Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Presence as Distinct from Present

“Be present” is a common admonition these days. Eckhart Tolle became famous for his book The Power of Now, which is about being present in the here and now. The idea is to let go of our obsession with the past and future, neither of which actually exist in this moment.

I just read a twist on this concept that I really like. In the book The Spell of the Sensuous, author David Abram writes about the difference between ‘present’ and ‘presence.’  

In my mind, ‘being present’ meant that you somehow managed to step outside the flow of time. But as I read Mr. Abram’s discussion I realized that when you are ‘in the present’ you are, in fact, still in time. You are in this moment of ‘now,’ and then that now, and then that now.

Presence, on the other hand, is about just being. When you are in presence you are not aware of time at all. You are so involved in what you are doing that time becomes meaningless. Most of us have experienced this many times—those blissful moments of play when you lose yourself like a child to the game, or in lovemaking that envelops you in the sensuousness of your body, or while creating art—when you come out of that experience of presence hours may have passed and it feels like minutes.

This is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls the experience of ‘Flow.’ (This is a link to his TED talk on Flow.)

As I thought about this, it seemed to me that ‘present’ has the feeling of a static state, while ‘presence’ is dynamic, is experience, is being.

Mr. Abram took this concept of presence from Martin Heidegger and his book Time and Being. This is a quote from Heidegger:
Obviously, time is not nothing. Accordingly, we maintain caution and say: there is time. We become still more cautious, and look carefully at that which shows itself as time, by looking ahead to Being in the sense of presence, the present. However, the present in the sense of presence differs so vastly from the present in the sense of the now…[T]he present as presence and everything which belongs to such a present would have to be called real time, even though there is nothing immediately about it of time as time is usually represented in the sense of a succession of a calculable sequence of nows.

Me in presence on yesterday's hike

Friday, March 18, 2016

Why We Say We Lost Someone When They Die

Recently someone said they thought it was odd that people will say, when someone they love has died, that they’ve ‘lost’ that person. I used to think it was odd too…until my husband died. Now I find myself saying, “I lost my husband.”
This came to mind tonight because I wrote in my journal: Oh my love my heart aches for you. The anguish at your loss is still overwhelming.
Of course—this is why we say we ‘lost’ someone when they died. Not because we’re saying death is like losing your car keys and we think the person will be found (although there is that wild irrational hope). It’s that death is loss. Profound loss. When someone we love dies, that means we have lost a part of our life, a part of our self, the part that was that person. I have lost Arthur. I am suffering the loss of his physical being in my life.  

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Rewriting the Story

In my book We Are All Innocent by Reason of Insanity I describe how we tell a Story that defines our lives. What I mean by insanity is ‘confusing our mind-generated reality with actual reality.’ Our personal narratives are an example of that confusion. We begin to tell stories about ourselves as small children. Our families and teachers tell us stories about ourselves. We spin these stories into a personal narrative. By the time we reach adulthood we have forgotten that this narrative is just a story and believe it is the truth of who we are.

One of the suggestions I make in We Are All Innocent is to ‘question the Story.’

Last fall I was camping with a friend and in the evening we had a long, lovely conversation by lamplight. She told me of a book she had read that started with a description of a man’s life. He was an engineer and totally uninterested in matters of the heart. He had no close friends, no wife or children. Then one day at 40 an illness struck and he found himself in the hospital, close to death. He spent days in his hospital bed “rewriting the story of his life.”

I stopped my friend there—“What an incredible image,” I said. “Rewriting the story of your life. What a powerful concept.”

My friend went on with the story: the man survived and completely changed his priorities. I don’t remember much else about it, because I was filled with wonder at the possibilities inherent in ‘rewriting the story.’

This thought has stayed with me, and I have looked at how I have rewritten my personal narrative over the course of my life.

I grew up in a family I compare to the “Leave it to Beaver” TV show: dad worked, mom took care of the kids, no problems. Part of my childhood Story was “I am part of a completely normal American family.” Then one day in 1974 this storyline was shattered when my father announced he was leaving. At that time, in the upper-middle class town we lived in, divorce was still rare. My narrative told me that being the child of divorced parents meant I was defective in some way.

This became part of my Story. I was flawed. I was defective. I was not good enough. My best friends for the rest of my time in high school were also children of divorce. My husband was a child of divorce. I became insecure about my abilities and talents and didn’t pursue the professional career I had always expected was my future.