More or Less Present
“I never really cared for the things of this world.
It was the glow of your Presence that filled it with beauty.”
If we are interested in being reflectors of light, then raising our mindfulness about being more or less present is critical. When I am less present, I am less aware and less receptive to the Light moving in my direction and less able to convey Light. Diminished presence typically entails less curiosity about what greets me in the moment. The Light of generosity, compassion or humility reflected by another person can easily be ignored and missed.
It is common in Human Potential Circles to hear the term “presence”. As much as I feel comfortable hearing a person describe someone or themselves as present or not present, there may be differing meanings of the word present in such an exchange. Exploring the nature of presence raises several philosophical concerns such as what is a person? And how can we know we are in the presence of a person? For our purposes, we can think of a person as a homosapien who experiences cognition, emotions and moves in a physical body.
I am more interested in identifying what may contribute to being more or less present and certainly not treating such an inquiry as the final word. Also, there may be varied ways to be present when we are alone, such as meditation. For the purposes of this inquiry, being more or less present refers to some measure of bringing our bodies, thoughts and emotions to a social interaction.
First of all, it would be remiss to neglect pointing out that even the young psyches of children figure out the liabilities of being more present vs the safety of being less present. We all determine that we are most vulnerable when we are more present – that is accessible to some danger. It is worth considering that those of us who made it learned to be less present.
Karen Horney, a renowned psychoanalyst, pointed out that children develop three defenses, which offer protection and have a child be less present – adapting, dominating, and distancing. Children learn to adapt whereby there is less of their needs and feelings available to be either abused or neglected. They learn to dominate in order to mitigate the amount of control others have to harm them. Thirdly, a child can distance physically and/or emotionally. They can spend more time in their rooms or in the neighborhood with friends.
Children employ four basic ways to distance emotionally: repress their emotions (Unconsciously), suppress (consciously) and, anesthetizing emotion by either enthusiastically bouncing about or by ingesting substances, especially sugar, and translate emotions into ideas or dissociate, which is augmented by a high quick breath, breathing, and talking rapidly. When adults dissociate by swiftly reeling off a series of abstract concepts they can be viewed as intelligent which reinforces the dissociative process.
The DSMV diagnostic manual for psychological disorders no longer lists Multiple Personality as a disorder. It now falls under the auspices of a Dissociated disorder. I knew a man who regularly distanced from his emotions by dissociating. Some of our common acquaintances began accusing the man of consistently misrepresenting himself. An opportunity arose for him and me to be joined by one of his accusers who was attempting to hold him accountable for his alleged lying. As I listened to both the one describing the man’s dishonesty and the man’s responses to the charges, I was convinced they were both telling the truth, which left me feeling a bit crazy.
A short time later the man being accused, and I were in a difficult conversation, which I thought we were handling quite well. All of a sudden, he began speaking in a much younger voice and he even looked quite different. I was startled and wondered with whom am I now addressing? I took a risk and asked, “Are you the guy who has been lying?”
“Well, yeah, kind of. You know, a guy’s got to take care of himself”, he responded, with his chin rising and his head cocked to one side, with an air of “do you want to make something of it?”
“Does Larry know you?” I asked, wondering how autonomous this personality might be.
“No, he doesn’t have a clue”, he reacted, with a mischievous grin, leaving me feeling quite cold.
I referred him to a colleague and reassured myself about the power of the early ways we developed to create safety by compromising our presence. The key is to be thankful for how we supported ourselves by diminishing our presence, and now, to bring more mindfulness to the ways we slip out of being present, hopefully making them a bit less automatic by employing curiosity, our attention and intention.
When we habitually employ either adaption, domination or distancing we lose the freedom to be more present. A gentleman with whom I was counseling, reported, “I don’t get why so many of my colleagues and friends say they don’t know me”. He had been unconsciously and habitually resorting to the use of distancing. Before he could begin to become more conscious and curious about being more present, he needed to grieve the losses he accrued by automatically distancing. He also was learning that his unconscious and habitual distancing was due to a dysregulated nervous system geared to protect him automatically.
We all have some inkling of the idea of being less present. If I lay dead or in a coma in the company of friends and family, it is likely I would be experienced as considerably less present. We would assume of course, that in either state I’m not able to be curious, nor notice where my attention is and what I may be intending. We can consider that any time I enter a social context with either too much of me or too little of me, my presence will likely be compromised. Others will likely either feel there is not enough psychological space for them or that I am too anonymous. If we commit to being more conscious of deciding to be more or less present, then we are committing to the craft of tracking whether to bring more or less of ourselves to the moment.
If I intend to be highly adaptive placing most of my desires, values and beliefs on hold, my presence is mitigated due to so much of me waning. If I intend to be domineering, neither curious nor open to what the moment presents from others, I undermine my presence. If I distance myself, I certainly am not receptive to the presence of others and may even be distancing from myself.
What if I enter a room with the intention to be impressive? We might say if I were conscious of my intention to be impressive as opposed to being on automatic, I might be a bit more present. We could say that keeping my intention a secret has me employing both distancing and dominating. And if I announced my intention to be impressive, I’m bringing even more of me to the moment, which could even become playful.
