People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. – Joseph Campbell
Have you ever attended a seminar, workshop, or retreat for personal growth or healing and found the experience to be something you were sure would transform your life? You might have felt a peace, joy, love, or connection that was far beyond anything you had felt before. Have you also found that once you return home that the feeling fades within only a few days or weeks, and it seems almost inaccessible? Have you ever wondered why this happens?
Why is it that these experiences don’t last and what can we do to create lasting change?
My answer to this is simple, yet complex at the same time: conscious presence. What does that mean? It simply means being present with life as it arises in a conscious way. We all experience life from moment to moment, but are we actually conscious here with it, or are we somewhere else in our minds? Many of us spend a lot of time thinking about the future, planning, and striving for a different tomorrow. Many of us spend a lot of time thinking about the past and how things could have been or should have been.
How often are we simply here? How often do we spend time being with our breath? How often do we spend time being with the stillness or silence in the room we are in? How often do we spend time being with anything in a way that is not creating some need from it? How does it feel to be alive right now? What is it like to be you right now? What is happening in your body right now?
Being present is being with these things not in an intellectual capacity or finding ways to describe how things feel. Being present is being with these things in a felt sense and on an energetic level. Feel the aliveness that animates your existence. This is how I interpret the opening of the Tao Te Ching where it is written, “The Tao that is spoken is not the eternal Tao. The Tao that can be named is not the eternal name.” Describing experience is not the experience itself. Feeling a connection to yourself, to others, and to life can only happen inside, as you are consciously present with them.
So, how does being present create lasting change? In short, it doesn’t. It creates lasting presence. Presence begets presence. The more you land into your own life, the more you will feel the aliveness that is already there. Attending seminars, workshops, and retreats focused on growth and healing aren’t about feeling good all of the time, they are about unearthing more conscious presence in your life.
I understand that this may still not be clear, which is where the complexity comes in. So, let’s take a step back and take a look. To do this, I am going to talk about three facets of the human experience that either aid or inhibit our ability to be present. I am not going to venture in depth into each, but I will speak about them enough to bring us full circle.
The first and most sticky (in my opinion) roadblock to presence is pain. There are many points in life where being present means being present to physical discomfort, turbulent emotions, and constant mental chatter. I want to focus on emotional pain here, but physical pain can be just as intense. Anger, rage, sadness, sorrow, depression, anxiety, shame, and guilt are only a small number of the depleting and turbulent emotions life has to offer. Anyone who has ever experienced any of these emotions on a deep level can attest to how painful they can be.
How we handle the spectrum of emotions as they arise can dictate our ability to stay present. For instance, if I am someone who becomes overwhelmed and anxious in chaotic environments, I may mentally disconnect, dissociate, become combative, or numb out while the experience is happening. If the experience is ongoing, like a worldwide pandemic that lasts for several months, I may cope with that in a way of disconnecting more as time goes on. This may take the form of binging Netflix day after day to escape into a fantasy world. It may involve eating junk food as a way of comforting myself. I may take drugs, sleep around, become overly sensitive and resentful of those around me, or simply leave my current circumstances and need a change of environment.
I don’t want to demonize the need for coping mechanisms nor do I want to make any of the aforementioned activities wrong, but the question is, what are we gaining from these things? In simple terms, it is to get away from the emotional pain that comes from being present. In this instance, being present means being present with the overwhelm and anxiety that we don’t want to feel.
This is where emotional development comes in. Learning how to process emotions in a healthy way can be the difference between a life filled with rich and rewarding emotions or a life filled with running away from our emotions. Learning how to process emotions means learning how to sit with each emotion as it arises, give it enough space to be experienced and witnessed, and learn how to listen to what it is communicating to us in the moment. Overwhelm and anxiety are not bad and treating them as the enemy doesn’t typically help. What if we simply asked, “What are you telling me? How are you serving me? Have I felt you before? Was there an original event I can trace this response back to?” Each one of these questions can be an insight your organism is communicating to you in the moment.
Perhaps the emotions are telling me that I haven’t been taking good care of myself and my body needs more rest, water, exercise, and good nutrition. The emotion may be serving me by forcing me to reflect on my current actions and to make a change for the better. It may be an emotional response that I have carried with me for several years that was actually formed in my childhood. Maybe I grew up in a chaotic environment and coping with the overwhelm and anxiety through reading books and watching movies was how I made it through. This may be a beautiful opportunity to understand the root of an emotional response and inquire into if I still want to respond that way to similar circumstances.
There are many emotional responses we each carry that are from childhood that served us then but are no longer serving the same purpose today. Leading with curiosity and compassion is a potent way of growing with your emotions.
The more in tune we are with our emotional experience, the greater the ability we will gain of being present with each emotion as it arises. If a painful emotion arises, we will be with it. If a pleasurable emotion arises, we will be with it. Either way, we stay present in the experience.
