The Art of Being: Cultivating Presence in Troubled Times

I recently returned from a family visit to Tennessee. While I was there, I spent precious time with my three month old nephew. Since he cannot yet speak or walk, we all spent a great deal of time gazing, and communicating through touch. It seemed to me that my nephew’s eyes were so very unselfconscious, innocent, and completely present. My nephew knows nothing of the narratives that surround us adults, stories of war, injustice, instability and danger. He lives in the a world of the now. Needless to say, it was a deeply joyful and satisfying visit.

The great masters of the past remind us that a child’s gaze can be cultivated. One meditation text advises, “Be like being an infant gazing at a mural!”. An infant does not try to analyze a bright, colorful painting. She does not try to make meaning of it. She does not love or hate it. A baby gazing at a mural is absorbed in the colors and shapes. She resides in a state of wonder.

My visit with my nephew made me think: What would it mean to live like that, to reawaken the freshness of the child’s gaze? How would it feel to bring some of this freshness to my engagement with the issues that most disturb and stir me up? The inner gaze of freshness—pure presence— does not ruminate about solving the world’s problems with technology, innovation or with any kind of solution (these are most definitely necessary, but they may not be all that is necessary).

Presence is powerful not because of what it “does” or accomplishes but because of what it seeds. An ability to be radically fresh and present allows us to not turn away from the difficult when it presents itself. When we do not turn away, when we stay, real engagement is possible.

Radical presence creates space. When space is there, the limitations of conceptual knowledge (and conceptual solutions) can be explored. Conceptual knowledge will help solve some of the world’s problems, but there are other ways of knowing, ways that might be just as important but less visible: emotional knowing, bodily knowing, the knowing of the deeper self.

Radical presence opens the doorway to love. When love is in our hearts, it is easier to lean towards a troubled world. Love provides us with a nourishment that feeds our resilience and makes us feel less alone.

Radical presence has a way of dissolving boundaries. It can heal the rupture that exists between self and others, between self and world.

In the face of global problems, we may feel powerless. But we are not. This heart and mind, right here and right now, is a powerful entity. Finding the gaze of freshness can seed, heal and teach. My nephew, without uttering one a single world, taught me that.

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5 practices to help you skillfully contemplate climate change

Three tips for practice

1. Learn how to pause. Make a commitment every day to pause for a contemplative moment.

2. In your contemplative moment, turn attention to your breath and your body.

3. Let go of thinking about the past or the future. Just be present, with whatever is happening. Develop a gaze of freshness, like an infant gazing with wonder at the three dimensional mural of your life.