So many of our social agendas remain hidden from others and even from ourselves. It suggests that the more I am clear about what I want from others and what they want from me, more presence is possible. Transparency increasingly gets positive reviews. This is probably because if I am transparent, I’m demystifying who I am, making it easier for others to employ discretion regarding how they may want to approach me. However, I don’t believe that excessive transparency is the key to increased presence. I may be disclosing too much, material the listener is either disinterested in or not ready to hear. It can also reduce the listener’s participation in the dynamic.
When we consider being more present, rather than allegedly reaching some complete expression of presence, the key is to be discerning regarding a choice to access more of ourselves. For example, I typically do not want to be more present when initially encountering a group of strangers. I do not have enough information suggesting that such a group will be trustworthy, or able to reassure me that my most cherished beliefs and values will be heard, understood, and treated with compassion. I’m a distancer, so some of that will be employed initially as I enter a group of strangers. I am simply identifying my favorite way of being less present.
When we are mindful of how we reduce our presence and intentionally employ it or let it go, we are empowering our capacity to be present. If it feels appropriate to be more present, then I want to be able to identify what might support the increased presence. I first want to become more present to myself. When we ask if John will be at this evening’s meeting, we typically asking if we should expect his body to be in the room. Of course, we would appreciate it if the rest of him comes, and our initial curiosity is about John’s body.
As we address being more present ourselves, we can initially attend to our bodies. We can observe internal sensations such as abdominal tightness, pulsations above the eyes or a shallow breath. Normally, simply observing brings more calm and relaxation. We can also notice emotional energy in the body such as anger in the jaw area, sadness in the throat or fear in the belly. Simply observing puts us in a relationship with our bodies in the here and now. I’ve noticed that when I drop my shoulders, I become more present.
Next, I like trusting my curiosity in order to help me be more present. Do I want to be here? Who am I here? How do I feel being here? What do I bring to this encounter? What do I hope to receive from others? What’s my best intuition about the climate of this place? To whom do I feel drawn? Subsequently, where do I bring my attention and what is my intention?
We have been assuming that being present is a favorable way to be. As mentioned, earlier, discernment must be used to decide whether a situation warrants my being more present. The guiding question is how will I and/or others benefit from me being more present?
If I decide that the situation appears to be encouraging or accommodating of my increased presence, then it is important to acknowledge what are some of the possible benefits of being more present. Here are some of the possible advantages:
- I get to feel more comfortable being myself, being more genuine and get to know myself better.
- Trust between me and others may deepen.
- I may develop a stronger sense of where and with whom I belong.
- It may generate more intimacy between spouses, friends, or life-partners.
As much as we’ve been discussing presence being driven by discernment, curiosity, attention, and intention, it appears that spontaneity is another species of presence. Spontaneity can be understood as impromptu behavior, unplanned with no apparent attention or intention. A spontaneous presence can be instinctive expressions of joy, affection, appreciation, celebration as well as sadness. Voices of exhilaration are typically viewed as extremely trustworthy, with no hint of a hidden agenda. We typically enjoy the spontaneity of children energized by awe and wonder, which are wonderful expressions of Light.
It is quite common to describe someone as overreacting with anger, sarcasm, contempt, or physical violence as being less present. While all these behaviors are spontaneous, but we identify them as reactionary rather than spontaneous. Unlike someone jumping for joy, we see the overbearing sound of rage as not offering some benefit to the moment. We probably would advocate for more mindfulness of attention and intention, rather than celebrate the spontaneity. We typically don’t say of the recent winner of $500,000,000 in the Lottery, that they are overreacting by jumping up and down and hugging anyone within an arm’s reach.
The difference between spontaneity and an overreaction may be that we understand spontaneity to be a form of celebration of life. On the other hand, overreacting is viewed as a violation of decorum when the situation was asking for mor consideration and less impromptu behavior.
I encourage the practice of being more or less present. Come to know the quality of your presence as either guided by attention and intention or an automatic response to the environment. Be discerning about your presence, allowing for the protection and support of diminished presence. I also recommend speaking about another’s presence as “I can’t find you” rather than “You’re not present”. I’ve noticed how grateful I am to hear someone say about me, “I can’t find you”. It is such an intimate gesture and a wonderful time to pause and issue a simple inventory regarding my whereabouts.
For a number of years, I carried a cavalier attitude about my presence and that of others. When I stopped indulging in alcohol, I became increasingly curious about how to support my own presence and be sensitive to the quality of presence I experienced in others. As part of my initiation into exploring presence, was an invitation to an acquaintance’s surprise birthday party. Bruce was turning fifty and his wife wanted to celebrate him appropriately. During the several occasions of social interaction with Bruce, I noticed a strong propensity to avoid being present and engaged in what appeared to be a habitual need to perform.
While speaking with my mentor George, a week before the birthday celebration, I asked if he would be going to Bruce’s birthday party. George knew Bruce better than me and I assumed he might be in attendance.
“Actually, I’m not sure if I’ll be going. Are you and Connie going to attend?” asked George, with no strong investment in my reply.
“Well, I’ve been thinking about it. I’m fairly certain Bruce won’t be there. So, I’m having a tough time providing myself with good reason to attend”, I explained, wondering if George would get what I was suggesting.
“Not be there! By God, you’re right! Bruce will very likely not be there!” George exclaimed, appearing appreciative of the perspective I was offering.
I did not go to Bruce’s party. What I noticed was a dramatic drop in resentment and analysis of Bruce’s personality. I did not allow Bruce’s compulsive performance to take me hostage, leaving me quite accepting of how Bruce chooses to mitigate his presence.