Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice

 

Inner Work


For the week of May 21, 2012

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The Meta-Habit of Presence

(Spiritual Habits: Part 3 of 7)

To be present is to live, truly live. In presence we are awake and alert to all of our senses, our thoughts and emotions, and most importantly we are here ourselves, we are the one receiving all those sensory inputs, the one who knows our thoughts and emotions, the one who does what we do. On the face of it, this appears to describe our ordinary state. But even some rudimentary attempts to be and stay in touch with our sensory perceptions or with our thoughts as thoughts, on an ongoing basis, shows us that we are usually not present or, at best, in partial and limited contact with our life. To see this, try to be aware of your right arm continuously, moment-to-moment for an hour as you go about your day. How about ten minutes? How about one minute? You may see that it is not as easy as it sounds. Thatís because we live in the habit of non-presence; we allow our ordinary, automatic habits to run our life for us, without our actual participation.

To be clear, presence does not replace our automatic habits: we need all our useful habits. When we tie our shoes, or type on keyboard, or brush our teeth, or walk, or engage any of the myriad small and large skills in our repertoire, we want them to go automatically without us constantly micromanaging. The automatic energy makes our lives efficient and is thus necessary. Presence comes on top of that. We can be present while we tie our shoes. We donít direct every small movement of our fingers as they do their job. We just decide to initiate the shoe-tying routine and let that habit go on its own without our interference. But the crucial difference is that in presence we are here to witness the event, fully here. We can say in complete truth, ďI am tying my shoes.Ē We experience this moment of shoe-tying; we live it. By means of the sensitive energy we are in contact with the shoe-tying sensations in our body, particularly in our hands. With the conscious energy, we are aware of ourselves as being here, doing this. Each energy, the automatic, the sensitive, and the conscious, has its place in presence.

This is very different, inwardly, than allowing the shoe-tying to occur while we passively drift along in our automatic, associative thoughts. Such an episode is a non-cognizant void in our non-life. Did we actually live those moments?

To live more fully, we need a new, higher-level habit, a meta-habit: the habit of presence, an intentional, cognizant extension to whatever else we do. Once we have practiced the methods of presence and have some facility with them, we face the challenge of being present more of our time. We want to make it into a habit, but not an ordinary habit that is both triggered and carried out automatically. Yes, we want the triggers, the reminders to be automatic, to be habitual; we want them to remind us to be present. But then the follow through of actually being present can never be automatic, for its very definition implies at least a sensitive contact with our immediate perceptions and preferably also a contextual consciousness of our self as the one who is present. So we work to introduce the habit of presence piecemeal into particular aspects of our life. From those beachheads, from those islands of light, we can expand into more of our life.

One effective approach is to piggy-back presence onto ordinary habitual or automatic actions that require little of us and thus leave ample attention and energy free to engage in presence.

Take the example of walking. Our body knows quite well how to walk and does so with minimal conscious direction from us. We typically set a destination and let our body walk, on automatic, only requiring some minor course corrections along the way. But now, into this walking, we bring presence: first by sensitive contact, by being aware of our body, of the sensations of our body as it walks, without intentionally changing the outward form of our walking. This is fundamental: robust presence is built on the platform of sensitive contact with our body, of sensing our body, whether in walking or in any other activity. Later, once we have come to the point of being able to sense our whole body as we walk, we are naturally led into a more global conscious presence, in which we are the walker, in which we are aware of our surroundings, our body, our thoughts, our emotions, and ourselves ó all in the one field of consciousness.

The main point, though, is to train ourselves to sense our body whenever we walk, even just a short distance from one room to another. At first we have to remember to do this; it takes effort. But by repeated practice, the simple act of walking starts to remind us to be present as we walk. And when we notice that reminder, we must be willing to engage in walking-presence immediately. Then presence in walking becomes a meta-habit. This is possible and doable for anyone who persists. And it changes our life because we walk so often.

There are countless ways to create reminders of presence. Besides walking, we could work to be present when answering the phone, or more generally when talking, when eating or drinking, when moving from sitting to standing, when first getting into bed at night, when first awakening in the morning, when brushing our teeth, when dressing, when reading, when watching TV, and so on. You can look into your own life and adapt the meta-habit of presence to how you live. But itís important to establish only one such reminder at a time. Trying too much at once leads to failure; piece by piece though, the reminders build up and enrich our life.

To be in the middle of some habit routine and then add on sensitive awareness of our body, our mind, our heart, and our surroundings, and conscious awareness of ourselves, sounds like and is a challenge in multi-tasking. But with practice, the multiple parts meld into a unified experience: one field of consciousness with one experiencer/doer.

So to develop the meta-habit of presence, we first choose a reminder. Then we notice that reminder. Then, because of its concreteness and because it belongs only to the present moment, we always begin with body awareness and, as we become able to, we expand from there.

For this week, please work on the meta-habit of presence.

See also: Energy Body, Presence


     

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