The next roadblock to presence is mental chatter. We live in a time where we are constantly stimulating our brains through movies, streaming services, music, social media, emails, work/business, conversation, etc. The more information and stimulation I feed my brain, the more the neurons become wired for constant stimulation.
Have you ever tried to stop thinking for only one minute? Try it now.
If you just tried it, my guess is a small percentage of you made it the entire minute without having a single thought. As stated earlier, many of us are constantly thinking about something. It might be what our boss said and how unfair we think it is. It might be focused on all of the tasks we have to accomplish before the end of the week and how we will never get them done. Maybe it is focused on fantasizing about a life where we have all of the things we want—more money, hot partner, fame, status, superpowers?!
This stimulation is cultural as well. Most Western countries (and many others) have adopted the mode of operation that “What I achieve externally defines my value and worth.” This perspective creates a deep drive of needing to constantly be doing something. How many times have you heard someone talk about how busy they are, or how stressed they are, or how much they have on their plate as if it is a badge of honor or something to be bragging about? How many times has that person been you? This mode of operation mixed with the constant stimulation creates a strong habit of not being present for many people.
This is where mental & behavioral development comes in. Being able to recognize the overstimulation of the brain opens us up to become more aware that we have a constant thinking station operating in our heads at all times. Once we see this, we can begin to pay more attention to what it is actually doing. This mental reflection allows us to see patterns that may arise. For instance, maybe I become restless whenever I am at work and I don’t have enough to do (or have too much.)
We may also recognize that every time we experience a certain emotion, there is a belief or perception that arises with it. An example of this might be when you are around your family on holidays and there is an interpretation of being misunderstood by everyone and feeling lonely. Does the loneliness arise because the mind has the perception that everyone misunderstands you? Or does the interpretation that they misunderstand you arise from a feeling of loneliness when you are around them? Either way, they both arise.
With greater mental development and reflection, we can begin to understand what drives our mental stimulation. This both brings us present with our mental activity as well as allows for greater maturity in understanding our habitual tendencies and behavioral patterns. Over time, we can begin to make more conscious choices about how and why we do things. This in turn will lead us into a place of being more comfortable and confident in who we are, as we are, which creates more presence in the life we are currently living. Again, this opens us up to breathing the life that is already present to us in each moment.
In working with people on becoming more present in life, I often hear that the present moment is boring. If I put my awareness on what is happening in the room right now, well, there isn’t much going on. I can see some dust settling. My cat is sleeping. Other than that, it is pretty silent and uneventful. If I am uncomfortable with things not being eventful, or they are too eventful, either way I am resisting what is in the moment. This state of resistance can create mental and emotional turbulence, returning us back to the last two sections.
Learning to be OK with silence and stillness is uncomfortable for a lot of people, which keeps them turning back to more stimulation. However, learning to become settled in the present moment includes being able to be with stillness and silence.
Spiritual development begins with shifting our relationship to reality. Instead of sitting in silence, doing “nothing,” we are being with silence. There is no interpretation needed. It doesn’t need to be a waste of time or a powerful practice or something in between. We are simply experiencing what it is like to be with silence.
When we begin to do this, we can do the same with activity. Conversation, movement, noise, stimulation, etc. are all activity. Learning to be with activity, feel its vibrational resonance, and allow it to be what it is shifts our relationship to the present moment as well. Over time, things simply become the rising and falling of activity and stillness. The yin and the yang. Two sides to the same coin.
It is at this point where no matter what arises, life is life. If what arises is painful, full of mental stimulation and emotional turbulence, then we simply sit with it as the activity of the moment. When it dissipates, we simply sit with whatever arises next.
What can emerge from this experience is a shift in how we fundamentally see reality. If all things are simply life appearing in different forms connected through a continuum of conscious presence, then all things become a unified experience. If the movement within me becomes a part of the sea of movement outside of me, then where I end and the other begins starts to merge together. Feeling the wind pass through the leaves on a tree becomes the same as feeling the wind pass through the hairs on my arm. They are both movements within this moment, being perceived by me. They are the same.
Again, describing experience is not the experience itself. Whether this makes sense intellectually or not isn’t the point. The point is the actual conscious experience of this merger and the flow of life that is this moment. To experience this lies within the capacity to be present. Awakening to the unification of life as one whole lies within the capacity to be present.
To return to the original question, why is it that experiences of peace, joy, and transformation don’t last and what can we do to create lasting change? It’s all about presence. If we can learn to become present day by day, moment by moment, we become the lasting change. Presence begets presence. The only way to carry a state of being with us is to make it a stage of development. Being present unfolds as time goes on. Working on our emotional development, mental development, and spiritual development will untether us from that which inhibits our ability to be present to our lives. When we can do this, we open the door to breathe the essence of life in an incredible way.