Guide to developing presence
This page takes you on a journey through everything you need to start developing embodied presence in life and practice; connecting with the body from each part of your being. On this page you will find:
Introduction to Embodiment
Embodiment is the sense of being here in the present moment; it comes from the ability to be inside your body and feel your direct experience.
Everything is experienced through the container of your physical being, so embodied presence is required as a base if you want to be able to make any progress with your meditation or spiritual practice that is grounded in truth and realness. Or even if you just want to be present for your life.
Presence and embodiment is different to being mindful of your body. You aren’t looking at what is happening, you are being in the sensations. You are experiencing being a living, breathing organism in this moment.
Presence arises with compassion. Compassion is often defined as being directed at others, but to be able to start feeling and being in your life you also need to be able to cultivate it for yourself. It’s the key to being able to be present in your experience. It is the ability to be with your felt-sense of the world without the mind stepping in with judgements or fixed ideas.
These practices are about cultivating the capacity to be directly with your physical experience and opening up new aspects of your being.
By its very nature, this is a very bodily and involved process, but it’s also very intimately related to insight. You can’t fully understand something until you’ve actually felt it and allowed it into your experience. The idea of a thing is often different to the thing itself and something can’t become fully alive in your experience until you’ve really lived and breathed it, rather than just thinking it.
This also applies to the body itself – where your ideas of what the body are might be incredibly limited and actually getting in touch with it is a journey of discovery and felt-sense that you need to go on.
Once you start to come home to your body, you start to cultivate deep and lasting feelings of joy and energetic bliss that are part of your natural being, as well as feeling the full spectrum of emotions and experiences more deeply.
Practicing Embodied Presence
With these embodiment practices you are going inside, seeing what you find when you do that and opening to feeling whatever it is. This is a very tantric approach and requires a degree of open-mindedness to engage with.
Often what you expect to find, or want to find, gets in the way of you feeling what is actually there.
For this to work you need to let go of the mind’s habit of judging and controlling that keeps you safe in everyday life and open to being with experience more directly. This requires opening to things that might feel strange or challenging in some ways.
The way you perceive your body, your experience, an insight or an idea may manifest completely differently on the layer of your felt-reality and you need to make space for life to express itself through your body in the way that it wants to. This process of embodiment brings you closer to truth and realness and it also breaks people out of the stuckness of the mind’s loops and habits.
A lack of presence occurs when the sensations and emotions in your body are unbearable or unacceptable so you shut down your ability to feel them and run away into your mind. Bodies don’t distinguish between ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ sensations and emotions, valence is added by the mind, so if you shut down to the challenging feelings you also become numb to the positive ones. It becomes impossible for you to be present.
With the practice of embodiment you are opening to this direct presence and increasing the comfort zone of what you are able to be present with. This isn’t an intellectual exercise of understanding something, but a physical process of connecting with your body.
Part of connecting with your body is getting in touch with its natural ability to process trauma. Being present with difficult emotions will allow your body to naturally process and release them – for example, through crying.
When you slow down, you tend to get in touch with the parts of experience that you have been repressing. Crying, strong emotions, belly-gurgling, sweating, screaming, goosebumps, bone-clicking, runny noses, energy explosions and any other strange emotional or bodily functions are all good signs that things are moving.
The idea is to be processing rather than wallowing; allowing things to move through the body rather than grasping onto new ideas and stories.
Once you get out the other side of feeling a difficult emotion you may find a deep sense of peace and an ease with being present in your experience – like a weight has been lifted. That part of your body, that was repressing that sensation, will have been liberated and will now be more accessible to you in a pleasant way.
It’s like removing dams and blockages from various parts of your being – when you first take them down you are hit with everything that the dam has been holding back, but once that has passed through, things can flow more freely through you.
Bodies can be a bit dumb. For example, they can hold onto fixed models and ideas of the world that were formed in our childhood that no longer serve us. It’s also important to remember that bodies don’t lie about what is present. Holding both of these perspectives at the same time, it’s possible to create an attitude to practice where you are making space for your felt-senses whatever they are, without allowing them to say anything fixed about you or the world around you.
Creating an Environment Conducive to Embodied Presence
It is lack of feeling safe that kills compassionate presence. If you want to start cultivating presence you need to be able to be in a safe space and to be able to take care of yourself and your body.
Part of this is that is really useful to know what is resourcing for you. Take some time to think about the questions below and write down the answers. The more you can create an environment that is good for you, 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 supports you to be happy and healthy? (e.g. nice food, fun exercise, good relationships)
- 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)
It’s also really important that you can listen to your body’s signals and protect yourself from the things in life that are draining for you. Developing presence requires you to have healthy boundaries, so that you are able to take care of your needs.
Here are some questions to help you start to feel into what those situations may be for you and how you could change them.
- List the people and situations in your life that you feel an unequivocal yes towards; that you feel both energised by and at peace around. The things that set the gold standard for how you would like your life to be. If you don’t currently have them – imagine what these could look like for you.
- List the people and situations in your life that you get a bad feeling about or feel drained after interacting with. Can you set some boundaries so you don’t have to interact with them so much or at all?
