“You can’t think about presence, and the mind can’t understand it. Understanding presence is being present.” Eckhart Tolle
I came across an article about the Harvard Social Psychologist Amy Cuddy who recently has published a book entitled “Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges”. My attention was immediately captured when I read the magic word: presence. But is she describing the same phenomenon that came to my mind?
I contemplated the idea of presence for the first time about six or seven years ago and I remember it as something tangible, yet fleetingly abstract. What I mean by that is for one magical moment you just are, and then you are not. The minute you try to conceptualise the notion of what it is you are experiencing, you lose it; you literally fall out of presence. Why is that?
I met the spiritual teacher Lama Surya Das years ago in London. After his talk I had the opportunity to ask him a question about presence. I asked him why he chose to explain it in the way he had: why didn’t he elaborate? He just smiled at me and suddenly all my thoughts just stopped.
Presence is beyond mind. We cannot be present through mind, and we cannot identify with who we are through mind. Mind to me is not intellect as such. The most clear and powerful text in my opinion to give an understanding of mind and presence is “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle. Reading this book changed my entire perception of reality. For the first 29 years of his life,Tolle suffered from severe anxiety and suicidal depression. His view of life was one of darkness and dread. The misery was so strong that one night he woke up thinking:
“I cannot live with myself any longer.” This was the thought that kept repeating itself in my mind. I suddenly became aware of what a peculiar thought it was. “Am I one or two? If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me: the ‘I’ and the ‘self’ that ‘I’ cannot live with.” “Maybe,” I thought, “only one of them is real.”
This epiphany caused something incredible to happen to Tolle. He realised that “you are not your mind”. Perhaps it could be called enlightenment. In his moment of clarity his mind could no longer create the suffering self so it refrained from giving space for his true nature to shine – the ‘I am’ – in effect being. Tolle experienced true being to be full of bliss, love and peace.
So how does this relate to presence? Tolle’s new found state of being was a state of ‘no-mind’, as the Buddhists call it. It is a state of pure being as we are in the very moment. They believe that a person is an eternal soul present in a temporary physical body and that all souls are effectively connected as one.
As humans we also have a mind, and it is those minds that are the root all of our suffering. The mind is a powerful tool which should be available for us, as and when we require it. For some reason, however, our minds have become our masters. Especially in the Western world people have learned to make decisions purely with their minds instead of listening to their inner beings. The danger there is that the mind’s perspective cannot always be trusted. The mind loves to generate fear and anxiety, and creates scenarios that torture us; it can skew reality. We have thoughts all day long and for some of us they are not positive ones. These thoughts then become our identity. They form our “character” and we identify with that.
So when the mind suddenly goes quiet and all those thoughts just stop, we can just be. And that state of pure being is when we truly experience ourselves, free of thought and judgement. This is what I consider my closest explanation of presence: to truly be and see reality without pre-conceived perception in the very moment we are in.
The key point is to see that presence can only happen in the now. There is no future; it has not yet happened. And the past is already gone. Only the mind can bring old feelings back from the past to the here and now, but those feelings are not from the now. The future is frightening as it has not yet happened, so any thoughts the mind has about the future are scary because they are speculations.
Tolle continues to describe how action changes once we are present. We no longer need to contrive situations that haven’t yet happened or how we hypothetically deal with them (frightening again as they are inconceivable). Nor do we need to relive situations from the past. Tolle states that the moment there is a situation that calls for action, then we can choose what to do with presence. We will see the situation without judgement attached to it. We will see it for what it is: “When you complain, you make yourself into a victim. When you speak out, you are in your power. So change the situation or leave the situation or accept it. All else is madness.” The madness he is referring to are the continuous thoughts we often give a situation: going round and round in circles repeating negative thoughts giving rise to negative emotions.
For me, what Tolle describes is a real spiritual experience that has the power to propel us into a whole new way of being. Imagine the peace and happiness one can experience once worry and the threat of time falls away. Imagine being completely accepting and satisfied with what is right now and truly enjoying it, irrespective of what happens next. Right now there is no next: isn’t that liberating?
The second part to this article will elaborate on Cuddy’s psychological approach and also a less immediate yet very powerful way to begin a journey towards presence: meditation. You can find it here on the UK2 Blog tomorrow.