This is another thinking-out-loud update on my “presence” practice — my attempt to awaken to the realization that “I”, the mind, time and the separate self are all illusions, and an appreciation of why these illusions, which cause so much unnecessary suffering in our world, are so prevalent in our sad and struggling species, and so hard to transcend.
I’ve noticed that the ideas of Eckhart Tolle and Adyashanti, whose writings and presentations in this area resonate most with me, have audiences that seem less female-dominated than those of most “spiritual teachers”. I’ve also noticed that I tend to have more difficulty explaining what I’m trying to ‘achieve’ with women than with men.
I wondered whether this was due to the ways in which men and women tend to perceive the world differently. Eckhart acknowledges that women tend to be more grounded than men, less caught up in their heads, and hence tend to find it easier to realize presence. My earlier 4-state model of ‘how presence looks’ described two kinds of presence, one intellectual (when you’re into a groove with a group of people and just “on”), and one sensual and intuitive (when you’re in a state of relaxed, spacious awareness). Eckhart’s writing has convinced me that the former ‘type’ of presence isn’t really intellectual at all — it’s just a more social form of the one presence, spacious awareness. When you’re “on” with a group of people, it’s because you are open and noticing and responding in the moment, not because you’re thinking. So I’ve re-cast my model, above, with only one form of presence (state #6 in this diagram).
I’ve also realized that with Jung’s four ways of knowing and being — intellectual, emotional, sensual and instinctual — there are actually 6 permutations or “states of being” when you look at which two ways are dominant in you at any point in time. So now my model, which I’d hoped to simplify, has 6 states of being rather than the 4 of the earlier model. Acknowledging the additional states produced two “ahas” for me:
- A greater appreciation of that state of being when your emotions and instincts are prevailing (over the intellect and senses). I’ve called this state (#5 in the diagram) the Nurturing/Protecting state. When people (notably women) warn me that they think the so-called “awakened” state #6 can desensitize you to people’s feelings and predicaments, I have argued that state #6 is one of unattachment, not detachment, but they are often unpersuaded. Now I can see that in moments of nurturing (e.g. of a child or a pet) there is this incredible deeply emotional bond that, it could be argued, is another state of grace just as profound as the unattached “present” state #6. I’m still thinking about this.
- For a while I’ve believed that wild creatures experience fear and stress in a similar way to how humans do — they go into ‘fight, flight or freeze’ mode in “clock time” until the cause of the stress passes, but then they shake it off and return to “Now time” (state of presence, state #6). But in updating the model above I’ve realized that this temporary state of stress (where emotions and instincts rise to the fore) is actually a form of the highly present Nurturing/Protecting state (#5), and is very different from the low-presence chronic state of anxiety and stress (#1) in which I (and I suspect most humans) spend the bulk of our lives. The anxious, paralyzing fearfulness in which we humans characteristically live is entirely different from those rare moments of immediate existential threat and visceral terror which can bring out the best in us, as they often do with wild creatures.
So here is a brief walk-through of the 6 states in this revised model:
- “Normal” Human Anxious State (Intellectual/Emotional Being): What Eckhart calls the “unconscious” state in which we are totally preoccupied with repetitive thought patterns and related ‘negative’ emotional patterns. For many if not most of us, afflicted by our too-smart-for-our-own-good brains and our oppressive and destructive culture, this is how we “normally’ live our lives.
- Transient Ecstatic State (Sensual/Emotional Being): For most of us, I suspect, the only (and easiest) escape from state #1, through alcohol, drugs, sex, engaging entertainments or other addictions, or when in the grip of entranced feelings of all-consuming love, righteous anger, bittersweet or nostalgic melancholy, or the giddiness that follows great ‘personal’ achievement, extraordinary good fortune, or adrenaline-producing thrills. Alas, warns Eckhart, none of these can last, so this ecstasy can only be fleeting and transient, after which we return to state #1 and start to crave more of whatever got us to this state #2.
- Problem-Solving State (Intellectual/Instinctual Being): A different kind of escape, and the refuge of intellectuals and scientists, getting lost in thought about some intellectual challenge (e.g. a puzzle, a game, writing a blog post, working on a complicated or complex problem, or concocting a model of the 6 states of being :-) Often the real function of this ‘work’ or ‘play’ is to distract the mind from its useless and repetitive thought patterns and negative emotions. But it can have real value. When I watch the squirrels (and larger birds) endlessly and cleverly trying to defeat the squirrel baffle, they are clearly in this state.
- Provisioning State (Intellectual/Sensual Being): This is your state when you genuinely believe what you are doing is useful, worthwhile, meaningful and valuable. For a few, this can happen in their work lives, though surprising achievements can go to your head (back to state #2), and disappointments can quickly put you back in state #1. For an increasing number, gardening, teaching, healing, community-building or other activities can get them into this state. For the squirrels and birds, this is their state when they are hiding or retrieving their food caches, or (often playfully) showing their young how to do things.
- Nurturing/Protecting State (Emotional/Instinctual Being): This is your state when caring for others, or (for a very brief time) when reacting to an immediate and real existential threat. When you are looking after the needs of others, you get outside your ‘self’ and its preoccupation with stories about self, past and future. For the squirrels and birds, this is their state when nurturing their young, when grooming each other, and (briefly and perhaps paradoxically) when they are under attack.
- “Now Time”/Present State (Sensual/Instinctual Being): Eckhart talks about how our awareness of sense perceptions (“presence without”) and our inner body/energy field (“presence within”) finally takes us to that state of spacious awareness in which we realize what enables us to be aware, now, of our sense perceptions, inner body, thoughts and feelings: the light of our true presence, our essence, now, the space between our thoughts and feelings, emptiness, stillness, the one consciousness — freed from the false sense of self, the illusory self, the habitual mind activity of compulsive thought patterns and reactive emotional patterns.
I have a growing appreciation of the possibility of achieving this state of awareness, but am still stuck variously in states #1-#3. I’m also not sure which of these states some human activities (e.g. collaborative play, learning new things) tend to get us to.
cartoon by Charles Barsotti from The New Yorker
So I continue to practice, to try different types of meditation, inquiry, and contemplation, to try to invoke a truly present state. It’s my obsession, I know, and possibly the realization I seek will never come. And yes I know I’m overthinking this, but every once in a while I need to sit for a while in state #3, in which this post was mostly written, not in the expectation that this is a path to awakening, but because this is my ‘idle’ state when I tire of practice.