Presence is the ability to be inside our bodies and feel the direct sensation of what it’s like to be here. These practices are about going inside, seeing what you find there and opening to feeling whatever it is.
Often what we expect to find, can get in the way of us feeling what is actually there. Open your mind to experiencing things that might not feel like what you imagine a physical body to feel like and you might be pleasantly surprised. Connecting with the sensate experience of our bodies can evoke colours, sensations, energy, shapes, dream-like imagery and symbolism in us. This is all part of how we experience being in our bodies.
Only you can know what it feels like to be present in your experience. Approach this with curiosity and playfulness and it will give you more space to explore. You can’t get it wrong.
A lack of presence occurs when the sensations and emotions in our bodies are unbearable so we shut down our ability to feel them and run away into our minds. Our bodies don’t distinguish between ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ sensations and emotions, valence is added by the mind, so if we shut down to the challenging feelings we also become numb to the positive ones.
Presence arises from cultivating compassion. Compassion is often defined as being directed at others, but we also need to be able to cultivate it for ourselves if we want to be able to be present in our experience. It is the ability to feel things.
Compassionate action is built into our systems. Part of this is our body’s natural ability to process trauma, which we have unlearned in our society. Being present with difficult emotions will mean that our bodies naturally kick into a state of ‘processing and releasing’ that can be distressing if we’re not used it. For example, if we are present with grief it will naturally turn into intense crying in order to release it. If we weren’t able to be present with a feeling when we first felt it, it will be held in our bodies and we will need to revisit it in order to release it.
Crying, belly-gurgling, sweating, goosebumps, bone-clicking, runny noses and any other strange bodily functions are all good signs that things are moving.
Once you get out the other side of feeling a difficult emotion you will find a deep sense of peace and an ease with being present in your experience – like a weight has been lifted.
Ultimately, it is lack of feeling safe that kills compassionate presence, so we can develop presence by creating a safer environment in which we are more likely to feel good or by developing our capacity to open to feeling the more challenging emotions we have. In reality it is good to do a little of both.
Please start by being compassionate with yourself that this is a really difficult time and there are going to be some big feelings that it is hard to be present with at the moment. Also when we slow down we tend to get hit by emotions that have been stewing under the surface for a while.
Be aware of self-hatred and shame – these can be huge blocks to compassionate presence. I grew up in a space believing that crying made you weak and feeling sad was not allowed. If we have taken on board that certain emotions or feelings make us bad people; for example, it’s not ok to cry or be angry; we will start telling ourselves things like, ‘I shouldn’t be feeling like…’. Try and welcome these thoughts, without following their guidance. Bodies don’t lie and it is good to make space for your feelings whatever they are.
I have included practices for both creating an environment that it is easier to be present in and practices for cultivating the capacity to be present with more challenging feelings. I recommend doing a little of each, experimenting with the balance and seeing how it goes. Don’t forget to do a short heart awareness practice at the start to help you relax and soften into the moment.
It is really useful to know what is resourcing for you. Take some time to think about the questions below and write down the answers, if that feels helpful. Bear this in mind when you are going about your days. The more you can create an environment that you feel good in, the easier it will be to be present.
- What can help you feel good when you are struggling with life? (e.g. a hot bath, a walk, a cup of tea, 10 minutes on your own, a conversation, relaxing music, someone holding space for you)
- What do you think makes you feel good, but actually makes you feel worse afterwards? (e.g. social media, alcohol and caffeine, over-working, junk food)
- What helps you sustain a feeling of presence when you are in a good place? (e.g. taking breaks at work, breathing, yoga practice)
Writing is a really useful tool for compassion because the momentum of taking things down on the page keeps the feelings moving and stops you getting stuck in self-judgement or being overwhelmed by a big emotion. It’s nice to find a balance between feeling difficult emotions and recognising positive emotions. Here are some themes you could free-write on:
- List all the emotions and sensations you are feeling right now
- Recognise a way in which life is hard for you right now and how that makes you feel
- List ways in which you wish your life was different and, most importantly, how you think it would make you feel different, if you had your wish.
- Recognise something you are grateful for right now and what positive emotions that thing is making you feel
To develop compassionate presence through our practice we want to focus on moving away from our minds and in to experiencing our bodies.
If you already have some capacity to do this, choose the technique that feels most supportive to you being in your body. Bear in mind that compassionate presence is inherently transformative so the purpose of this is not to find stillness, but to be present with the changing nature of how it feels to be in our body. Things will shift and move and transform as we place our awareness in them and we can notice this change, allow it and hopefully enjoy some of it.
It can be supportive to find places in our body that feel reasonably reliably pleasant. The hands are often a good place. Remember to forget about any preconceptions of what hands should feel like, you may experience them as being different in shape, colour, size and solidity to how they are in daily reality. Notice how this changes and allow it to flow freely.
If you struggle with placing your awareness in your body during meditation (as opposed to in your mind or in awareness), find a guided meditation that focuses on the bodily experience and feels good for you. The guidance can help us keep our awareness in the body and having the presence of another person (even if it’s a recording) helps us access the state of calm that they are embodying. There are lots of different techniques and you can explore which work best for you. I would say that the most important thing is that you like the sense of presence of the teacher who is doing the guiding.
Having a Heart-to-Heart
Having someone witness our emotions can be really beneficial in helping us really feel them and being witness to someone talking about their emotions can be a really moving experience. When we do this our hearts literally communicate with each other and lend each other the capacity to process emotions. There is no separation between what I am feeling and what you are feeling – we feel together.
