Be the Change, prt. 5 — Presence

Gandhi and crowdThere but unaware

Have you ever driven from one place to another and then realized that you could not remember actually driving? It seems like you were in a trance, like you stepped into the car at home and got out at your destination, right? You were there, but you were not present. Human beings are rarely present to themselves. Presence is when we bring conscious awareness to what we are doing. You might object, saying, “Hey, when I cussed out that guy yesterday, I knew what I was doing. I was present and aware.” No, you were not. Had you been aware, you would not have done this. If you could have seen yourself in the mirror, you would have been embarrassed. If you had been present, you would have realized your reaction was simply in order to avoid feeling your own fear and indignation and hurt. You lashed out because it’s always easier than looking in. And you actually did not act at all — you simply reacted to what the other guy did to you. You behaved like a robot, or like a grizzly bear, both of which have consciousness, but no self-awareness — no presence. This is the usual way of being. Although humans have the capacity for awareness and presence, we usually react on sheer instinct, steeped in passion. We are not present. We do not really know why we do what we do. In our presumption of basic rightness, we do not see ourselves clearly.

Presence = Awareness

If you’re going to be the change you wish to see in the world, you first commit to practicing the Golden Rule, and then you must learn to be present. Leave reacting to those who are content to insist that everyone else should change. You must stop merely reacting, but you cannot do this if you assume that outside factors are causing you to think, feel, and behave as you do. When you are present, you become aware of your own state of heart — your hurts, fears, and self-justifications. In doing this you put a stop to the endless cycle of blaming and scapegoating that always leads to violence in some form or another (rooted in contempt, malice, and anger).

Presence is observing yourself quietly at all times

Presence requires that you learn to quietly and non-judgmentally watch yourself. You are simply observing. Once you learn to actually pay attention to yourself (that is, your own state of heart), absurdities will begin to arise. You will start to wonder why you get so upset when others say and do certain things. Eventually you will start appearing a bit comic to yourself when you overreact in these ways. You will begin to distance yourself from that part of you that simply reacts. As you do, you are learning to be present to yourself, learning to act out of awareness of what is really going on in you, rather than simply listening to that voice that constantly tells you you are right and whatever you do is justified because someone else deserved it.

Presence removes the presumption of basic rightness

The first thing presence does is relieve you of the presumption of basic rightness. And as you are freed from the illusion that you are not the person you should be because everyone else is somehow preventing you from it, you are simultaneously set free to really become that person you wish to be — to be the change you wish to see in the world. That is why I have gone to great lengths to explain the presumption of basic rightness. It is the “log in the eye,” of which Jesus spoke in the gospels — the thing that keeps all of us from seeing clearly.

In my last post in this series, I will explain one particular exercise (or discipline, or practice) that will be more effective than anything else at helping you learn to be present.