- What are some things that you do because you feel you should, rather than you want to? Is there a way you could do less of this?
- Do you say yes to too many things? Could you start saying that you need more time to think about things before committing to them? Do you say no to too many things? In which case, could you practice saying yes more?
- Do you have a safe physical space in your life that you can retreat to? Does it feel cosy, secure and nourishing for you? If not, how does it feel and what would you like to change?
- Do you have some nourishing relationships where you can express yourself fully? If not, how do your relationships need to change to accommodate this?
Relational Embodied Presence
To develop embodied presence in relationship, you want to create space where you can express yourself fully without fear of being judged.
This could be in relation with others or it could be a practice on your own that gives you a means of expressing your felt sense of the world, for example through writing or listening to music. These tools give you a way in which you can hold a conversation with the feelings and sensations that are present in your body.
Practicing becoming confident at expressing what feels true and alive for you in this moment is incredibly important for being able to carry your embodied presence out into your life.
Having a Heart-to-Heart
Having someone witness your emotions can be really beneficial in helping you really feel them and being witness to someone talking about their emotions can be a really moving experience.
When you do this your hearts and bodies communicate directly 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 your conversation partner that you do not want their advice, you want to receive a compassionate witness. You could also offer yourself as one too – receiving other’s peoples worlds can be a real honour.
Ask questions that go a little deeper into your emotional state and share how you are feeling. Practicing communicating what feels alive for you in this moment, even in small ways, can make a huge difference to how you connect with people and how present you are able to be in your relationships.
Music is Magic
Music allows people to open to emotions they wouldn’t normally allow themselves to feel. Like the score of the movie, it creates a vibe that you can resonate with. It also creates a safe boundary, because you can feel these strong emotions while the music is playing and are able to stop it when it ends.
Here is a practice for meditating to music:
- 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. Allow it to evoke strong emotions in you, like crying or rage, for example
- 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
Writing is a really useful tool for compassion and processing difficult emotions because the momentum of taking things down on the page keeps feelings moving and stops you getting stuck in self-judgement or being overwhelmed by a big emotion. It also gives you space to reflect back on what is happening in your experience.
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 that would make you feel different
- Recognise something you are grateful for right now and what positive emotions that thing is making you feel
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 you air your feelings in a safe and private space you are much more likely to be able to act and feel compassionately to that person or on that theme when you come back to the world.
Write as hard and fast as you can about what hurts the most. There can be a fear that the if you unleash strong emotion it can go on forever, which can stop you from starting, but as long as you stay connected to your heart, your body and what feels true in this moment, you will be able to move through a lot of the pain and get to somewhere with a lot more clarity and peace.
Reflecting on Embodied Presence
The most important thing to remember with developing embodied presence is that this is your practice. It is here to support you to be more present with your bodily sensations, however that feels for you.
Here are some questions for helping you reflect on your practice and how you could develop it. Choosing one or two to focus on is a good way to start:
- How do you take care of your needs? What do you do to resource your body and help yourself feel good? What are the ways you feel you are not getting your needs met?
- How would you describe your bodily sensations in this moment? How would you describe them during the day? How would you describe them during practice? What situations are most difficult for you to be present in your body in? Describe a situation where it feels easy for you to be in your body.
- Describe what it feels like for you to feel aligned with your body. What is your body telling you about itself? Which parts of your body feel like they need some care and attention? Which parts feel really nice? Which parts can you not connect with at all?
- Describe the energetic sensations in your body.
- Connecting with eros and erotic energy – describe the last time you felt turned on. Describe how this feels in your body, including any pleasant aspects and any uncomfortable aspects.
- Describe times recently when you have felt sensual, alive and present. What was that like for you? Describe times recently when you have felt tired and drained. What was that like for you?
- Describe a meditation or spiritual practice you do that helps your body feel good. What does it do for you?
- Describe a meditation or spiritual practice that can make you feel wired, less physically present or disassociated. Are you considering these negative side effects and balancing them out?
- Describe what you imagine it could feel like to be in your body, if the baseline experience was ten times as pleasant as it is now.
Be aware that when you are practicing and opening up new aspects of experience, sometimes things get worse before they get better. If you have released lots of feelings that have been trapped for a while, or opened up a new aspect of yourself, there may be an aftershock.
Runny noses, achey muscles, sore throats, tiredness and weird energy stuff is all common if you are releasing big emotions, opening new doors and coming home to being in your body.
The point is to be opening to a more free flow of experience through your body over time and trusting that this free flow feels great once it has been integrated.
Support yourself in the process and keep making space for the things that resource you, that feel good and that help you sustain a feeling of presence, as well as having the courage to make space for integrating and unblocking difficult aspects of experience.
Embodied Presence Meditation Practice
To develop compassionate presence through your practice you want to focus on moving away from your mind and into experiencing your body directly.
It’s possible to do lots of physical stuff, such as massage, movement practices or cold-water style practices. These are an important aspect of physicality; however, here I am describing a more contemplative approach to the inner experience of your body. This means opening towards a more energetic felt-sense of the body.
This could be called jhanic energy; the jhanas have a lot of very specific definitions in different traditions, here I am holding them with more of an open hand and encouraging people to connect with the underlying energy in a more broad sense.
