Lack of Presence

Lightening Branches, by UK artist Andrew Campbell
I wrote last week about fear of failure, and how dreamers and pessimists get addicted to and paralyzed by this fear. Since most of us are to some degree dreamers (idealists, and those hopeful for a better future) or pessimists (the poor and disenfranchised, the more knowledgeable of us, and those who lack self-esteem), the cost of this addiction, in terms of getting things done that could make our world a better place, must be enormous. I prescribed some rather weak treatments for this addiction (surround yourself with people who love you, collaborate with others to overcome obstacles, learn something new to chip away at the fear of the unknown, and have a Plan B to fall back on).

It seems to me there is something else besides fear of failure holding us back, however, something that is in some ways connected to fear of failure, and that, for want of a better term, is lack of presence. We are so distracted by stress, by overwhelming amounts of information and demands on our time and attention, that we rarely live in the moment, we are rarely really ‘all here’. In business this is called ‘lack of focus’, but it is something much more profound and personal than that. This lack of presence I think manifests itself in an inability to take joy in simple, beautiful things (“no time”), an inability to concentrate on one thing at a time, an inability to meditate, pay attention, ‘quiet your mind’, think differently or imaginatively, or relax, an ‘insensitivity’ in every ‘sense‘ of that that word, an inability to have non-competitive fun, a distrust of our instincts and emotions, and perhaps even an inability to really love (other than in the shallowest, escapist way).

Things are the way they are for a reason, and I suspect there is both a short-term and long-term Darwinian reason why so many of us today seem to lack ‘presence’. The short-term reason is that presence cannot easily happen in an environment of constant stress — it takes time and opportunity to turn off the Machine in Our Heads and really live in the moment. We are not rewarded for it — in school and in work we are rewarded for juggling many tasks simultaneously, doing abstract things well, taking on more stress, producing more ‘stuff’, and living in ‘clock time’ that marches forever forward in relentless, constant increments.  It ‘pays’ to live inside our heads instead of in the real world.

And as a consequence, attention has become a scarce commodity, and though we spread it around as best we can, we no longer have adequate time to pay sufficient attention to anything. When we cannot pay attention to the real world, we stop living in it, and become (as Varela put it) disconnected from our own experiences. We see everything — nature, the rest of life on Earth and everything that happens to it — as ‘other’, as apart from us, rather than seeing ourselves ‘realistically’ as a part of all life on Earth, a part of everything that happens. We become autistic, antisocial, biophobic, psychopathic, absent, in the original sense of these words. Stress makes us mentally ill.

The neurons in our brains are, when we are young, very plastic, and they form themselves in patterns needed to do what we do as we grow. In modern civilization that means learning language, and doing all the school and work tasks we are forced to spend most of our young lives doing. Our neural paths are therefore physically programmed into our brain to make us creatures of abstraction and distraction, not ‘present’ in the real world.

So now not only do we have to make the time for presence, ‘cure ourselves’ of our mental illness, we have to work against all the programming in our brain that has not equipped us for presence, that ‘hard wires’ us for ‘ab-sense’. No wonder it is so difficult!

I wrote last year about the book Presence that presented a U-shaped ‘presencing’ process chart and defined presence and our need for it as follows:

The core capacity needed to access the field of the future is presence — being fully conscious and aware in the present moment, listening, being open beyond one’s preconceptions and historical ways of ‘making sense’.

As long as our thinking is governed by industrial, machine-age habit, we will continue to recreate institutions [corporations, schools etc.] as they have been, despite their disharmony with the larger world, and the need of all living systems to evolve.

The authors wrote principally for a business audience, though my guess, from looking at the dreadful sales data, is that they might have been wiser to aim it at individuals. Big business is not ready for such heresy.

Varela, whose work largely inspired the book, suggests three steps to achieving presence:

  1. Suspension (of our habitual pattern of ‘objectifying’ the experience, instead leaving ourselves in the experience); 
  2. Redirection (of our undivided attention to what is really happening, to the whole and not just to discrete objects in it and our conceptions about them); and 
  3. Letting Go (of the terribly human tendency to analyze, interpret, think about meaning, and of our own perspective, so we instead learn to ‘see’ what is happening from inside it, rather than from our traditional position as ‘objective’ viewer).

He acknowledges the difficulty of doing this, and the amount of practice it requires, and criticizes those who arrogantly argue there is one ‘best way’ to do this. He also suggests that a consequence of our ‘ab-sense’, our lack of presence, is that we end up living in a figment of reality, a thin, shallow, objectified representation of reality in our own heads.

