Tolerating absence is, in essence, trusting presence – even when the one who is present to us is not physically present. Think of the two year old gradually loosening his clinging grasp to the leg of his mother as they dance around the house. Slowly he allows himself longer periods of independent movement but, at least initially, these bursts of independence are only made possible by periodic rushes back to mother for emotional refueling. Over time he ventures further away for longer and longer intervals. Initially he needs his mother to be in sight to keep his anxiety manageable but soon he is able to tolerate absences that include not just physical separation but his mother being unseen. He has begun to cultivate trust in the stability of presence that is not dependent on sensory confirmation.
Some people fear absence so much that they refuse to allow sufficient space in their togetherness to cultivate this sort of stable knowing of presence. I’ve known couples that were so clinging in their attachment that they have never learned the benefits of space in their relationship – benefits to both the relationship and to each of the partners. The same enmeshment has even more disastrous developmental consequences when it occurs between a parent and a child.
The absence of stable knowing of presence also manifests itself in the fear of solitude. The capacity to make productive use of solitude presupposes this sort of stable foundation of presence. Solitude isn’t simply for those who are shy or introverted. The only way to pass through loneliness to the richness of inner life that develops within regular periods of solitude is to be able to enter that solitude with the full-orbed accompaniment of presence – both presence to oneself and the knowing of the presence of other people and things that mean that one is not, in fact, alone. Solitude does not mean living apart from others; it means never living apart from presence to one’s own self.
This is one of the many potential gifts that can come from a silent retreat. Stripped of the distractions to knowing presence, those who survive the first couple of days of silence invariably begin to awaken to powerful previously unnoticed forms of presence. I have seen people who believed that rooms had been repainted because the colors were more vivid. Others have asserted with conviction that the kitchen obviously hired a new cook because the food suddenly became so much tastier. When told nothing in the environment had changed they were incredulous. It is hard to believe that changes of that magnitude and sensory impact are within us – that we are simply becoming aware of things previously unnoticed. Or put in other terms, what is happening is that people are beginning to be present to things that had all along been present to them. They were experiencing an awakening.
Adapted from my forthcoming book Presence and Encounter
(Brazos Press – September, 2014) ©Dr. David G. Benner
photo by Jack Low/Tumblr