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 your body can evoke colours, sensations, energy, shapes, dream-like imagery and symbolism. This is all a natural part of how people experience being in their bodies. Approach this with curiosity and playfulness and it will give you more space to explore.
Bear in mind that your body is always doing stuff – for example, your heart is always beating and your lungs are always breathing – so the purpose of this is not to find stillness being in the body, but to be present with your body’s natural process of being alive.
Things will shift and move and transform as you connect with them and you can notice this change, allow it and hopefully enjoy some of it.
It can be supportive to find places in your body that feel reasonably reliably pleasant. The hands are often a good place to start. 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. Allow this to flow freely.
Getting a sense of you energy body can open up a whole load of presence for you. The way I experience it we are at least as much energy bodies as we are physical bodies.
This manifests as a sense of flowing energy that is responding to its environment in a much freer and more expressive way than the physical body.
If you are just starting to feel into your energy body, here are some things you could look for:
- A shimmery or silky, pleasant electric feeling
- Hands feeling nice and like they are larger in size
- A sense of warmth, pulsing or electricity around the energy centres (root, belly, heart and forehead)
- Eros rising up from the genital area
- Tingles in the brain or spine
- Channels of energy running through the body, particularly out from the heart, down the arms and into the hands
- A channel of light running up and down your central channel
- A swirling energy that moves up or down through the centre of the body like a vortex
- Waves of colours or shapes that move through your experience
- Losing the sense of boundary between you and the outside world
- An imaginal or felt-sense of a part of your being that isn’t confined by your physical body
- Parts of you that feels significantly bigger or smaller than your physical body
This is really just about feeling into what is there for you and developing a sensitivity to this.
Being present in your energy body is a lovely experience to have but it is worth being aware that when you first start opening to it, strange things can happen. You may experience all kinds of energetic openings that can have really bizarre effects on your mood, sense of self or understanding of reality.
Just like physical bodies, energy bodies can present with a wide range of pains and difficulties when you become sensitive to them. If you are having trouble, I’d recommend finding an energy worker who you feel has a nice vibe to work with you on it.
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.
It has strong sexual connotations in our culture – and this is a large part of it – but it can also be more broad than this. Eros can relate to how you connect with every aspect of experience. So much of presence is found in connection, that unless you are able to have some sense of free-flow of eros, it becomes almost impossible to be present.
There’s a lot of shame and resistance to erotic energy in our culture and also lots of people have trauma around this aspect of experience. Be gentle with yourself if you have any trauma. Take time to ensure that you feel safe when accessing these parts of yourself and really make space for whatever emotions and sensations are coming up.
It’s really nice to cultivate a healthy, positive relationship to your body and its sexuality and this can open up a huge amount of presence for you in daily life too – your eros is the part of you that allows you to feel alive and radiant.
Here are some simple practices for connecting with this part of you:
- Be aware of what sensations you enjoy, both sexually and platonically.
- 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.
- Allow yourself to access a sense of feeling turned on or erotically alive while you are meditating. Part of this may include allowing yourself to fantasise, but try and also stay present with the physical sensations that are here in this moment for you and enjoy them for how they feel now.
- Bring awareness to the sensations of where you connect with things. Feel into where you end and the other thing starts and see whether you can soften into the sensation of connection – i.e. your hand on a surface, your bum on the seat. It is our connection with things that creates erotic energy.
Embodiment Meditation Practice
Here is a simple structured practice for connecting with the body.
For developing a sense of presence it works best with absorption practice as this opens up the ability to be in the sensations of the body rather than looking at them, but you could also adapt it to work with mindfulness of the body to get a better understanding of the body.
If you get lost at any point during the process you can go back to the first step.
Step 1: Body.
- Set a timer for a short amount of time and commit to being focused for that amount of time
- Count to 10 slow deep breaths, getting as absorbed in the breath as feels possible. If at any point you get lost come back to this and count to ten breaths again.
- Open up to feeling a sense of your body and energy body
- Choose a place to focus your experience. Where is it in your body?
Step 2: Heart.
- What colour/shape/energy is it?
- How would you describe it? Be creative, for example, silky, buzzing, electric, smooth, tingly.
- What emotions are present with it?
- Is it bringing up any imagery for you?
- Remember that you can’t get it wrong
Step 3: Mind.
- If there are strong emotions or sensations – what are they? Are you comfortable with them being there?
- Remember that compassionate presence is transformational so you can make space for things to be present that seem difficult and see where they go
- Remember that when you are safe in practice there is no such thing as ‘bad’ expressions
Step 4: Soul
- What does the body want to say or to happen? Does it want you to just sit calmly with it or does it want you to express something, e.g. if it’s sadness, does your body want to cry?
- Allow things to shift and move while staying as physically still as possible. Make space for the sensation, energy, emotion or imaginal to be fully alive and present in your experience, without needing to respond to it.
- You are holding space for the energy to move around, while keeping a very still and stoic physical posture.
The important thing with this practice is that it is facilitating you to be more present with your body as well as to develop a sensitivity to your felt experience.
Explore more about the body in the whole being awakening framework