In order to facilitate this, be clear with the person that you are having a conversation with that you do not want their advice, you want to receive a compassionate witness and offer yourself as one too.
Ask questions that go a little deeper in to your emotional state and share how you are feeling.
Practising with Erotic Energy
Compassionate presence is very sensual. It can be a really lovely experience and it’s helpful to work directly with this in your practice to cultivate presence:
- Be aware of what sensations you enjoy throughout the day.
- Become aware of how you might be resisting that enjoyment or how challenging emotions may be overwhelming positive sensations. Can you pay attention to those challenging ones first in order to make some space?
- Take some time to do some mindful self pleasure, paying attention to how it actually feels in your body and what feels good. It could just be something as simple as running your fingers down your arm or it could be sexual, but focus on what it feels like in the moment rather than trying to get to orgasm. If it feels uncomfortable or unenjoyable in some way, make space for feeling those feelings, too.
- Bring awareness to the sensations of where you connect with things, how that feels. Noticing where you end and the other thing starts, what that connection feels like and whether you can soften into the sensation – i.e. your hand on a surface, your bum on the seat. It is our connection with things that creates erotic energy.
Music is Magic
Music allows us to open to emotions we wouldn’t normally allow ourselves to feel. It also creates a safe boundary for us, because we can feel these strong emotions while the music is playing and we are able to stop it when it ends.
- Choose a piece of music that matches your mood, make yourself comfortable either sitting or lying down, close your eyes and let the music come to you
- Allow it to take you on a journey where you notice the feelings and imagery that it brings up for you
- Does the music evoke sensations in your body? If so, do different instruments/ sounds evoke different sensations in different parts of the body?
- Does it bring up dream-like visualisations or colours or shapes behind the eyes? Notice that these are different to thoughts – they are being generated by your body as part of the processing, like dreams. Does it feel like they are related to a particular sensation or part of your body?
- Any time you notice yourself going off into thinking or planning or stressing just allow yourself to come back to the music
- Let yourself listen for as long as it feels like the conversation between the music and your body wants to go on for
Letters of Mother-Fucking Rage and Despair
This one is really good for releasing challenging emotions. It’s also the best practice for if you’re struggling to untangle your thoughts and judgements from your feelings. With this practice it can all come out in a huge mess together.
Choose a challenging emotion that you are feeling and write a no-send letter to the person or thing you feel you can direct that emotion at. Don’t feel bad about directing it at someone – if we air our feelings in a safe and private space we are much more likely to be able to act and feel compassionately to that person when we come back to the world.
Write as hard and fast as you can about what hurts the most. Do it until the emotion runs out. This may mean writing for half an hour a day, until you feel you’re done. There can be a fear that the emotion will go on forever if we unleash it, which can stop us from starting, but trust me that you will get to the bottom of it.
When meditation teachers say ‘let go’ I think they are mostly trying to tell you to relax. I came to the spiritual path through a type of group therapy where letting go meant taking a baseball bat to a cushion or crying until you had snot running down your face. This felt more real and more helpful to me.
This practice is about letting go of your resistance and allowing yourself to feel your difficult emotions directly, in a safe space. In order to practice this, you need to have some clarity on what is a sensation, what is an emotion and what is a judgement or thought that is formed based on those feelings. In order to keep an emotion moving, we need to be able to stay with the direct feeling of it, rather than get caught in the story of what this says about us or other people. If this distinction isn’t clear to you, I’d recommend writing a letter of mother-fucking rage and despair instead.
- Create a safe space for yourself and allow yourself to open to the emotions that you are feeling. Depending on what the dominant emotion is you may need a different space, if you are feeling angry you may need a space in which you can scream whereas if you are sad you may need a relaxing space in which you can cry.
- If you struggle to express your emotions choosing some music can help you open up. All emotions come with body sensations. As the waves of emotion come, start to pay attention to these. For example, if you are crying notice how your stomach feels, how your heart feels, how your throat feels. This will help move you away from self-judgement and more towards compassion.
- Move your body in any way that feels helpful. For example, moving your upper body can help grief keep moving and having active hands and arms can help rage pass through.
- Trust that your body knows how to release and that the emotion will pass through. It is best to keep going until you reach a point where you feel that you are ‘done’.
- Notice any judgement from your mind about how you ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ be feeling, particularly in relation to whether you are done or not, and try to allow these thoughts, without following their guidance.
- Once an emotion has fully passed through there will be a feeling of calm relaxation. It’s that feeling you get after you’ve had a big cry. This can be quite a pleasant state to be in, but it is also very tender.
- Ensure you have a safe space to enter back into after – let people around you know that you are feeling tender, drink plenty of water, eat a treat, go to bed early.
This is Your Practice
The most important thing to remember is that this is your practice. It is here to support you in feeling compassion for yourself so that you can be more present in your life.
Find a way to reflect on how you feel after doing any of these practices. Compare your notes to how you felt before or just reflect back and notice what the change in you is. This will help you see the benefits and recognise what tools are working best for you at the moment.
Be aware that if you have released lots of feelings that have been trapped for a while, there may be an aftershock. Runny noses, achey muscles, sore throats, tiredness is all common if you are releasing and processing big emotions, or even just coming home to being in your body. Be kind to yourself and keep making space for the things that resource you, that feel good and that help you sustain a feeling of presence.