What Works: Cultivating presence

Swedish river scene, Jan van Goyen, 1596-1656

I often hear people talking about living in the present moment as if it is a struggle, some cosmic game of attempting to grasp something that is fleeting, illusory. They say things like, “the moment I have it, it’s gone.” While this is true and can be frustrating, the last thing present moment awareness is about is grabbing serenity. I have always liked the metaphor of the river (borrowed from my Christian contemplative practice of centering prayer) in talking of the flow of thoughts. Imagine the stream of consciousness as a river, with boats and debris representing thoughts. You’re sitting on the bank of the river watching it. Normal awareness has you looking at each individual boat-thought, following it down the river with your eyes — and to strain the metaphor, getting on it and opening hatches — then suddenly shifting your awareness to another boat and so on. If your mind is particularly cluttered, you can feel overwhelmed by all the boats you have to look at and it can feel like that classic I Love Lucy skit with the conveyor belt at the chocolate factory, like you’re falling behind and they start slipping by. There can be a sense of panic that a thought that’s getting past you without attention is important and you’re missing it.

Present moment awareness is simply sitting on the bank and watching the river, not the boats. Boats cross your field of vision and you do see them, but you don’t follow them with your eyes or get on them. They’re not out of focus, but you don’t focus on them.

The present moment is where reality is, where God is. When you remove the obstacles from being fully present, fully awake, you remove the obstacles from seeing the glorious reality of life, the presence of God’s love.

Paradoxically, you are actually more aware of what’s going on than when you focus. Why? Because when you attach to one thought at a time, it is to the exclusion of all the others. Staying alert but not putting your attention on any one thing makes you more aware. Like a hunter or a birdwatcher before they’ve spotted something, you are taking in everything around you.

Once a birder or hunter spots something, they shift into focused attention, and this is how life can be if you are well practiced in present moment awareness. The goal isn’t to never focus on anything and live in some gauzy vagueness. It’s to stay open, teachable, aware, present. Then, when a task is to be attended to, you focus on it. That’s fine. When the task is over, though, you let it recede into the stream of consciousness again. You don’t keep thinking about it.

It’s compartmentalization in the best sense of the word. But many people who are critical of this approach to life see it in the same vein as the bad type of compartmentalizing, where bad things are ignored by keeping thoughts about them walled away. They might say, “but you should be thinking about such-and-such because it needs to be dealt with.” Well, maybe it does. (Or maybe it doesn’t. As I say often, most of the things we worry about never come true. But let’s assume it does need to be dealt with.) The point is to deal with it when it is actually time to deal with it, when it is actually occurring in the present moment and is the focus of your attention. But neither you nor the issue is helped by your worrying about it when you’re not in a position to do anything.

Where reality is, where God is

Reducing worry and stress is just a happy side effect of cultivating presence, though; it’s not the point. The point of living in the moment is that the present moment is where reality is, where God is. When you remove the obstacles from being fully present, fully awake, you remove the obstacles from seeing the glorious reality of life, the presence of God’s love. The Great Commandment is: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27) When you remove the obstacles from being truly present, you can fully experience reality as your true self, and love and know God’s handiwork all around you, and by that act, you are changed. The second half of the great commandment flows from the first. As I said in my column about revenge, if you love God and experience the closeness of God, and thus experience the interconnectedness and oneness of all Creation, then you can’t help but love your neighbor as yourself. Not similarly to yourself, but as yourself. The illusion of separation is gone.

Of course this type of perfect Oneness doesn’t stick around. We get it in glimpses. And of course there is some frustration with that. We want it all the time, but can’t conjure it up at will. But we can cultivate presence to improve the frequency and the duration of those times. As I’ve said before, the most helpful thing for me has been my Christian contemplative practice of centering prayer. But that is only one method. There are many other contemplative practices in the Christian tradition, including the rosary, adoration. lectio divina, and the guided meditations of the Ignatian Exercises. There are also contemplative practices that aren’t part of a religion, like some forms of yoga and meditation, and of course, almost every other faith has some contemplative practices in its tradition. And finally, as I also say often, perhaps the most powerful teacher of present moment awareness is Creation itself. Spending time in nature, re-tuning yourself to the woods or the ocean or the desert, will slow your pace, lower your level of chatter and open you, naturally and gently.

How do you cultivate presence? How have experiences of presence affected your spiritual journey? I’d love to hear from you.