Showing up, meditation, and being present for people we encounter: what other literal and figurative ways of being present are there? Presence is also a practice and a state of being that leads to enlightenment, and a fuller, more beneficial life.
It seems to me that “presence” has three general expressions, three realms:
One is what we may term the external, or public presence. In the story of “Mirette on the High Wire,” we have our young heroine preserving/being brave/showing up. This is also the kind of presence we show when we do social justice work, or ease pain, or protect people, or protect the environment. When we leave our homes to take these actions, we are taking the risk of being visible, being out there.
It is Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other liberals leaving the safety of America to return to Germany and oppose National Socialism. It’s what the Civil Rights and anti-War activists did, and do when they march and work for justice and peace. It is also what the young men do when they volunteer for military service. It is also what a Conscientious Objector does in seeking alternative service to making war, and refusing induction as a last resort.
In general, it’s feeling the fear, or risk, or discomfort, or sacrifice, and doing it anyway. All these actions are forms of being present in an external, public way.
There is also the special presence in spiritual practice, which includes meditation or prayer. This is a more internal presence, quite different from the external. This is much more private and peaceful. We heard in the reading that Krista gave us, the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh speaking of practices that “generate peace within us, which helps peace to be a reality in the world.”
All the great spiritual leaders of our time speak of concentrating on the moment, on the present. S.N. Goenka, the man who made the Vispassana meditation movement what it is today wrote:
Alan Watts, who was one of the first to introduce the West to Buddhism, wrote that “meditation is the discovery that the point of life is always arrived at in the immediate moment.” In other words, we must be fully present.
Ram Dass, the former Richard Alpert, sometime-colleague of Timothy Leary, who went in a very different direction in terms of the means for enlightenment, wrote “I would like my life to be a statement of love and compassion – and where it isn’t, that’s where my work lies.”
He coined the summary of the method: Be. Here. Now.
Meher Bab is responsible for “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Also “Love God and find it within – the only treasure worth finding.”
There is a third way to be present. A very important way, that is getting more attention these days, and that is our attentive, honest presence in the lives of the people close to us. If we are lovingly interested in what is going on with friends and relations and people we meet, we are very much present, very much being there now.
Thornton Wilder has powerfully illustrated the question of presence in our daily lives, our being with others, in one of the classic stage dramas of the last hundred years, Our Town.
In the play, Emily, a woman come back from the dead to relive her 12th birthday, and after observing her town and townspeople asks what is perhaps the play’s best-known question and answer. She asks, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute?” She asks this of the Stage Manager at the end of Act III. The Stage Manager answers that no, human beings indeed do not realize life, except for the “saints and poets, maybe.”
One critic wrote:
“This exchange emphasizes the value of everyday events. Throughout the play, the characters place importance on moments of ceremony and consequence, such as George and Emily’s wedding, and Emily’s funeral. But the characters do not seem to value or make any emotional connection to the daily activities of their rather ordinary lives.
Instead of attempting to “realize life” at every moment, the inhabitants of Grover’s Corners – and by implication, people the world over – often lack any sense of wonder at what passes before their eyes every day. When Emily relives her twelfth birthday, she futilely tries to get her mother to really look at her and not take her presence for granted. This experience causes Emily to realize that during her own life, she herself did not pay enough attention to detail and did not appreciate her family and her town the way she does now, now that she is dead. Emily’s remark directly precedes her return to the cemetery, and it signals her resignation to return to the realm of the dead souls. Emily is pained by her recognition that human beings waste great opportunities at every moment, and her realization dampens her desire to return to the world of the living.”
How much better if we relate, if we engage, if we pay attention, if we look deeply into the other people in our lives. Here we are, stuck, sheltering in place, quarantined. Are we making the most of our opportunity to know the people we are with at a new level, new intensity, simply by paying attention?
Are we really looking at our children, our parents, any and all of our relatives, and not taking them for granted, as Emily’s mother does, in Our Town?
It’s a challenge, it’s a stretch, to imagine the lives of others. Are we able to truly see and hear our youth and young adults as they face a very different world than we did at their age? Or do we rely on our memories of ourselves, and feel content to give pat answers, and perhaps false comfort?
If we want to be present to them, we will pay closer and more sustained attention. Same thing at the other end, with our elders. Are we seeing them for who they are now? If we want to be present to them, we will truly see them, and truly listen to them.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives. How are we doing with our showing up, and with our going deeply in, and with our paying close and loving attention to the people in our lives, and seeing the real them?
Speaking for myself, I have generally failed “to realize life while I am living it, every every minute.” But I want to take advantage of the slower pace of these unusual times, and rethink, and react, with more of this third kind of presence, which is where we live most of the time. Our external presence, our “showing-ups” are rare. Our internal presence is regular, if we have a practice, but even then, only once a week.
We will still want to keep our spiritual practice, and we will still want to show up for important events and actions. Seems to me we are doing pretty well with those presences.
The middle presence though, because it is in the middle of everything, before, during, after, is available and needed, essentially, all the time. We can’t pay that much attention all the time, few of us can but we can do more. So there are gobs of chances to try something new, with loving, clear-eyed attention to all these important people. And wouldn’t we have a better world, and wouldn’t we be seizing a rare opportunity that could make this pandemic a blessing in disguise for all of us who survive it.
I leave you with the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, those of his Four Mantras of True Presence. This is how he believes true presence works.
“When you love someone, you have to be truly present for him or for her. A ten-year-old boy I know was asked by his father what he wanted for his birthday, and he didn’t know how to answer. His father is quite wealthy and could afford to buy almost anything he might want. But the [boy] only said, “Daddy, I want you!” His father is too busy – he has no time for his wife, or his children. To demonstrate true love, we have to make ourselves available. If that father lears to breathe in and out consciously and be present for his son, he can say, “My son, I am here for you.”
“The greatest gift we can make to others is our true presence. “I am here for you” is a mantra to be uttered in perfect concentration.
“When you are concentrated – mind and body together – you produce your true presence, and anything you say is a mantra.
“It does not have to be in Sanskrit or Tibetan. A mantra can be spoken in your own language: “Dear one, I am here for you.” And if you are truly present, this mantra will produce a miracle. You become real, the other person becomes real, and life is real in that moment. You bring happiness to yourself and to the other person. “Dear one, I am here for you.
“When I look at the moon, I breathe in and out deeply and say, “Moon, I know you are there, and I am very happy.” I do the same with the morning star. To be really present and know that the other is also there is a miracle. When you contemplate a beautiful sunset, if you are really there, you will recognize and appreciate it deeply. Looking at the sunset, you feel very happy. Whenever you are really there, you are able to recognize and appreciate the presence of the other – [especially] the [people] you love most.
“When you are mindful, you notice when the person you love suffers. If we suffer and if the person we love is not aware of our suffering, we will suffer even more. Just practice deep breathing, then sit close to the one you love and say, “Darling, I know you suffer. That is why I am here for you.” Your presence alone will relieve a lot of his or her suffering. No matter how old or young you are, you can do it.
“The fourth mantra is the most difficult. It is practiced when you yourself suffer and you believe that the person you love is the one who has caused you to suffer. The mantra is “Dear one, I suffer. Please help.” Only six words, but many people cannot say it because of the pride in their heart. If anyone else had said or done that to you, you would not suffer so much, but because it was the person you love, you feel deeply hurt. You want to go to your room and weep. But if you really love him or her, when you suffer like that you have to ask for help. You must overcome your pride. Your presence alone will relieve a lot of his or her suffering.”
We will do well to overcome our pride, and our self-consciousness, and be present, intimately, and often.