The qualities of presence
As the narrative meaning of mental contents (thoughts, sensations, feelings) arising in awareness no longer automatically compels attention in the old way, the presence of awareness itself becomes intuitively recognized. Awareness cannot be perceived or cognitively apprehended; perception and attention are designed only to recognize objects arising within it. It is an intuitive recognition, accompanied by ease sweeping through the body-mind. I prefer the term “presence” to “awareness,” which has established associations and meanings, although other people will have their own, different names for this.
A number of other previously masked features of mind become gradually or startlingly apparent with this recognition. Among these is that presence itself is imbued with qualities of meaning and peace, faith, gratitude, as well as joy— their companion and fellow-traveler—and a deep empathy for the suffering embedded in nature. We recognize how these were missed as interest and curiosity were instinctively preoccupied with the mental objects arising in this field; that the meaning and joy in the seeing itself have been apprehended through, and attributed to, the narratives and mental constructions reflecting them, and that the same preoccupation has diluted empathy and responsiveness.
As tribal creatures, this should not be surprising to us. Our adapted capacity for the cooperation upon which our very lives, and the lives of our children, depend is powerfully bound to and dependent upon our collective, and more intimate and personal, imagined narratives and stories; rich narratives of identity and connection that infuse our loving. These impulses, deeply-rooted in the more primitive past of our nervous system, also form the basis of ongoing human conflict and divisions and do not readily surrender their fascination to a more recent cerebral interest in reflective enquiry of unproven survival value. The elusiveness of freedom becomes apparent when just the suggestion that these are collective imaginings, albeit essential ones, and that they can be appreciated as such without compromising the relationships they suffuse turns out to be a bridge too far for many if not most.
The imagery and language used to describe this process of recognition and direct experience reflect the cultural ground and narratives that surround it, as well as the practitioner’s beliefs and temperament. This is seen in the interpretive reflections contemplatives through the ages have offered around certain of these qualities. Buddhism refers to awakening, Plato in his enquiry refers to non-material ideal forms, Saint Paul to no longer seeing through a glass darkly, still others to the presence of god. The list is long and diverse. And while the initial descriptor is a more or less awkward attempt to allude to the unspeakable, the metaphors and processes described by the founders to approach it seem to inevitably gather a narrative of their own and we’re off to the races again; preoccupied and fascinated by the narrative in a way that truncates curiosity, enquiry, and exploration, it becomes dogma and the basis for fruitless arguments among adherents.
Here I have presented a narrative using psychological and evolutionary principles that I hope rescue the process from sectarianism and ill-defined language and is less pandering to our emotional needs for certainty and identity.