To Be or Not To Be…Present

To be present, fully present, is not an easy thing. David Benner, in his freshly published book, Presence & Encounter: The Sacramental Possibilities of Everyday Lifeinvites us to practice doing just one thing at a time, and to do it with presence. One might be thinking of the term mindfulness just as well.

“Being present simply involves letting go of all the usual ways we avoid the present moment.” (p. 22)

Investment. Choice. We have focus, we have mindsight. Where do we choose to place it, to invest it? If we want to be present to something, or someone, we must invest the fullness of our being and presence into that one thing, that moment, that person, that encounter with the tree or the sunset. There is a sacrament to the present moment that is truly all that we have. But we are often snatched out of the moment by our concerns, worries, anxieties, fears or hopes about our past or our future. The present moment is very easily robbed. And we miss the paradise around us.

It is often safer, and easier, to allow ourselves to be distracted by the noises and movements and sensational attractions of modern Western life. Busyness and speed can often be enemies of presence.

“Spiritual attentiveness is less a matter of concentration than contemplation.” (p. 24)

Here Benner refers to contemplation as “releasing distractions, preoccupations, and prejudgments and being available for absorption.” He says that Presence is making one’s self available for temporary absorption by someone or something. In this mode of opening oneself up to the present moment, this mode of being rather than of doing, there is openness, curiosity, wonder, play, imagination, and hospitable room to step into the uncertainty of time and space. This requires an acceptance of the moment, accepting ‘what is, as it is’, first, without judgement.

“We cannot be present to anyone or anything in judgment…Being present is an act of trust, hope, and hospitality.” (p. 25)

Benner discusses how presence to anything first, and always, begins with presence to self. If you are not present to yourself, your own story, your own day, your own heart, to your reality, than you will be unable to be present to the true, real presence of anyone or anything else.

“We need to relearn the natural human capacity for relating to the world through eyes of awe and wonder.” (p. 3

If you watch a child at play, you will notice how easily they give themselves to the present moment. Truly, to the child, there is no other moment to conceive of. The child has opened him or herself up to be absorbed by the potent sacredness of the moment. This usually results in delight, awe, wonder, discovery, or exploration. Paying attention is being absorbed. If you are afraid of being absorbed, than you will continue to flow in the numb river of distraction.

“The world is sacred–as is everything within it and beyond it. Presence is an act of realizing the sacredness of life and of everything that exists.” (p. 33)

Having the contemplative stance in and towards life is living with intentional openness and presence. This contemplative stance, practicing presence, leads to contemplative knowing, and this is the most personal form of knowing possible for humans. This is encounter. Martin Buber says that all life is meeting. All of Life is encounter. Or can be. Are you alive? Are you dead? Encounter…this personal knowing…is always participative, personal, and deeply intimate. It even is, I would say, immediate. It makes one vulnerable. And as Madeleine L’Engle noted long ago, to be alive is to be vulnerable.

“Presence is putting my whole self at the disposal of the one I encounter.” (p. 63)

An encounter is the meeting of, or between, two presences. Benner, taking his lead from Martin Buber’s influential work I and Thou, points out the reality of the presence of all things, and all people. When you take the time and vulnerability to open yourself up to that field of wildflowers on your walk, the surprise sunset on your drive home from the grocery store, the texture and sight of the bubbly water while you’re doing your dishes, the eyes and the face of the one who is before you speaking and breathing. The marvel of a human being!

“Presence is never strictly solitary. It always involves a relationship. It always involves an ‘I’ and a ‘Thou’…It is impossible to separate presence and encounter.” (p. 78)

Benner boldly says that “anything approached as an ‘it’ will never be encountered.” (p. 78). Reality is relational. All of it. When we cease to believe this, when we forget this, when we act as if this is not true, people, things, experiences, and reality becomes a plane of “its” that are there for us to manipulate, use, and consume for our benefits, pleasures, and self-declared ends.

“There are no closets or drawers in openness. Nothing can stay hidden in a heart that is genuinely open…This is why prayer is honesty and honesty is prayer.” (p. 80)

Where do you hold back? Where are you afraid of exposure? Of being known, or seen, or held? The more we cling onto control (our illusion of control) the less we will be genuinely open to meaning, to growth, to life, to love, to surprise, to the genuinely Other. The more we cling to the illusion of control, the less real we become and more we distance ourselves from reality. Irish Murdoch once wrote, “Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” A Thou is not under my control. The other, and the Wholly Other, that is, God, is not under my control. This necessitates risk, vulnerability, and potential suffering. But suffering is not the enemy. Suffering is not the ultimate evil.

