Practicing Presence

Late in college, I sat in student housing in Seattle with a fellow English major watching a movie for class. A fall storm moved in and once the movie was over, the rain fell thick on the roof of the second story apartment, the windows vibrating from thunderclap. With a head full of Byron, Shelley, and Keats, I had a sudden impulse. Let’s go for a walk!

Practicing Presence

It was dark and cold and pouring. We’d be drenched. That, of course, was the point. To situate oneself into the experience of natural intensity, to experience it bodily, with the sense impression of the wet earth and grass, to feel the rain on the coat and the skin, to see it pass through streetlight or passing cars, to hear raindrops ricochet off the concrete. Here was an opportunity for a poetic moment, an intense experience. My companion was more pragmatic: Are you crazy? We’ll get soaked!

That’s what the energy of youth feeds on of course, some experience of intensity. As we age, we become more attuned to the small moments, to quiet beauty, as in this line from Billy Collins‘s Nostalgia: “I was in the garden then, surrounded by the hum of bees/ and the Latin names of flowers, watching the early light/ flash off the slanted windows of the greenhouse/ and silver the limbs on the rows of dark hemlocks.”

Early on in committing to contemplative practices as a path and certainly from the outside, it can seem like a removal from experience, an escape from self, and the initial impulse to begin practice may come from a desire to escape, maybe anxiety, or depression, or more acute and present pain.

But soon you realize there’s a rhythm to the whole experience. In this regular, temporary removal from sense perception, from thought, from memory, from emotional back and forth, from mental habits and fixations, isn’t a perpetual escapism, not a naive aloofness, or do-nothing quietism – not escape from the material world, but a purification of the inner being.

Immersed in a greater sphere of being, we cleanse the windows of perception, and what remains is the essential. What remains is the immediate. We increase our capacity for alert awareness instead of getting caught up in the self-made snares, in the contrived dramas.

The moment unfolds and we grow in the kind of awareness that makes the above lines from Collins’s poem possible. We have a greater capacity for this very kind of presence. We might need to bring that presence to bear in listening to a friend’s hardship. We might need to bring that presence to bear on some work at hand. We might need to bring it to bear in our own relationships. To tap into that greater awareness, the greater mind behind our immediate selves.

That very presence, attuned, attentive, alert, and receptive, captured in language is what we call poetry. But what matters is the experience itself, both for ourselves and for those around us. What matters is to practice continuous birthing of that heightened, sharpened quality of being that comes when the self we think ourselves to be can get out of the way.

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