What is Presence?
If you look up a definition of “presence,” you will find something obvious along the lines of “the state or condition of being present.” And “being present” is “the state of existing or occurring now.” If we are content with that … end of blog.
But clearly I believe there is more to explore, something deeply valuable here – something that is often overlooked. Beginning with a focus on helping professionals, we need something more than knowledge of theory and technique. Yes, there are useful tools for solving problems and removing obstacles. But underpinning the use of those tools is the way we are as we meet and sit with the other person. This may sound nebulous, but it includes a lot of palpable qualities: posture, energy, body language, facial expressions, eye contact, voice quality, gestures. As Stephen Porges has emphasized in his polyvagal theory, social engagement plays a significant role in our interactions with clients.
Going deeper, I suggest that these social engagement features reflect our underlying “state of being.” And this state of being has to do with our emotional state, our cognitive focus or lack of focus, our physical state (for instance, are we experiencing physical pain?). Underlying all of that are two essentials: awareness and attention.
Awareness and Attention
The capacity to be fully present involves being aware of self, other, the field, in the present moment. The lens of awareness can be wide and also more focused: when the lens narrows, we call this “attention.” In learning mindfulness practice, one often begins with concentration practice, typically involving a focus on the breath. Other forms of practice may emphasize visual focus (on a candle flame, or picture of a sacred teacher), a sound, or repetition of a word or phrase. But there is a form of mindfulness known as “awareness practice,” which involves a wide-open lens, simply being aware of whatever is “arising” in the moment – breath, physical sensations, sounds, sights, even smells, and yes, thoughts. This has the flavor of presence.
Regardless of whether mindfulness practice is involved, presence involves an essential capacity to be here, in this moment, in a wide open space of awareness. There is a fullness to it, and also a simplicity – “just here.” But fully here, without following the seductive pull of thoughts down their various inner roads. When something in the field of awareness calls for more focus, the lens naturally narrows to produce directed attention. In our work with clients, what calls for attention may be something subtle happening in the client’s space, or something within ourselves – a sensation in the heart or belly, for instance –which may turn out to be a significant cue about something going on in the client (or something in ourselves that needs exploration). The more fully present and aware we are, the more likely we are to experience this kind of attunement. Presence opens us to subtleties that may otherwise be missed.
And yes, we typically need some kind of “presence practice” in this busy world, where attention is often pulled in many directions and the pace can be frenetic. Practicing presence involves dropping all our other preoccupations, emptying out, and then opening to whatever presents itself –gradually letting go of the inner commentary, reaction, judgment, or manipulation. This can become easier with practice – practice which is likely to be lifelong! We are cultivating presence the way we might cultivate a field for fertile growth. We feel when it is quietly blossoming, and we are just being.
Presence is an invaluable dimension of any relationship, including the helping relationship. Our own practice of presence may have a place in both a spiritual and non-spiritual context. In counseling, presence does not mean we cut ourselves off from therapeutic understanding or knowledge: that is still available. Within presence, we may challenge as well as support: this is not about being “nice” or “passive.” Presence includes openness to the flow of possibility, intuition, and inspiration. Clients in turn may experience feeling safe, fully welcomed and received. I see presence as a gift we offer, a space in which we honor others, ourselves, and “what is.”
Whatever our clients bring into session, our Presence deepens our awareness, insight, and availability. When they bring spiritual/religious experiences and orientations with them into the space, presence and attention serve as our way of honoring what is sacred to them. The dimension of sacredness is not like other aspects of life, even though what is regarded as sacred may vary widely. Kenneth Pargament envisions a circle of the sacred, in which there is a sacred core (the Divine or Beloved, God, Transcendent Reality, Ground of Being) surrounded by a sacred ring that may include nature, sacred places, sacred times, marriage, children, work as service, and more. We honor the range of our clients’ sacred commitments with our capacity to be fully present – present in our bodies, our minds and hearts, our awareness. We are “tuned in,” available, open, attentive. “Simply present” is the phrase that often comes to mind: there is a simplicity, a bareness to it. .
Presence in Spiritual Guidance
Presence feels like the foundation of spiritual guidance. We are coming together within the space of the Mystery (the Divine, Sacred, Holy). We listen from Presence, following the inner guidance that becomes available within that silence.
Let’s imagine a scenario in which a seeker’s spiritual/religious leanings trigger strong reactions in us. Here, as always, it is essential that we remain present. Someone’s actions/orientations may push our buttons, because we too have our own deep convictions about what is of ultimate concern. They believe something we really reject. They turn to religious or spiritual resources that we think are useless. They have spiritual experiences that we find dangerous or at least highly questionable. Whatever skills we may be able to bring to these arenas – raising questions, exploring somatic and emotional dimensions of the experience, bringing deeper attention to metaphors – we need to remain conscious of our own reactions and learn how to set them aside for the moment. (They probably need deeper exploration later.)
The practice of presence can help us to be more openly aware of the thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations that arise in us, in response to what a client introduces into the space. This awareness also allows us to remain open to the guidance of the Divine/Spirit.
The Gifts of Presence
Presence can also open the lens of awareness beyond the immediate, close-to-the-bone reactions. We have more capacity to be aware of what else is in the room – the subtle or not-so-subtle Presence of the Divine/Holy/Mystery – which can help us to discern what is most needed in the moment. When we don’t get lost in our own “triggering,” we are more tuned in to the subtle levels of insight and interaction.
Presence is an invaluable gift to offer ourselves, those we love, and those we accompany. We may even become aware that presence, over time, invites deeper presence in others – as if there is a “space of being” which invites them to soften into presence themselves.
Presence. Here. Now. Both full and empty. Available, attentive, open. And powerful in its own quiet, subtle way.
(Kenneth Pargament. Spiritually Integrated Psychotherapy. New York: Guilford Press, 2007.)