We live in a truly beautiful world full of goodness and life. One doesn’t have to look very far to find something to appreciate—friends, family, tangy yellow lemons, those elegant cats we call jaguars, moonlight, fast cars, folk music, kissing, and delicious tacos. Please add your own favorite things to the list. We also live in a world that can be scary, unpredictable, and traumatizing. Last week’s school shooting in Florida is a tragic example. Sadly, there are many others—child abuse, disease, war, depression, and suicide top the list. Holding both the beauty and terror of life is enough to make anyone feel torn apart. We often choose to dissociate from painful realities simply so we can continue functioning and feel less overwhelmed. Maybe somehow, some day in the future, things will get better. We forge ahead, brave faces to the wind, praying tragedy never strikes too close to home.
The troubling issues we face are complex and systemic with few simple answers. Of course there are also the smaller crises and irritations of life—sinus infections, conflicts with loved ones and coworkers, grumpy kids, unpaid bills, racing against the clock, general anxiety and exhaustion. Whether the problems be dragons or gnats, we are challenged to do something. In considering what is ours to do, there is a very basic and foundational choice that is available to each one of us. In fact, this one decision we make each day is the soil from which all our other actions and inspirations grow. It is the sine qua non of our humanity. You possess this subtle holy grail of existence and its power is unmatched.
This mysterious superpower is your quality of presence. Quality of presence is the way you show up in the world. It’s the particular flavor of your existence as you love, learn, cook, play, pray, work, and create. The quality of your presence is the particular energy you bring to the table of life each day. Some days my quality of presence is distracted, harried, frustrated, and overwhelmed. I am here keeping my small ship afloat, but I am not functioning from my deepest, truest self and there is nothing particularly life-giving or sustaining about my actions. Other days, when I return over and over again to the deep place of love within, my presence is calm, radiant, accepting, and wise. On these days I enjoy the luscious pleasure of living and am also able to meet the painful challenges and disappointments that darken my door. Wielding this sword of presence takes skill and practice. It is not always easy or pretty. (My family, friends, and coworkers can see my own struggle to show up. I am blessed to know lots of patient people!) Like any other skill we choose to develop, our minds, muscles, and relationships, presence is something we practice.
Developing quality of presence is the single-most powerful thing I know to transform ourselves and our circumstances, but it does not mean we get a free pass from suffering and struggle. We are humans with limited control living in a wild and untamed universe. Pain is simply part of the deal. This is where we ski on the oh-so slippery slope of all human efforts. We are truly empowered and we are truly vulnerable at the same time. There is always the sneaky illusion that one day we will figure out the utopia formula, the antidote to the pain virus and we will eradicate suffering. This seems unlikely. It also seems like a recipe for continuous struggle and frustration.
So why develop quality of presence? What does it mean? It means that we can decrease trauma. It means that we can heal. It means that when suffering is unavoidable we then suffer for the right reasons—not needlessly or stupidly, but in the service of what we love. It means we no longer see ourselves as victims of circumstance, but as humans with great dignity, power and the ability—and responsibility– to transform energy into something useful and life-giving. We are not just energy consumers, we are energy transformers. We are all potential alchemists in this way, accepting the leaden realities of our lives and transforming them into gold, a wealth of goodwill that helps heal the world. Sometimes the crucible is fiery, but this is how we turn fate into destiny. Quality of presence sounds simple, but it is not easy. We must be exceedingly patient with ourselves and others.
You may be thinking that this is all good and well in theory, but what does it look like practically? How can quality of presence actually change the world? This is a good question to live with through the next few weeks. The great German poet Rilke advised that as we live with our questions, we slowly begin to live into the answers. Stay tuned for some practical thoughts in part 2!