As you sit and read this article, let us practice a few things with our bodies. Let us not be looking, for a bit, for a meaning, or an idea, that this article will propose.
Feel deeply into your body. Be aware of how your lungs fill up when they take in fresh air, and then contract when they release air.
You are aware of the tactile sensation of the lungs expanding and contracting. This awareness is not of a visual image of the lungs, or a smell or taste or sound of the lungs, but of the sense of touch, as it is experienced in the lungs. The expansion and contraction of the lungs is felt in the same, tactile way, as you may feel the expansion and contraction of your fingers when you close your hand and then release it.
When the lungs release the breath and contract, finally, there is a pause, until the intelligence of the body makes them expand again to inhale. This pause may be short, or long, and that usually depends on how relaxed you feel at the moment.
Now become aware of the sensation on the surface of your eyes. It is moist and soft, which allows your eyelids to slide down and slide up smoothly. Once again, the tactile sensation of the body is what our awareness is on.
The world opens up to us through these eyes, and we not only take in the universe but also give ourselves to it, in the softness of our eyes, or their hardness, their alertness.
As we practice the above two activities, we are anchoring ourselves in a bodily awareness of life as we experience it.
We are not creating anything in our minds. We are not imagining a divine figure on who to meditate, we are not trying to execute a spiritual idea that we have been told about, we are not analysing our behaviour and needling the reasons for it. We are simply dipping our attention into what is already there – this body, these eyes, this pair of lungs.
This is presence.
Absence, conversely, requires us to forget about what is here – our body, our eyes, our lungs – and grasp at what has been made by the mind.
When I was a child, I would have to sit all day in my class in school and focus on what the teacher wrote on the black board. If I didn’t, I risked being noticed by the teacher and scolded. Sometimes, punished. So I became afraid of feeling into the sleepiness in my eyes from the boredom of school, the tension in my lungs from inhaling indoor air in a crowded classroom, the contraction in my spine from sitting for long periods rather than playing outside. As long as these sensations were not intense and unbearable, life was a matter of living away from them, focusing on what would help me stay safe in the class.
We often are still like that. From presence, we go into absence, when trying to do our work, when walking in the crowded marketplace, perhaps even when making love.
In the forest I walk in, many walkers seem to be focused on the idea in their mind that they must complete a certain distance, rather than being present to themselves and to the trees and birds and animals around.
Presence, then, is presence to the body, to its very tactile experience as a physical entity from which we live in this world. It is a presence to our face and the way it is held by our muscles, to our eyes, to our spine as the centre of the whole body, and more.
It is also presence to the sound the squirrel makes in the balcony as one reads this article on the screen, as it is presence to the colour of the leaves on the trees, and the curious gaze in the eyes of the dog who sits by the path you walk on. It is presence to the shifting shades of light as afternoon passes, evening sets in, and the golden light of the setting sun falls on our bodies, as on the bodies of the nature around us.
Once again, let us practice more. Bring your attention to your eyes, to their moistness, softness, their depth – as they emerge out from a deep space in you. Do the eyes feel fixed, wired, hard; or do they feel fluid, moving, tender? Do they fixate on a particular spot, or are they gently, openly aware of the entire field of vision from which light reaches them?
Our relationship to our emotions changes when we are present in the body. We can experience what life is making us experience, even if it is painful. Anxiety can be stayed with, as can be restlessness and frustration. Slowly, these give way to a compassionate, open way of being towards both self and other.
But when the child has to focus on the black board and keep track of the teacher’s writing, his inner anxiety cannot be stayed with. His fear that last week’s scolding may repeat itself has to be acted on, by going away from the fear and the body, to the black board. There will never be, in that state, a compassion that the child feels towards his own fatigue at having to concentrate all day rather than play, relax, love.
Over time, the tendency of moving away from presence into absence, from soft openness to anxious avoidance, from receptivity to a chronic goal-directedness, create a false personality structure that is built on anxiety and defences against it. It can only be undone slowly, bit by bit, by the practice of presence.
There is no deep presence that is not a presence in the body.
The simplicity of presence can be elusive.
When couched in analysis, or in philosophical ideas about consciousness, the idea of presence leads to absence, for it gives us something to grasp and chase. When all such ideas are dropped, presence is here, and it is bodily.
A body in which we are present is sensitive to the bodies of other human and non-human beings around us, including what we may consider inanimate things. It acts in harmony with all these forms of life, in appreciation of their beauty and the life that oozes out through them.
It is perhaps not capable of cruelty.