Inner  Frontier
Cultivating Spiritual Presence

 

Stabilized Presence

In the wilderness of the spirit, how can we know the true direction and limit our wandering missteps? One way is to establish a clear goal, against which we can measure ourselves and toward which we can see how to move. Continuity of awareness, continuity of inner work can be such a worthy, even necessary, long-term aim for our practice.

Every spiritual path puts forward some notion of stabilized or continuous, conscious presence. In the New Testament we find Christ’s admonitions “Watch ye therefore: for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, lest … he find you sleeping,” (Mark 13:35-36) and “watch ye therefore, and pray always” (Luke 21:36), as well as Paul’s “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). The Philokalia and the Way of a Pilgrim offer powerful examples of the Christian approach to continuous prayer.

Like the Jesus Prayer, the Sufi zikr, or remembrance of the Divine, moves from the mind and the tongue to become the perpetual zikr of the heart. Sufis, from the early, great masters known as the Khwajagan down to the modern day, have pursued and taught the constant practice of watchful awareness. In the Koran (2:115) we find: "Wherever you turn, there is the presence of God."

Plotinus, that precursor of deep spirituality, was said by his biographer Porphyry to have lived in “unbroken concentration upon his own highest nature.”

In Kabbalah, the goal of devekut, or cleaving to God, comes about through continual remembrance of the Divine. Some of the devout Kabbalists consider it a sin even momentarily to lose their connection to the sacred. I have set the LORD always before me…(Psalms 16:8)

Buddhism counsels its advanced practitioners to enter the effortless effort of continuous mindfulness. Zen Buddhism and the Tibetan Buddhist teachings of Dzogchen and Mahamudra extol the wonders of an open, spacious, continuous awareness. Hindu traditions such as Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and the teachings of Advaita Vedanta present the liberated person as residing in stabilized awareness. Buddhist monks and Hindu yogis go to great lengths to attain that station. Taoist practice leads toward non-doing in unbroken presence.

Yet the fact that many generations of seekers across the entire landscape of spiritual ways have worked to develop stabilized presence does not make it any less challenging for us. If there can ever be a critical mass of humanity from whom stabilized presence could spread to the rest of us, it obviously has not yet been achieved. So this incomparable challenge stands before us.

First, let us look at what we mean by stabilized presence. We use the term stabilized in the sense of a stable equilibrium: a state to which a system will, of itself, return after being perturbed away from it. When a person established in stabilized presence gets distracted and falls out of presence, the fall is short-lived and self-correcting. Their natural tendency is not to stray far from presence and to revert to it very soon. For most of us, the opposite holds: our presence is unstable and momentary. When we get distracted we tend to move further and further from presence, typically returning to it only after a lengthy sojourn on autopilot and passive attention, lost in rambling thoughts, emotional reactions, and half-noticed sensory perceptions. But consciousness is not in time and need not be destabilized by events in time and space. Our ordinary thoughts and emotions need not distract us from presence, which subsumes all events brought to us by our senses.

We can have early, sporadic episodes of unbroken, stabilized presence that last for varying durations. All movement toward higher worlds occurs in this way: initially as an intermittent experience and later as an enduring change in our being. When our entry into presence grows frequent enough and our sojourns there grow long enough, episodic presence merges into continuity. But to realize such a steadfast and fully stabilized presence, one that does not diminish and remains continuous throughout our day, marks a very great transformation of a person's soul, a major milestone in their spiritual journey, and a blessing for us all.

We may at one point or another falsely believe in and search for some hidden secret practice or magical formula that will speed our progress on the path. Yet the real requirements stand open for all to see and belong to the realm of will. The key factors in working toward more continuous presence are (1) how much it matters to us, (2) believing it is really possible, doable, and necessary for us, (3) actually deciding to do it now, (4) opening to higher energies, (5) opening to a higher will, and (6) accepting to live in a new way, in the full light of awareness.

Any of us can be present for a moment. So we know presence through our momentary tastes of it. The crux of the matter is: at what point do we allow some alluring or repulsive item from the never-ending stream of potential distractions to grab us? If, with the whole of our being, we have truly decided to anchor ourselves to presence, not just in some unknown future but right now, if we wholeheartedly commit ourselves to be here, if this becomes our overarching priority for every moment, as important to us as our next breath, and if through deep meditation and prayer we learn to open to the transformative action of the higher energies and the higher will, only then is continuity of presence possible. The absolute commitment attracts help from the spiritual depths. That help, in turn, increases our commitment to presence, our love for the Divine, and our attraction to the sacred spirit hidden within.

