In Action?
What are the triggers that set you into mask mode?
What brings you in touch with the yearning to be here?
In practicing presence, we are invited to recognise again that everything is sacred. Everything is the portal to being here now, but we also recognise that there are some areas of our life that we keep separate – unspiritual. Where are these for you…family? Work? Recreation activities? Where are you closed down or so deeply in the habit of selfing that your presence practice does not touch the ground?
Prayers of Presence
Attention and intention work together in Centering Prayer, recognising the flow of thoughts does not need to stop in order for you to stop following each one as it arises. Keeping vigil in the prayer means taking a stance of quiet, compassionate responsiveness with the intention of letting the thought go each time you catch yourself engaging with it. If this is your regular practice, you might find it helpful to observe how you are keeping vigil…like a mother watching over her child…like a drowsy nightwatchman….like a pupil waiting for the final bell of the day…?
Consider how might you take the quality of compassionate vigil into the rest of your day…maybe as awareness of your stance shifts, you might more kindly catch yourself in judgement or soften the tone of your responses (inner and voiced)?
If you prefer a mantra style prayer instead, you may like to pray the reflective prayer question of St. Francis of Assisi:
Who are you, God, and who am I?
As with any mantra style prayer, attach it to your breath to begin with, then use your breath to help you return to the prayer during the day.
Or you may like to explore an adoration/devotion prayer approach, dwelling with an image of Jesus that prompts you to an open and loving state of being. The image can be a physical object for you to gaze upon, or it can be a mental image of the inner eye – St. Theresa of Avila urged her nuns to this kind of devotional gaze as their prayer practice.
She also advised them that this inner gaze can become an inner glance through the day, suggesting that they match their feeling experience with the image of Jesus in their minds – “if you are joyful, look at him as risen…if you are experiencing trials or are sad, behold him on the way to the garden…”
The image of the mountain offers us a symbol of witness to the passing thoughts and feelings – like clouds and travellers, like the rolling seasons, the woods growing, dying, on fire…the coming of rain, the streams that fill and rush and then dwindle to trickles. The mountain is the witness – not disengaged, but receptive, accepting, offering shelter and letting passing things pass.
But we live on the Shaky Isles, so we know that even mountains can be moved…when you find yourself feeding the feeling story, caught in the drama, fixated on analysing, fixing, helping – when the mountain of your witness trembles….start over. Return to stillness and let your heart open to the compassionate flow.
The Smell of Home
There are some aromas that transport you to a place of delight and longing, some that can stimulate a craving or make your tummy rumble even when you are not hungry, some that can curl your lip and cause you to recoil…the use of incense in many temples and places of worship is an intentional engagement of our olfactory senses as a means of spiritual practice. The smell of prayer and the smell of worship and the heightened expectation of Presence create a direct association with a scent and presence – the sense of attending to the soul, being anchored in Being.
So what is the smell you want to associate with attention, with compassionate responsiveness, with openness and with soul? What whiff or sniff will transport you to expectation of presence, of attending to this now, this breath arising, abiding and dissolving? You might find something at home or in the garden that does the trick for you, but if not, stores like Huckleberry Farms, Ceres or those crystal/salt lamp/tie dye/hemp bag type shops often stock a range of essential oils with testers for you to sniff and find a scent that, used over time, will become an unconscious connection into attention, awareness, being, breathing, compassionate flow.
It won’t happen quickly, but it will happen. And if you choose an essential oil, you can take the scent with you on a tissue (keep it in a sealed bag or jar) to inhale during the day – use it as a prompt or as an intentional portal into being present.