I have been thinking a lot about the word presence lately.
I’ve been thinking about presence because I realize that I spend far too much of my life not being present right where I am.
Then I stumbled across this definition of presence: “a person or thing that exists or is present in a place but is not seen.”
This kind of presence — be it paranormal or spiritual — evokes the ghostly or ghastly or even the gnostic.
My presence, however, is precisely the reverse: I may be seen, but much of the time neither my heart nor head are present.
I don’t think I’m alone in this. We all spend far far too much time going through the motions of our lives while thinking or dreaming of almost anything but what we’re doing.
This, of course, is exacerbated by the fact that we have become a virtual world — and most of the time our virtual lives feel far more engaging and interesting than our real ones. We “follow” people online who live glamorous lives and feel that they are our friends. We watch their videos, listen to their music, like their photos, and then we compare our lives to theirs and despair that we will ever be as interesting or our lives as exciting. Which brings us back to our screens and our imaginary lives in their imaginary worlds. And away from presence right where we are as who we are doing what we’re doing.
THE ABSENCE OF PRESENCE
Yesterday this absence of presence came home to me in three ways.
In the morning, I was on the phone having a business conversation during my only free time — my morning walk. I walked and talked and walked and talked for almost an hour and a half, only to realize that I had spent a beautiful morning outside under tall trees without being at all present to the beauty of right where I was. So I hung up the phone, looked up at the trees and blue sky and vowed to be more present the rest of the day.
I’ll be honest. It was a battle. Because part of my job right now is promoting my book, I found myself posting things about my book tour while being driven up to my book signing in Connecticut, and then doing the same on the way back.
Until something stopped me. A sudden snowstorm that dumped seven inches in just a few hours.
But I’ll be honest, it wasn’t the beauty of the snowstorm that ultimately did the trick. It was making a wrong turn that took us 40 minutes of dangerous driving on slick roads out of our way — and up and down hills that we barely navigated in the icy conditions. It was worrying about my dog Allie in the back and helping my friend Karen stay focused and reassured that finally knocked me back into presence. In other words, it took danger to make me present. I’m not really proud of that.
Then last night, as I was watching an interview with ice skater Nathan Chen at the Olympics, the commentator asked Chen what he had been doing on his phone while he waited for the results of the figure skating competition.
Chen replied, “Well, my social media accounts blew up and I was just responding. I was pretty impressed that my phone lasted that long.”
So here is a young man at the Olympics, something for which he has trained his whole life and which might never happen again, and he spent most of his evening on the phone. I’m tempted to be appalled, but how can I be when I would probably be doing the same thing?
We’ve all become addicted to the illusion of our virtual communities — and being on the phone feels like being present.
CONNECTION AND COMMUNITY
That’s why the best part of my day yesterday was my book signing. I had decided that, instead of reading when I go to bookstores, I will just chat about my book. I made a conscious choice to do this, because the whole reason that I am doing this four-month back roads book tour is because I realize just how much I am craving community. So if I went into a room full of people and read, I would just be looking down at more words — instead of out into a room of beautiful faces and creating community and connection.
This week I had the first two events of the tour — in New York and in Connecticut. Both were pure joy. Not only was I supported by close friends and booksellers and my publishing team, but I met so many interesting new people and had some incredible conversations.
Old college friends from my freshman dorm showed up to both events — some of whom I hadn’t seen in almost 40 years. Dear friends from Santa Fe came to my Connecticut book signing. Wonderful people whom I have met along my joy journey these past few years came — and a few of them even brought their dogs to meet my dog, Allie. From friends of friends to total strangers, I felt the pure presence of deep connection and conversation. It was bliss.
WHAT IS PRESENCE?
So what does presence feel like? It feels grounded. It feels real. It feels connected. It feels true. It feels alive. It feels engaged. It feels hopeful.
And why is that important? More important than ever, in fact?
Because, if you’re anything like me, these days everything I read in the way of news is so disheartening, so discouraging, so disempowering, that I feel as though I am being put through a true Mr Toad’s Wild Ride — from outrage or anger or grief or frustration to the realization that, no matter how many petitions I sign, conversations I have, ideas for resolution I or others float — nothing seems to happen. And so I end up feeling like presence is being dis-invited. We are being incited to absence as a pathological alternative to action or presence or advocacy. And so we disconnect and disconnect and disconnect more. Until presence no longer even feels fully possible.
Once we let this happen, however, we are, well, screwed.
INVOKING THE PRACTICE OF PRESENCE
So, although it feel not just counterintuitive but actually sometimes just plain crappy, we have to learn to become even more present — to EVERYTHING that is. Our frustration. Our powerlessness. Our anger. Our grief. As well as our hope. Our healing. Our hearts. Our community. Our connection.
We have to become more present to our lives because the absence of presence is apathy. And apathy is the secret sauce of those who oppress others. They pray that we will fall into apathy and stop caring about anything but our imaginary selves.
So to be present in own own lives — in all their paradoxical fierceness and fragility — as well as to be present to the lives of everyone on our planet is perhaps the most radical act of empowerment there is.
Our rallying cry might go something like this: “Look up from your screens all ye who suffer. Look all around you and see the beauty and the badassness and bafflement of your community, and then be present. Connect, converse, communicate, commune. Be present to the world in love, and so love the whole world back to presence.”
If I promise to try harder every day to do this, will you join me in re-invoking the power and the paradox of the practice of presence to change the world?