What Is It Like To Be Present?
Charles T. Tart
© 2014 Charles T. Tart
While listening to a recording of some teachings by lama Tsoknyi Rinpoche recently, he asked his students what it was like to be present, to be aware of now. The recording was not sensitive enough to pick up his students’ responses, but the question was intriguing to me, and so these notes are about what being present means to me. Spelling out my current understanding of something often helps clarify for me what I think I know and what I know I don’t know, and feedback from others may help my understanding.
I don’t know how much the way I experience “nowness” is typical of the way other students do, but sharing this description may stimulate others to share their experiences also. When Tsoknyi Rinpoche dialogues with his students about things he often wants quick answers, which is an interesting way to scramble preconceptions and possibly trigger new perspectives, but I need to think more systematically about things like this.
First a note of caution: there are assumptions built into our language about reality and experience that I may get confused with attempts to talk about what I actually experience. I’ll try to be sensitive to those and compensate for them, but I may well miss some of these complications. I will often put a word in “quotes” as a reminder that it is a critical, but often ill-defined term.
When I Say “I Am Present” I Mean???
So, what do I mean when I say that “I am present?” Or, to stick more closely with the way I actually speak, since this is something that varies for me rather than an all-or-nothing experience, what do I mean when I say something like “I am more present?”
I begin with a working definition of ordinary reality. At this moment, I am sitting in my office, a (conventionally) real room, with a real computer in front of me. My physical body is sitting in a real chair and I can feel my body when I turn my attention to it. I think of this as “my” body because my sensory experience of the external world is primarily through my eyes and ears, located in my head, and I speak from my head, so I implicitly assume that “I” am at least vitally associated with my head (and physical body), if not “in” it. Assuming that “I” am here in this body works very well for navigating and dealing with my ordinary physical world.
Given that situations occur in ordinary reality that can be perceived by me and often require some sort of response from me, I normally consider that I am “present” when I have an accurate perception of my immediate world through my senses and am not ignoring these perceptions through too much immersion in thoughts, feeling, memories, hopes, fears, etc. I’m paying attention. (The question of how I know my perception is accurate needs to be explored also, but not here.) It is certainly possible for me to respond adequately, by conventional standards, to many situations in the world around me without feeling particularly present: I experience situations and come up with responses to them, but my flow of perception and response tends to be relatively automatic. But I’m likely to say I am “more present” when it’s immediately clear to me that I am perceiving what is happening in the present moment, and such perception feels “clearer” than usual. In addition to perceiving what’s coming in through my senses, there’s a kind of “meta-awareness” that I am aware. Not a voice in my head saying that repeatedly, but a basic awareness. There’s more to it than that, but I can’t describe what that more is at the moment.
I often experience not being very present or not present at all to my physical surroundings in that I am pretty lost in thinking or imagining or emotional reactions, and may only realize, in retrospect, that I missed things that were actually going on around me. While shaving this morning, for example, I was thinking about what I wanted to say about the nature of being present for me, and suddenly realized that I was quite lost in these thoughts. My eyes were open but I wasn’t really seeing things in front of me or hearing the sounds around me, although I was going through the habitual motions of shaving. With this realization I instantly turned my attention more to my actual sensory perceptions of the moment, including body sensations as well as those from my distance sense receptors (eyes, ears), and, while staying present in this way, I had the thought that I often think about being present while not actually being present at all.
Thinking about being more present while not actually being more present is a common experience for me. In the years I’ve been doing Vipassana meditation, for example, while my conscious aim has been to follow, with clarity, concentration and equanimity, the actual flow of experience, often especially focusing on bodily sensations, there have been innumerable times when I found I’ve been thinking about bodily sensations, but not actually paying much or any attention to actual sensations.
Present in Dreams?
(This raises an interesting question which I will not explore here, of am I “present” when I’m dreaming? I’m in a world, things are happening which I am experiencing through my dream senses, but of course I’m profoundly ignorant of my real situation, namely that I’m dreaming. I have had a few lucid dreams in my life where, during the dream, my consciousness gets clearer and I know that I am dreaming (a conscious meta-awareness) even while remaining in the dream world, but this lucid dreaming is rare for me and my personal attempts to make it happen more often have not been very successful.)
