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Therapy

On Presence: Engaging Deeply With Life

Being present is essential for fuller living.

Key points

  • Presence is the ability and willingness to deeply engage with life.
  • Presence is a whole-body way of being.
  • Being present connects an individual to the vitality and wisdom inherent in who they are.

Being present is a phrase often used. It is a concept and, more importantly, an experience that I feel is essential to living a fuller life.

As an existential-humanistic psychotherapist, I view presence as the ability and willingness to deeply engage with life. Immersing yourself in the moment is essential for this engagement. This immersion includes being grounded, centered in yourself, and open to a connection with others, the world, and the mystery of life. It involves bringing all of yourself to each encounter. Presence is a whole-body way of being. In the moment, I am connecting with my mind, body, and heart in a unified and flowing way. I am engaged physically, emotionally, cognitively, spiritually, and relationally. This is the process of being an embodied human. It is opening to our humanity.

The challenge of being present

I appreciate a colleague’s definition of presence. She was a former professional dancer and describes presence as a quality a performer has that emanates from their aliveness. Every cell of their body is infused with consciousness and radiates that from the stage.

I also value a client’s definition of presence. He shared with me that his experience with previous therapists, who he did appreciate, was that they were attentive to him but seemed to be watching him from the shore. In contrast, in our sessions, he said I waded into the river with him and was swimming next to him.

Being present can be challenging. It requires courage, as it opens you up to the full range of your emotions—both the positive and the difficult emotions you may have. As challenging as it can be, this opening is essential. Your vitality and wisdom are a result of including all your experience.

The value of being present

For example, if you are present in your relationship with your new love, you can experience two emotions simultaneously: the joy you experience at finding love and the worry you experience that your new partner might be disappointed in you.

If you are present in your relationship with the world, you can experience two emotions simultaneously: discouragement over the climate crisis and what still needs to be done, and hope, as you are aware of what is being done to address the crisis.

Another value of being present is it will help to resolve a lack of clarity in making choices in your life. An example would be: You are considering going to two different concerts. Both are scheduled at the same time. You are having trouble deciding which to choose. As you are present with your options, you will discover which choice feels most right. There will be a whole-body resonance, a grounding, and a "yes" experience. There will be a release and an exhale.

Or, in a therapy session, you are ambivalent or confused about your feelings of feeling hurt. If you sit with your experience and are present with what gets evoked, you may discover an underlying memory that you weren’t aware of—such as your parent shaming you if you showed feeling hurt. Hiding your hurt was safer than showing it. When you connect that memory to your present hurt feelings, with a whole-body resonance, there will be a grounding and a "yes" experience. There will be a release and an exhale. It will be okay to allow yourself to show your feelings of being hurt. You accept yourself in a fuller way.

If you are aware of not being as present in the moment as you can be, you can engage with how and why you are resisting being present. If you do this, you can become aware of how you protect yourself from being present and why you need this protection.

The point of these examples is to emphasize that being present means you are being with whatever is inside of you and in front of you. It means being with the overlapping and intersecting of the whole-body experience. There is a fluidity to being present. It isn’t a switch you flip on or off. Moving towards being fully present is on a continuum, rather than being an endpoint. Having a deeper engagement with yourself, with others, with the world, and with the mystery of life, connects you to the vitality and wisdom inherent in who you are.

Exercise

Find some time when you won’t be disturbed. Sit in silence. Take a few slow breaths. Be aware of where you feel present and engaged in your life. It could be with yourself, others, the world, or with the mystery of life. Acknowledge that sense of connection. Sit with that and let yourself experience the feelings that emerge.

Take a few slow breaths. Shift your awareness to where you feel less present and engaged in your life. It could be with yourself, others, the world, or with the mystery of life. Sit with that. Be present with how and why you don’t feel fully engaged. See what you discover. The discovery itself will move you toward fuller presence. Take a few closing breaths.

I wish you the best and commend your courage as you journey toward fuller presence in your life.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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