This openness to the other, to reality, requires what I’ll call holy curiosity, or child-like wonder. There is a unique strangeness to reality, and the other, that can be seen as truly beautiful and good. This, however, frightens some. If I can not control something, or someone, that means I can not be sure what the results and consequences of this or that action, thought, word, or deed will be. That uncertainty can bring pain and suffering. Risk is there. Risk makes one vulnerable. One can look at this in a different way though. We are invited into the moment. We are invited into the new day. Into the conversation with this person, into this short walk through the park, into this moment while standing in line at the post office. Will I enter the moment, with all its potential and fecundity? This is basic hospitality. Hospitality to the moment, which may include the trees, the birds, the sunset, the rows of people in line, the one face and voice sitting across the table from me, the work I have before me that needs to be finished. Vulnerability is also openness to growth, new discovery, and new, refreshed life and light.

“All encounters are potentially transformational, because encounter always involves a brush with the transcendent. Presence always points toward Ultimate presence. Encounters present us with both a threat and a curiosity. The other has the power to challenge our way of being.” (p. 83)

Maybe it is in our natures to be escape artists. We learn early on in childhood the various ways that work for us to escape unpleasant moments, situations of higher risk that threaten our way of seeing ourselves and behaving in the world with others.

“The richest gifts of encounter come to us when we are able to take our hands completely off the controls and receive the ‘other’ in whatever form the encounter takes.” (p. 84)

What is the cost of this? The willingness to be changed by the experience of the other, by every encounter, by every moment. If we fear change, or growth, then we will continue our escape artist ways and patterns that have ‘worked for us’ in our past, and we will experience stunted, static living under the guise of change because chronos (clock) time just keeps on ticking, and so does our heart.

Presence, encounter, and true dialogue are each  more about exploring than proving or winning. They are more about authentic discovery. They are more about brushes with the genuinely new and fresh in every day life. This brings us back to the foundation and necessity of curiosity, wonder and the playful exploration (and search for) meaning and substance (over and against mere sensation). 

“Genuine openness in presence means setting aside our hopes and expectations about what we might gain from being present.” (p. 80)

Maybe this is a true giving of the self. Or at least it begins here. In the moment. Where (and when) else is there? Seneca, the Roman stoic philosopher  asked, “When shall we live if not now?” I will not pretend that any of this ‘comes easy’ or ‘naturally’ to any of us, as if some of us are simply ‘born with it’ like a knack or skill for something. But we can learn a lot from observing children in this area. To have the heart of a child is to be so utterly present that you are absorbed in the play and discovery and struggle of the moment yet without being ‘consumed’ by the moment (if you are afraid that your ego-self will be lost). The losing and finding of ourselves. We can take our cue from the child-like in our midst, whether they be 5, 15, 35, or 65 years old. It is in and through presence that we are opened up to the meaning found in every moment, in every experience. Even when that presence is a reflective presence.

Is there really such a thing as a ‘meaningless moment’?

“There is a silent self within us whose presence is disturbing precisely because it is so silent: it can’t be spoken. It has to remain silent. To articulate it, to verbalize it, is to tamper with it, and in some ways to destroy it.

Now let us frankly face the fact that our culture is one which is geared in many ways to help us evade any need to face this inner, silent self. We live in a state of constant semiattention to the sound of voices, music, traffic, or the generalized noise of what goes on around us all the time. This keeps us immersed in a flood of racket and words, a diffuse medium in which our consciousness is half diluted: we are not quite ‘thinking,’ not entirely responding, but we are more or less there. We are not fully present and not entirely absent; not fully withdrawn, yet not completely available. It cannot be said that we are really participating in anything and we may, in fact, be half conscious of our alienation and resentment. Yet we derive a certain comfort from the vague sense that we are ‘part of’ something – although we are not quite able to define what that something is – and probably wouldn’t want to define it even if we could. We just float along in the general noise. Resigned and indifferent, we share semiconsciously in the mindless mind of Muzak and radio commercials which passes for ‘reality’.”  — Thomas Merton


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