The Gurdjieff work I focused on some years ago was very good at making me more “present” in the sense that I was simultaneously aware of (a) feelings in my physical body, (b) sensations from the world around me, primarily visual and auditory, and (c) a simultaneous awareness that I was being more aware than usual. This often made the world seem clearer and more vivid and alive than usual, as well as increasing my awareness of more subtle emotions, but sometimes, especially nowadays, usually nothing feels “special” about doing this, I’m just more present. While I don’t think this Gurdjieffian self-remembering practice is the same thing that Tibetan Buddhist lamas like Sogyal Rinpoche or Tsoknyi Rinpoche are trying to teach us about the nature of mind, rigpa, I do consider this kind of presence a valuable achievement, since a great deal of our suffering in life is unnecessary and comes about because we don’t really pay adequate attention to what is happening in ordinary reality and so behave in maladaptive ways, as well as losing some of the richness of experience.
Note too this method of defining “presentness” is useful from a scientific perspective, as you could actually measure degrees of such presentness by putting people in complex situations for limited periods of time, then taking them out and testing them on what they remember perceiving in that situation. Someone who remembered little was obviously not very present, while someone who remembered a lot, especially more subtle elements, was more present. This could be a very useful line of research.
Looking More Deeply At Presence:
But I want to drop down now to what I think is a more basic or subtle level of the question, “What does it mean to be present?” Or “What is the experience of nowness?”
I close my eyes now to reduce the amount of sensory input I need to deal with and sit quietly. Intending to be here with my present experience, I immediately notice that I have a small headache, there is some pressure on the small of my back from the way that I’m sitting, various bodily sensations where I press up against the chair, and a feeling of coolness in my feet. My mind instantly interprets this coolness as if there were a cool breeze blowing over my feet, but I know that while the air is cool in my office, there is no reason to expect a breeze to be blowing. In Tibetan Buddhist terms, this last experience represents both immediate perception (6th consciousness naming/identifying information from one of the classic five senses) and elaboration and reaction to it (7th consciousness).
The slight but definite intention to be present to an immediate experience is an important aspect of being more present for me, although probably not the only aspect. I know that if I do not keep up this gentle intention to be present, especially in terms of being present to the “quieter” qualities of immediate experience, I will almost certainly be caught up in rising thoughts and feelings that carry me away. It’s also clear to me that this effort must be a subtle and gentle one, not a forcible grab to control or fixate experience.
When I think about this (meditative) process in general, there are always (my analysis, not necessarily as experienced) several components. One component is attention to what is rising in my immediate experience, a second is that gentle intention to be focused in a certain way, and a third is what I like to call process-monitoring, some attention devoted, at least occasionally rather than continuously monitoring my intention and results, to ascertaining whether I am being successful in maintaining my intention and keeping up my focus. Various meditation teachers refer to these aspects with words like “awareness” or “consciousness” or “mindfulness,” but as these words are used in contradictory ways in so many settings (philosophical, psychological, spiritual) I don’t find them helpful.
There is another more subtle and difficult to describe aspect of being more present. While I’m doing it, there is quiet, practically continuous sense that “I” exist. I don’t mean my everyday I with its many characteristics, hopes and fears, but something more basic, perhaps what Tsoknyi Rinpoche calls the “mere I.” It’s just a quiet background sensation or understanding that “I,” in some extremely basic understanding of the word “I,” am here, and experiencing. This is different from my ordinary conscious experience, because while I could analytically say that the sense of existing must always be present even if I’m aware of it or not, since I do exist, that sense is usually not consciously present in ordinary experience. Indeed, when I first began having experiences of more presence doing the Gurdjieff work, experiencing what I think Gurdjieff called “self-remembering” or “waking up” for moments, it often seemed vividly clear to me in those moments that in most or all of my previous life there had been “nobody home,” plenty of experiences, but all a kind of automatic experience flow with nobody behind it. I know this description doesn’t make much sense, perhaps I’ll be able to express it more clearly at some later time.
