Presence and the Simple Truth
Tudor Caliman, Registered Psychologist
Founder, Made in Thought Counselling Services
Teachings on presence, mindfulness, or the here-and-now have been part of various spiritual and contemplative traditions for thousands of years.
Research has also shown the importance of presence and mindfulness for overall health, with benefits ranging from reduced stress and anxiety to improved cognitive functioning and enhanced emotional regulation. However, attempting to cover too many aspects on this topic can risk covering nothing of substance. Therefore, this article will not delve into the depths of the interconnectedness of our mind, brain, body, values, beliefs, relationships, personal growth, and others. Instead, the focus is on presence and on touching the simple truth that, as the reader, you are present.
It's important to distinguish between the label used to describe something and the thing itself.
Your name is your name, but it’s not who you are; it’s merely a reference point. Similarly, an explanation or concept of presence is not the same as presence. Holding onto an idea, concept, or label can distract from the direct perception of the here-and-now. If you see your activity as a possibility to look and hopefully find, then you are looking for a possibility to fulfill an ambition. Looking is searching, searching involves analyzing, and such things are not presence per se but unfold in presence. Attempting to uncover presence through thinking, analyzing, or problem-solving can act as distractors from presence by filtering ‘what is’ through concepts, images, expectations, hopes, and more.
Before attending to the simple truth, here are some personal and ever-fluid points to consider:
Presence is not about searching for a pleasant feeling or avoiding an unpleasant one
We often compare doing and being, but if we view them in contrast, we may be inclined to take sides or have preferences. This may trigger desires and conflicts, such as comparing which one is more favorable or unfavorable. However, is there a competition or an advantage between doing and being? Can we do without being and be without doing? For instance, how can we ‘be’ if we don’t ‘do’ activities like eating?
Are we meant to be present 24/7?
No, we still need to plan, just as I planned to write this article. However, if we lose balance and live only for planning and anticipating the ‘what if,’ we forget about the ‘what is.’ When aware of this, we are awake and no longer absent, lost in thought and forgotten, even if only for a moment before our thoughts return. It’s worth noting that we often forget about things that are present, such as breathing. Breathing is usually forgotten but not inactive. At times, for various reasons, we remember and are aware of the act of breathing.
Presence is not rooted in experience
Experience involves memory, recollection, thoughts, and knowledge, all of which are rooted in time. Knowledge is an accumulation of information and experiences that are soaked in direct or indirect learning over time, but recalling something learned happens in the here-and-now. Although knowledge can be accumulated, can presence be accumulated? Can we attain or achieve presence? Is it about ‘becoming’ present? And if so, doesn’t ‘becoming’ imply the future?
The paradox of presence is that the more we try to grasp it, the more it slips away
It’s like trying to squeeze a wet bar of soap – the harder we squeeze, the more it tends to slip away. When we analyze and overthink presence, it turns into a mere concept or idea. Presence is not a construct or a projection of images, but an immediate perception in the absence of thought and examination. When it comes to presence, thought can complicate the simple and the obvious by attempting to refine an understanding, categorize and organize it, perhaps by using steps, stages, or acronyms, which can offer direction and an anchor; but what is the direction and anchor of presence? Does presence have steps, stages, or acronyms? Muddy water is hard to drink.
All time is now, contained in the present moment
The future can only unfold in the present. Anything else is an idea that exists only when we conceive it, in the now. Prescence is nothing, no-thing, in which everything is. It is now, yet contains all time, such as historical, possible, psychological (how we feel the passage of time in our minds), or clock time. We cannot alter the future because it has no tangible or real existence except in probabilities, concepts, thoughts, imaginations, and anticipations. However, we can alter ourselves in the present based on our thoughts of the past (memories and experiences) and of the future (projected memories catapulted by anticipation). Presence turns into a memory through learning and knowledge, recognized as experience – nothing to keep but the reflections and ripples of memory and anticipation, which, ironically, we tend to hold onto in the frequently forgotten here-and-now.
Presence is not a thought; thinking is thought
Presence is not a memory; remembering is memory. Presence is not an emotion; feeling is emotion. Presence is not a behaviour; action is behaviour. Yet all these things are not possible without existence, meaning the here-and-now. Presence is an immediate perception, a raw sensation before interpretation and classification shapes our experience. It’s not an intellectual or analytical act like asking ourselves, “Am I present? Am I doing it? Is it working? Is it everything I expected, hoped for, and dreamed about?”
To go deeper into thought, the more thoughts we get, and the presence that we are, we forget
Thought is a powerful tool for learning, problem-solving, creativity, and much more; yet thought can also be a distraction and lead to a filtered, habitual, or distorted sense of reality. A slip occurs when we use thought as a substitute for reality, which is a form of self-deception. Attempting to problem-solve how to stop thought is more thought trying to stop itself; talk about a rabbit hole. While thoughts, emotions, and behaviours can be habit-forming, presence is not. It’s where habits emerge and play out. Presence is life, the plain of existence.
How do we practice something that is not bound to thought and experience?
Does practice and experience imply growth? Does presence grow? When we talk about ‘learning’ to be present, mindful, here-and-now, what are we really attempting to learn and accomplish? Are we trying to cultivate concepts and ideals, and/or to recognize our presence?
The simple truth is that, as the reader, you are present.
Your body is constantly present, performing countless functions, even when your thoughts are elsewhere. Thoughts can wonder, exploring the past, future, daydreams, and imagination. Your body cannot, but it does react in real-time to wherever your wondering thoughts travel. This may explain why what you think can feel so real; it triggers your body in real-time, which can further trigger a cascade of similar thoughts, bodily reactions, and vice versa. So, when in doubt about whether you’re present, ask yourself this: If I don’t exist here-and-now, then where-and-when do I exist? Your body is present, and your thoughts, while they may wander, can only wonder in the here-and-now. The simple truth is that you are the re-source – the source of recognizing that you are already present.