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:
- Intro – A short video and introduction about embodied presence
- Body – Creating an environment conducive to embodiment
- Heart – Relational embodied presence
- Mind – Reflecting on embodied presence
- Soul – Embodied presence meditation practice
Introduction to Embodiment
Embodiment is the sense of being here in the present moment; it comes from the ability to be inside our bodies and feel our direct experience.
All of experience is grounded in our physical being, so a sense of embodied presence is required as a base if we want to be able to make any progress with our meditation or spiritual practice. Or even if we just want to be present for our lives.
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 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 be with your felt-sense of the world.
These practices are about cultivating the capacity to be directly with our physical experience and opening up new aspects of our being. By its very nature, this is a very bodily and involved process.
This is intimately related to insight. You can’t fully understand something until you’ve actually felt it and allowed it into your experience. Something can’t become alive in experience for you until you’ve really lived it, rather than just thinking it, even if that is challenging in some way.
Practicing Embodied Presence
With these practices you are going inside, seeing what you find when you do that and opening to feeling whatever it is. Often what we expect to find, or want to find, gets in the way of us feeling what is actually there.
We need to remove the mind’s layer of judgement that is there to keep us safe in everyday life and be with experience more directly. This requires opening to things that might feel strange or challenging in some ways. The way we perceive an insight or idea may manifest totally different to how it is in our felt-realities and we need to make space for it to express itself through our bodies in the way that it wants to – if we don’t allow it we will get stuck in the same old loops in our minds.
A lack of presence occurs when the sensations and emotions in our bodies are unbearable or unacceptable 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. It becomes impossible for us to be present in our bodies.
With this practice we are ultimately increasing the comfort zone of what we 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 mean that our bodies naturally process and release them – for example, through crying.
When we slow down, we tend to get in touch with the parts of experience that we have been repressing. Crying, belly-gurgling, sweating, goosebumps, bone-clicking, runny noses, energy explosions 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 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 our body, that was repressing that sensation, will have been liberated and will now be more accessible to us 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 it has been holding back, but once that has passed things can flow more freely through you.
It’s important to remember that bodies don’t lie and we want to make space for our felt-senses whatever they are.
Creating an Environment Conducive to Embodied Presence
It is lack of feeling safe that kills compassionate presence. If we want to start cultivating presence we need to be able to be in a safe space and to be able to take care of ourselves and our bodies.
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 us to have healthy boundaries, so that we are able to take care of our 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 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 it before committing to things?
- 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 if possible?
- Do you have some safe 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, we want to create space where we can express ourselves 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 us a way in which we can hold a conversation with the feelings and sensations that are present for us in this moment.
Practicing becoming confident at expressing what feels true and alive for us in this moment is incredibly important for being able to carry our embodied presence out into our lives.
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 and bodies 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.
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 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. 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 the feelings moving and stops you getting stuck in self-judgement or being overwhelmed by a big emotion.
It creates a space where you can relate to yourself as if you are your own teacher as you are able 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 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. 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.
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 in being 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:
- Do you feel empowered to take care of your needs and do the things that will resource your body to feel good? In what ways do you feel you are not getting your needs met?
- Are you sensitive to and aware of your bodily sensations, during practice and during the day? What situations are most difficult for you to be present in?
- Do you feel aligned and in-tune with your body? Which parts of your body feel like they need some care and attention? Which parts can you not connect with at all?
- Do you have a connection to the energy body? How do you tune in to this?
- Do you have a healthy connection with feeling turned on erotically? Does this feel uncomfortable or closed down in any way?
- When do you feel sensual and alive? When do you feel tired and drained?
- Do you have some practices that help your body feel good? Are there any practices that make you feel more wired or less present? Are there any practices that are causing a stronger sense of disassociation from the body?
Be aware that when we are doing these practices 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.
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 difficult aspects of experience.
Embodied Presence Meditation Practice
To develop compassionate presence through our practice we want to focus on moving away from our minds and into experiencing our bodies.
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. Approach this with curiosity and playfulness and it will give you more space to explore. You can’t get it wrong.
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. 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.
Getting a sense of an energy body can open up a whole load of presence for you. The way I experience it we are about 50% physical body and 50% energy body.
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 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 the centre line
- 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
- A part 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 we first start opening to it, strange things can happen. You may experience all kinds of energetic explosions 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.
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 us in daily life too – our eros is the part of us that allows us 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.
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 we are safe in practice there is no such thing as ‘bad’ expressions
Step 4: Soul
- Allow things to shift and move – this is part of the natural process of being with our bodies
- Make some space for the sensation, energy, emotion or imaginal to be fully alive and present in your experience
- Allow the felt sensation of the body to be expressed through these different aspects – sensations, energy, emotions and the imaginal
This basic process of working through the body, heart, mind and soul can be adapted to suit your practice and how you connect best with experience. The important thing is that it is facilitating you to be more present in your body and to develop a sensitivity to your felt experience.
Explore more about the body in the whole being awakening framework