Like all the most precious things in life, presence is ineffable. It seems to defy simple definition. But let me say what I mean by the term. By presence I refer to the awakening that calls us into an engagement with some aspect of the present moment.
Presence makes us feel alive, or perhaps better, it lets us know that we are alive. It demands that we notice and, in so doing, the distance between whatever we notice and us is suddenly reduced. We feel connected – sometimes more connected than might make us comfortable but no longer are we on the outside looking at life from a distance. Suddenly we have passed through the looking glass and are inside and part of life. We are involved. We are engaged. We are participants, not simply spectators.
Presence is elusive, but it can come to us with astounding force. Notice how a wisp of a scent may pull us into the presence of a beloved – a presence that may be both subtle yet powerfully real. A great work of music can similarly draw us into the presence of the artist – often into a period of time and world dramatically different from our own. An experience may invite us to be present to the world and to ourselves. A fleeting memory may instantly draw us into awareness of the absence of one still powerfully present to us.
Sometimes, the presence of another commands our attention and demands our own presence. The Gospels tell the story of Jesus teaching in the temple and describe those hearing him as being astounded because he taught as one having authority. But what was the nature and basis of that authority? I can’t imagine that it came from polished delivery, command of his material, highly developed rhetorical skills, self-confidence, or any other personality trait or thing that he was doing. It sounds to me like the authority of presence.
Even relatively unclouded, presence can shine with a brightness that can be disturbing. But it is a good disturbance. It is like an alarm going off. It is an invitation to awaken and be present. Its authority is only troubling when we want to remain asleep!
Adapted from my forthcoming book Presence and Encounter
(Brazos Press – September, 2014) ©Dr. David G. Benner
photo by Jack Low/Tumblr