Those of us who aspire to a spiritual path tend to wish we could be more present, but generally that wish falls short of wholeheartedness. We fear that real commitment to continuous presence will interfere with the duties and pleasures of life. But it is not like that. Perhaps we would spend more time in meditation and prayer, but certainly not to the point of irresponsibility toward our material life. We quickly realize that presence is a parallel process that occurs as we move through our ordinary daily activities and experiences. We can learn to be present at any and all times and places. Presence can even help us be more effective in life, enable a stronger appreciation for the pleasures of life, and serve as a robust framework from which to meet life's challenges.

Our first forays into working at presence show the difficulty of it. At that point, the danger lies in assuming that because presence is hard to maintain, it must be impossible to maintain. But that is not so. All the great paths point to the necessity of continuous presence. If we allow our assumptions based on past experience to limit our future, we box ourselves into the world of automatic, self-perpetuating thoughts and emotions, which control our life and of which we remain only half-aware.

Another danger with presence lies in pseudo or illusory presence. If we believe ourselves already present, we shall make no effort toward real presence. But our habitual inattentiveness, forgetfulness and distraction expose as false our presumptions of presence. Persistent and intentional work at presence gradually teaches us the difference between living on autopilot and being awake.

The practice of awareness of bodily sensation offers major help in moving toward continuous presence, because sensation creates a platform for consciousness. The more we work on establishing and increasing the sensitive energy in our body, the more we inhabit our sensation body, the more that energy stabilizes. Sensation can then come back to remind us to be present at moments when we are lost in our personality, our pre-programmed mode of functioning .

Continuity of presence does not depend on continuity of effort to be present. Of course, such effort is most necessary, but not all the time. Instead, we can relax into sensation, relax into consciousness and find a natural stability there, a new home in the light of full awareness. Letting go of tensions and distractions carries us more and more into this one, eternal present moment.

To sustain continuous presence, we make an active effort at times, an effort that renews our intention to be here, in our body, in our heart, in our mind, in consciousness, and in ourselves. At other times, we receptively open to the higher, to harvest higher energies to fuel our presence. But most of the time, we maintain presence through a third approach that reconciles and synergizes the active and the receptive. In this third way, we are not wholly active, nor wholly receptive, but a little of both and more. We stay here, while pursuing the necessary active external efforts that life requires of us. In that way, our inner synergistic stance of presence does not interfere with our outer activities, nor do our outer activities diminish our presence. I engage in life and I continue to be here.

Traditionally, those who were serious enough to pursue continuity of presence did so in the context of monastic-style seclusion or retreat. Removed from many of the cares, duties, and distractions of ordinary life, perhaps surrounded by reminders of the practice and by the intention and energy of fellow travelers on the path, the seeker could, as the Buddha put it, work out his or her salvation with diligence. It still holds true that a spiritual retreat, during which one works to establish continuous presence, proves its possibility.

While the retreat approach certainly remains valid and powerful today, we look toward a path within life, a way to purify and build our soul in the midst of modern society. Fortunately, to meet this challenge, a remarkable array of spiritual practices, hitherto hidden, have become widely available during the past century. Any of us can find genuine and personally-suitable ways to pursue inner work seriously during our typical days. Perhaps we begin the day with prayer and/or meditation. During the day, we frequently come back to presence through awareness of bodily sensation, through conscious breathing, through prayer, or other practices that build presence. The more we practice, the more we wish to practice, the more we are drawn toward the spiritual worlds, and the more we can and do practice. Aiming at continuous presence in itself helps move us toward it. Depending on our understanding and determination, a state of presence begins to become the norm rather than the exception for us. The foreground of our ordinary awareness of thoughts, sensations, and emotions opens out to merge into the background and wider context of consciousness. Events in time and space stand in the silent midst of the higher dimensions. And love finds a home in the clarity of our presence.

As our presence grows we come to the barrier of egoism. Why do we seek presence? Is it to be better than other people? Is it so we can congratulate ourselves for it, boast inwardly, if not outwardly? Is it to form our soul for our personal salvation? In the end, all self-oriented motivations fall short. Self-centeredness inevitably moves from the desire for spiritual advancement to some other attractive item, making continuity of presence based on an egoistic posture impossible. If, instead, we approach presence as an act of service to our neighbor and to the Divine, then we have a chance. If we realize that the true answer to the question “Who is present?” is not me, but rather the sacred higher will, then we have a chance. If we recognize that without opening to the higher, sacred energies, we cannot move toward continuous presence, then we have a chance.

Bring yourself into full awareness of body, heart, and mind. Open to your whole presence and be here. This state seems so natural, so right for us. Our challenge lies in dropping the assumption of impossibility and working diligently, strongly, deeply and frequently enough to transform our presence from an intermittent and short-lived state into our enduring level of being.

See Also: Moment to Moment, Sustaining Presence, Duration of Presence and Presence Metric 2: Duration


        

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