Seven Pillars House of Wisdom > Articles > The Practice of Presence, Part One

The Practice of Presence, Part One

Lee Irwin

The practice of presence is no easy task and, spiritually, it is perhaps the most elusive of all practices. Imagine for a moment being fully present to yourself and to your situation. That is, imagine being fully aware of all that passes through and within you and also simultaneously aware of all that impacts you from the surrounding environment—people, places, atmosphere, sensory sensations, integrated with inner thoughts, feelings, memories, and bodily reactions. As we all know, it is difficult to be fully aware of what passes within us and around us and we inevitably use our attention selectively, choosing to focus on certain immediate qualities of experience while also being aware of less central, more marginal activities within the field of our total awareness. Our relationship to the world, to each other, to the local circumstances and to all the inward activity of mind and heart and body is an unceasingly complex process of dynamic interaction in which we each constantly mediate our focus of attention. In this process, we are challenged to expand our field of awareness and to master the art of giving attention to a broad range of perceptions.

I am reminded of William James’ comment that “every smallest state of consciousness overflows its own definition.” Our mental-emotive states blend, merge, associate, and lead to other states of awareness that cannot be limited to discreet or separate states isolated from one another. The flow of consciousness constantly reflects the pulse of inner life as we adapt to the surrounding world and to depths of psychic response to that world. Feelings, subtle impressions, and a variety of larger interactive fields act upon us; so the process of reflection continues into deeper territory, not simply refining but seeking new expressions to extend the original insight. This activity of the flow of consciousness also blends into subconscious and supraconscious domains where information and insights deepen the flow of possible awareness. We are by no means isolated monads limited by bodily existence and one-directional consciousness as much as we are embodied souls capable of an expansive attunement to subtle energies, information, and dynamic interactions in a vast field of possible relations.

The artifice of intellectualism, the tendency to limit thought to discreet ideas, self-defined concepts, and logically distinct ideations that can be held in contrast and separation from one another, collapses in the face of the flow and dynamics of actual conscious and subconscious experience. Abstract ideas only reflect the surface of the turbulent sea of lived experience and, while useful for certain tasks, such delineated ideas are not applicable to the deep dynamics of inner life and can limit the flow of presence. Nor is that inner life bound by the externally measured (abstract) distinctions that would limit the structure of space, the flow of time, or the logic of culturally discreet ideas. In the depths of consciousness the margins of time can become multi-directional where past, present, future blend into a dynamic present (e.g. clairvoyance, distant seeing, past-life memories). Space is no longer limited to three dimensions but reflects the probabilities of multiple alternative domains, experienced through such phenomena as out-of-body awareness, soul flight, near death experience, or afterlife encounter with those who have died. Cultural logic contests the inner world of blended perceptions and beliefs where normative structures of rationality no longer apply, and the synthesis of personal experience in multiple contexts challenges the discreet logic of the fixed and defined.

Furthermore, our thoughts, memories, dreams, and beliefs may enter into creative concurrences that attract or create the possibility of even greater concurrence within both the subconscious and the supraconscious potentials of the sacred human. By subconscious I mean, in this context, subtle impressions that arise in association with latent perceptual abilities at the margins of consciousness, usually fleeting and spontaneous, but carrying signification, possible symbolic meaning, and richer associations when brought more fully into conscious awareness. By supraconscious, I mean a vivid, lucid presentment, a revelatory insight or vision, a leap in consciousness to a profound contact with the vaster stratum of Being and Spirit. I regard such supraconscious awareness as an inseparable inheritance of every being, and the development of the sacred human requires a constant search for the integration of both the subconscious and supraconscious aspects of embodied life. In this search, the conscious being is one whose awareness incorporates impressions from all domains of perception and seeks to integrate those perceptions into a harmonic flow of experience.

In this process of discovery and embodiment, awareness opens into ever-more complex fields of knowledge and global possibility, requiring a strong moral center to sustain the energy and information for the good of our respective communities of belief. There is no one path or one truth that is discreet and separate, other than paths that are self-selected for the purposes of development. In the dynamics of human evolution, in the slow unveiling of inner potential, the ground water that nourishes life bubbles up from multiple springs, originally pure but more recently compromised by the constrictions of radical exclusion or denial of multiple perspectives. Yet the natural processes of our psyches reflect the multivalent nature of constant interaction, and the discovery of the sacred human inevitably requires a process of selection among a myriad of overlapping and interpenetrating possibilities. To draw on the springs that offer the genuine “waters of life” requires that we recognize the abundance of its many manifestations and the legitimacy of its multiple interpretations. When we hold a center nourished by that spring, presence is manifested, and each spring gives its own unique qualities to that presence. Presence overflows the boundaries of tradition and rational thinking and offers instead subtle variation, diversity, and mystical depths.   

