The Art of Presence

“What a liberation to realize that the “voice in my head” is not who I am. Who am I then? The one who sees that.” Eckhart Tolle

There is not enough space to fully unravel the meaning of presence. It cannot be entirely described. I will attempt to illustrate such a thing, and its beauty. But by the end of this, I will lead you nowhere. You must go on alone, to the ends of yourself, to the entity that cannot be apprehended by thought. I am terrible at such an art. Most of us are. We define ourselves through the shallow perceptions of culture and its ideals; all the while losing a union of simplicity that is the embodiment of life. “A kind of non-elaborative, nonjudgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is.” Why do we lack such clarity? Why is this so difficult for us to achieve?

Mindfulness originates from ancient eastern Buddhist philosophy and has been practiced for over 2,500 years. The word mindfulness is a rough translation of the original term smrti. Smrti is a Sanskrit word from the root Smara, meaning “that which is remembered; the capacity to retain an object in the mind.” In other words, mindfulness is the ability to become aware of your own awareness and to acknowledge the presence of who you are. The technique was first used by the Buddha in his attempts to reach nirvana, a transcendent state representing salvation, liberation and the promised land. “We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think,” the Buddha said. “When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.”

We can avoid our dichotomy by allowing the body to become aware of the mind. The Sattipatthana Sutta, a discourse of the Buddha, explains the power of such an awareness. “This is the only way, O bhikkhus, for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the destruction of suffering and grief, for reaching the right path, for the attainment of Nibbana, namely, the Four Arousings of Mindfulness.” Mindfulness disposes the mind to a notion of truth inducing peace, calmness and intuition. “The sensation is not what is to be experienced, but the experience itself,” Charles Genoud writes, a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism. “It is surprising that there is so much disagreement on the subject of consciousness, because its unveiling is the human experience that presents the highest degree of evidence. This evidence comes from the fact that it does not depend on anything—not on the environment, or an object, or a sensory organ. Consciousness is not something that I have or something that I can know—it is what I am, though in an impersonal way. In order to realize this, we need to free ourselves from the compulsion to know and consent to be.”

Research done at Harvard University has indicated that mindfulness benefits a range of physical and mental conditions, including depression, chronic pain and anxiety. Gaëlle Desbordes, a radiology instructor at Harvard Medical School, studied the effects that mindful practices had on the brains of patients who learned how to meditate. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI), Desbordes scanned participants throughout a two-month period. The results of the study showed changes in the amygdala, the emotional processing center of the brain. Desbordes found that the amygdala was less activated after each subject learned how to meditate. “My own interest comes from having practiced those meditation techniques and found them beneficial, personally,” Desbordes said. “Then, being a scientist, asking ‘How does this work? What is this doing to me?’ and wanting to understand the mechanisms to see if it can help others.” 

Mindfulness-based interventions have indicated benefits of pain tolerance and improved sense of self. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a medical professor, developed the first mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy in the late seventies. The eight-week evidence-based program incorporates meditation, bodily awareness and yoga to explore patterns of behavior, thinking, feeling and action. The approach has proven to alleviate psychological stress, increase self-compassion and treat substance-use disorders. “Mindfulness means moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness,” Kabat-Zinn writes. “It is cultivated by refining our capacity to pay attention, intentionally, in the present moment, and then sustaining that attention over time as best we can. In the process, we become more in touch with our life as it is unfolding.”

According to, there are several mindful-based practices that can be incorporated into day-to-day life. One of the best ways to practice mindfulness is by establishing a daily purpose. Setting daily intentions helps create more awareness of how you’re using your time. Acknowledging the breath and movements of the body is also helpful for living more consciously. According to Jeena Cho, contributing writer at Forbes, one way to do this is by walking mindfully. “When you get up from your desk to go to the bathroom, talk to a colleague or get a cup of coffee, rather than mindlessly walking, trapped in your thoughts, bring your attention to the physical movement of walking,” Cho writes. “Notice your feet on the floor, the weight of your body shifting from one leg to the other. Feel your arms swing. Notice the temperature in the room. Pay attention to whatever your senses can notice.” Meditation and yoga are also effective practices for mindfulness. Acknowledging your feelings, conscious listening, and avoiding judgment have also proven to be successful.
The benefits of mindful living extend far beyond the psychological and therapeutic impacts. The power of presence is artfully inscribed into the simplicity of our lives. Our world has complicated such an art, and our minds forget the depth of perception, the depth of daily life and  the depth of ourselves. Even as I write this, my mind refuses to accept. I am inundated with distraction. “Realize deeply that the present moment is all you have,” Eckhart Tolle writes. To live mindfully… To breathe in, to breathe out… To let go. This is the art of presence, the art of living.