There was some discussion on the recording of Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s teachings, not clear enough for me to be able to hear very well, about how time is experienced when one is more present. I had to consciously think about that, for as I was simply trying to take in the qualities of being while listening, while being more present, time was not experienced directly, nor did I think about it. It’s not that I don’t believe in the past, present and future or anything like that, it’s just that what is happening is happening, there are no time considerations that come up in connection with ongoing experience when I’m being more present.
I can deliberately think about time while being relatively present when I want to, although it takes me away to some extent from perceiving immediate experience with clarity and equanimity, as I have to call up memories about the past or create simulations about future possibilities in order to make plans about what I will do later. I might be able to say that, compared to a hurried quality that ordinary experience too frequently has, there’s no hurry when I’m being more present, but that feels like I’m not speaking just from the experience of being more present but more from ordinary consciousness and its time considerations.
It’s very hard to describe this feeling of being more present, especially since it shows variations. There have been times, mainly in the past when I first began working to practice this Gurdjieffian self-remembering occasionally, when I very clearly felt like I existed for the first time while doing it, and the rest of my life had been a dream—even though, in a sense, there was nothing special about being here and knowing I existed. Yes the sensations were more vivid, but so what? No big deal. At other times when I’m more present, the quality of my consciousness really isn’t particularly different from ordinary consciousness, except for a certain subtle increase in clarity. I may be quite aware, for example, that I’m upset and confused, but somehow I’m more clearly aware that I’m upset and being confused, and that’s more real than being that way and not knowing it so clearly.
Ah, yes, under the quality of being more present is that my existence is somehow more spacious. Events happen, can happen strongly, but they don’t monopolize all my mental and perceptual space. One of the teaching phrases I’ve heard Sogyal Rinpoche use often is that if you want to control your cow or goat, put it in a large field, rather than tightly fencing it in….
Then there’s all the talk in Tibetan Buddhist teachings about dualism and the unreality of any kind of permanent self. I’ve always felt I fail to understand that on some very basic level. In my ordinary consciousness, unless it’s important to notice that I am here and something else is over there, I don’t particularly assume or think about a difference between me and other things, although I’m sure it’s built in implicitly to the way I think. “I” am here, the glass of water I want is over there, so I have to reach for it. When I’m being more present I don’t feel in some kind of mystical union with things, neither do I feel separate from them, the issue just doesn’t come up in my experience. I’m just experiencing what I’m experiencing.
A Couple of Hours Later:
I’ve gotten some nice contrast with what it’s like to be more present by having spent a couple of hours dealing over the telephone with computer tech support. Very frustrating, to put it mildly! So much so I finally hung up on the support person so I could call back and ask for higher technical support, complaining that the person I got was unsatisfactory at doing her job. Maybe I can make it easier on her by saying she was unable to get the information she needed from the Dell support system, not her fault, but I am pissed!
So now my body is highly activated, there is a tension that runs all through it. My movements are more forceful, not in any useful way, I’m just “pushing” harder on every step or gesture that I do, even though there is no use for it. I’m having fantasies: scenarios of cutting remarks I could make run through my head. I was going to say I was much less aware of my immediate physical surroundings, but actually I remember almost nothing about my surroundings during this, so I was certainly much less aware. There is a kind of feeling that if I could just push hard enough on something I would feel better, plus the tension all through my body.
Closing my eyes and settling, it’s a great relief, a lot of the tension goes immediately. It’s like my body is still vibrating (chaotic circulation of lung, chi, psychic energy?), But it’s a kind of residual vibration now, rather than being forcefully pushed. At the same time I think it could get stirred up again very easily when I try to call that damned computer company back!
I have a desire to rant about how unfair this all is, not that it would do any good. It would probably increase my agitation rather than drain it off. Enough!
Tentative end? …Quite a bit more to work with in life, I’m sure….