The Gift of Presence by Carolyn Mitchell
For some time now I have felt that being present is the most radical emotional, social, political and spiritual act any of us can perform.
This viewpoint has emerged in answer to a recurring question I have had, as a person and as a therapist—what does it mean to be whole? And in particular, what does it mean to be whole in a culture that encourages splitting between values and behaviors, between ‘the sacred’ and the world in which we live? These splits lead to the kinds of fragmentation that are the opposite of wholeness. Corporations selling products that they claim will make us happier, thinner, more loveable or somehow just better, spend billions of dollars annually to ensure that we become or stay dissatisfied with ourselves, our lives, our world.
One of the ways I counter this propaganda is by cultivating what I call ‘the practice of falling in love with the world.’ This is a practice of presence—of paying attention to the small and often taken-for-granted pleasures in our lives. As I go through my day there are many opportunities to experience the gift of being alive, but I have to remember to bring my attention consistently back to the present moment.
Something I find helpful in doing this is to choose certain activities (preferably ones which I perform frequently) as ‘cues’ or reminders to be present. For example, I use taking a hot shower as a cue. I chose this because I can take great delight in a hot shower—but if I’m not paying attention I can be in and out of that shower stall and not even notice!
How much pleasure can I experience in a day by just noticing? Shadows of leaves on a sidewalk, watching crows, drinking a cup of tea, the smell in the air walking past a bakery…. If I’m present in the moment it’s often amazing what I will find there.
At times being present puts me in the company of painful or difficult feelings or situations. What then? Pain has been pathologized in our culture. It has come to be seen as a problem in its own right, rather than as something that can provide needed information or feedback. Because pain has been pathologized, many of us have come to fear it—to fear being overwhelmed by it, to fear feelings of despair or guilt or powerlessness that may be elicited by it.
The thing about being present is that it is an unconditional choice. I can’t say “OK, I’ll be present to watch the shadows of the leaves on the sidewalk but not to see the homeless person lying on that same sidewalk 20 yards further on.” That sort of self-censorship of perception precludes presence. Choosing presence can leave an ache in the heart, or anger, or grief….
While this is not always easy, I believe that the pain experienced through choosing to be present can be a blessing—for it proves beyond a doubt that I am a part of the web of life—that I am interconnected with others and with the Earth in deep and sacred ways. This visceral realization of the exquisite and intricate layers of interconnectedness is one of the most valuable gifts presence has to offer—for it undermines the myth that I am a separate entity whose “self interest” is distinct from care for others or from our shared environment. We are a unified whole.
Being intentionally, consciously present offers profound joy in the moment. It also demands that we not turn away in the face of difficulty, that we take responsibility for our actions and their impact upon the whole.
In this way presence leads us to both a sense of wholeness and to a sense of our place within the whole. In choosing to be present we are both gift and gifted, lover and beloved. If we all keep remembering… what a gift of presence we can become!
Carolyn Claire Mitchell LCSW is a psychotherapist in private practice in Portland,OR. In January ('03) she will be facilitating a workshop on Deep Ecology, systems theory and compassionate engagement: Healing our Hearts, Healing our World. She can be reached at (503) 450.9980.