The Qualities of Presence

Presence is not some exotic state that we need to search for or manufacture. In the simplest terms, it is the felt sense of wakefulness, openness, and tenderness that arises when we are fully here and now with our experience. You’ve surely tasted presence, even if you didn’t call it that. Perhaps you’ve felt it lying awake in bed and listening to crickets on a hot summer night. You might have sensed presence while walking alone in the woods. You might have arrived in full presence as you witnessed someone dying or being born.

Presence is the awareness that is intrinsic to our nature. It is immediate and embodied, perceived through our senses. If you look closely at any experience of presence, you’ll find the three qualities I mentioned above.

Our wakefulness is the basic consciousness that is aware of what is happening, the intelligence that recognizes the changing flow of moment-by-moment experience—the sounds that are here around us, the sensations of our body, our thoughts. It is the “knowing” quality of awareness.

Our openness is the space of awareness in which life takes place. This awareness does not oppose our experience, or evaluate it in any way. Even when our feelings and thoughts are painfully stirred up, it simply recognizes what’s happening and allows our emotional life to be as it is. Like the sky when weather systems come and go, the open space of awareness is unstained by the changing expressions of life moving through us. And yet awareness has a natural sensitivity and the capacity to express warmth. This responsiveness is what I call tenderness. Our tenderness allows us to respond with compassion, love, and awe to whatever arises, in all its beauty and sorrow.

We can refer to these as the three qualities of presence, but in fact they’re inseparable. Think of a sunlit sky. There is no way to separate the light of the sky from the space it illuminates; there is no way to separate the warmth we feel from the space and light around us. Light, space, and warmth are all inextricable expressions of a whole.

Our longing to live fully—from our beingness—calls us home to this natural presence. Our realization of truth arises from the lucidity of presence. Love flows from the receptivity of presence. Aliveness and creativity flower when we inhabit the openness of presence. All that we cherish is already here, sourced in presence. Each time we cry out for help, our longing can remind us to turn toward our true refuge, toward the healing and freedom of natural presence.

Guided Meditation: A Pause for Presence

A natural entry into presence is through your body. You can do this short meditation anytime you have a bit of quiet and privacy.

Find a place to sit comfortably and close your eyes. Begin with three conscious breaths: Inhale long and deep, filling the lungs, then exhale slowly, sensing a letting go of any tensions in your body and mind.

Invite your awareness to fill your whole body. Can you imagine your physical form as a field of sensations? Can you feel the movement and quality of the sensations—tingling, vibrating, heat or cool, hard or soft, tight or flowing? Take a few moments to bring your full attention to this dance of sensations.

Now let your awareness open out into the space around you. Can you imagine receiving the symphony of sounds, letting it wash through you? Can you listen to the changing play of sounds, not just with your ears but with your whole awareness? Take a few moments to bring an open attention to listening to sounds.

Keeping your eyes closed, let your awareness receive the play of images and light at the eyelids. You might notice a flickering of light and dark or certain shapes, shadows, or figures of light. Take a few moments to attend to seeing.

Feeling your breath and sensing the space around you, be receptive to any scents that might be in the air. Discover what it is like to smell and receive the odors present in the surrounding area.

Now let all your senses be wide open, your body and mind relaxed and receptive. Allow life to flow freely through you. Take as long as you’d like, listening to and feeling your moment-to-moment experience. Notice the changing flow of sensations, sounds, aliveness, and also the background of presence that is here. Let yourself appreciate this awake, inner space of presence. When you are finished, sense the possibility of bringing an alert, open awareness to whatever you are doing next.

As you move through the day, pause periodically and briefly reawaken your sense, primarily by feeling bodily sensations and listening to sounds. With practice, you will become increasingly at home in natural presence.

From the book TRUE REFUGE by Tara Brach. Copyright (c) 2013 by Tara Brach. Reprinted by arrangement with Bantam Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

Tara Brach, PhD, is an internationally renowned meditation teacher and author of the best-selling books Radical Acceptance, True Refuge, and her latest, Radical Compassion.

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