Our freedom to act as moral beings, to care about others, to work in harmony for shared reconciliation, mutual understanding, and the acceptance of differences, is a common responsibility, based in the existential ground of choice that underlies such engagement. It is in the realization of this responsibility that the practice of presence finds its most natural setting for manifestation. By presence I mean a depth of Being and Spirit that infuses our total field of awareness and all our states, permeating the subconscious, conscious, and supraconscious aspects of our shared perceptions. This presence, as I understand it, is the primal source of all possible fields or domains of awareness and is not limited to any one field or domain; nor can it be limited to discrete ideas or be captured by any precise definition. Yet, such presence is also capable of shades, colors, diverse expressions and manifestations in a context of flow that can heighten or diminish its felt sense of immediacy. Its most fundamental expressive qualities are those that enhance and supplement our lived experience—vibrant, poetic, revelatory—a sense of animation and intensity beyond the everyday. Its ontological qualities, those that express the entirety of creation, are found in the magnitude of the vast, cosmic, multidimensional unitary wholeness that sustains, nurtures, and breathes life into every particle of constructed reality. Its hidden qualities are those that remain entwined within the deepest aspects of our psyche, manifesting as mystery, miracle, sudden and unexpected transformation, the continuity that binds life and death into one continuous flow.

The practice of presence is grounded in our states of awareness, our emotional condition, our embodied well-being, and in our human, animal, and ecological relations. There is no context in which the practice of presence is excluded because “presence” is an initiatic state representing the fullness of creation. And there is no one form or one correct type of presence. Presence is the deepest gift of all that is given; it announces our most intrinsic capacities, those of life, awareness, and creative flow. There is no life and no awareness without presence and yet, such presence can be amplified, enhanced, and called forth to become a luminous example of the possible formation of the sacred human. As the Christ taught, “Do not hide your light under a basket or bed, but let it stand forth, giving light to all who see it.” Our task is to cultivate that light and to bring it into awareness through the entire spectrum of our being. It is neither a specific way of acting nor a particular set of beliefs; it is “living” presence, an animated, vivid sense of Spirit and Being that infuses the full dynamics of the psyche, fills the shared fields of our mutual concerns, and permeates all our interactions.  Such presence is sacred; it sustains our consciousness and nurtures the basis of human relations to all created life; it calls us to expand the field of our attention and to integrate our awareness with the very source of life.

Lee Irwin is a Professor in the Religious Studies Department at the College of Charleston where he teaches world religions with an emphasis on Native American traditions, western esotericism, hermeticism, contemporary spirituality, mystical cosmology, and transpersonal religious experience as related to dreams and visions. He is the Vice President of the Association for the Study of Esotericism (ASE) and a board member of the Sophia Institute and the Institute for Dream Studies. He has been a workshop leader and group facilitator for over twenty years, particularly in the areas of visionary cosmology and the development of the sacred human. He is the author of many books and articles, including: The Dream Seekers, Visionary Worlds, Awakening to Spirit: On Life, Illumination, and Being, The Alchemy of Soul, and Coming Down From Above: Prophecy, Resistance, and Renewal in Native American Religions.

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Comments (1)
  • Thank you Lee for your article on the practice of presence. I enjoyed reading it. It reminded me of a practice I developed some years ago called ‘grounded self-awareness’. That grew out of my experience with Zen, yoga, Kabbalah, Sufism and Shamanism as well as my practice of drama, music and poetry as a teacher and workshop presenter.

    In particular, in my doctoral research in social ecology I discovered that this was the key to the process and improvisational way of working that I developed in both my creative activities and my teaching. At one stage I called this process ‘drama yoga’, as a way to bring together western and eastern practices, which in my work Australia I’ve also brought together with indigenous practices drawn from Aboriginal and Pacific Island cultures.

    I feel a strong resonance with the views that you’ve expressed in relation to the value of presence as a way to go beyond the ‘artifice of intellectualism’ that the contemporary world seems so stuck in.

    — Arjuna Ben-Zion Weiss on October 14, 2011

11 October 2011

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mysticism, spirituality, spiritual practice, contemplation, consciousness, spirit, beauty, practice, embodiment, senses, Living Universe, symbolism, presence,
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