Part of that thin, one-dimensional representation of reality in our heads, according to research done by Canadian biophysicist Peter Beamish is our conception of time. He argues that most animal communication, except in times of stress, is not “signal-based” like ours, but rather “rhythm-based”. This is because, he says, humanity has become so focused on one-dimensional, abstract linear time, and so constantly stressed, we have lost touch with another dimension of time he calls “rhythm-based time” or “Now Time”, which is based on interval and music, rather than on sequence, and which has the characteristics of waves, rather than particles.

Now Time is the original complex time ‘dimension’ that most animals, living in the moment, at times of low stress, continue to inhabit, and within which rhythm-based intra-species and inter-species communication occurs. Humans, in their modern prosthetic inside-the-head representation of the universe, formed and limited by language, spend most of their lives in local, one-dimension mechanical “watch time”, and are able to communicate only through the signal-based communications that function in that limited dimension. The communication of Gaia is important, and takes its time. The communication of humans is merely urgent.

This is of course extremely difficult to understand conceptually: it’s like trying to imagine string theory’s eleven dimensions by looking at explanatory two-dimensional pictures. Artist Andrew Campbell offers a ‘map’ of Now Time in the graphic above, accompanied by this explanation:

Of memories Mind fills up – firms up with many background & foreground sensations and thoughts and through many works and much imagination it arrives at an outcome. Mind full now only of <ñoñ> as it contemplates itself ñ by opening up middle-ground and entering in the circle ñdeep mind- the single thought offers a new line ñ> it is off again- an emergence, bareback riding against the landscapes of infinite possibilities. This map has ten thousand lines ñ Imagine ñ when you make something, even as fragile as a single thought or a simple dream, under its surface living carpets of complexity lie hidden, as many as the visible  lines here- ten thousand times ten thousand layers. The memory of a single face is an occasion for the many to map in the one, standing still at the centre, it a very fragile point in the mist of dreams, eternity in an hour. The circle is the eye of the needle at the arch of the U ñ the eye of the storm.

The ‘arch of the U’ he refers to is the bottom-point of the process in the book Presence, the point of “presencing”, the still point between letting go and letting come (allowing to emerge).

Meditation, sleep, love, music and the arts, spending time in nature, other exercises that focus attention, and activities like Open Space that acknowledge complexity and allow time for emergence can all, it is claimed, open us to Now Time, and hence to be present, here, now.

I confess I’m not very good at any of these things, though I keep trying. There is, I think, a connection between fear of failure and lack of presence. They are both to some extent manifestations of failure to ‘realize’ the truth. Living day-to-day in modern civilized society really demands the perpetuation of both these ‘ab-senses’. As Eliot wrote:

Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

Rousseau pointed out how different children, who have not yet acquired either fear of failure or lack of presence, are from adults, and the folly of education systems that assume they are like adults and instill in them the fear of failure and lack of presence. Eliot not only acknowledges this, and the inability of adults to ‘bear reality’, but echoes Beamish’s argument that the only true time, Now Time, is ‘always present‘.

Without fear of failure we would all go off and do what we wanted, instead of what we’re doing now, and civilization as we know it would simply collapse. That would be a good thing, quickly and profoundly redistributing de facto power from the few to the many. But it would be tumultuous, anarchic (in the positive sense of the word), disruptive and, at least in the short run, possibly even more damaging to our already-struggling environment than civilization culture is.

And without lack of presence we might find the truth of what we’ve become and what we’re doing to this world so unbearable that we might commit suicide in massive numbers (perhaps that accounts for the short life span of so many great artists). Our current global mental illness is arguably a coping mechanism. If becoming truly ‘present’ did not overwhelm us with grief, it might overwhelm us with anger, fury at what civilization has robbed us of. Neither alternative would bode well for civilization. Better to keep the people ‘absent’, unaware of what they are missing, of how their lives and this world are being wasted. If the lunatics are running the asylum, what chance would a sane person have of surviving in it anyway?

I’m not arguing that civilization was some massive, deliberate conspiracy. It was a natural evolution for a species that is inherently fierce, intelligent, adaptable and socially malleable — civilization, beginning with agriculture, evolved because without it our naturally ill-equipped species, facing ice ages and the sudden extinction of the big game animals it depended on, would probably have perished. Here’s a great little story “The Way It’s Always Been Done”, from Jeff Bridges (yes, the actor) explaining how the great idea of civilization has morphed into the soul- and Earth-destroying monstrosity it is today.

Civilization today, although it is The Only Life We Know, the “way it’s always been done”, has outgrown its usefulness. And while overcoming our fear of failure and our lack of presence will make us increasingly intolerant of civilization’s excesses, we must do both if we are to be part of the solution to those excesses. There’s an implosion coming, and while it may still be more comfortable in civilization’s bosom now, the edge is a much safer, saner place to be,and from here, you can see everything.

Thanks to deconsumption for the link to Jeff Bridges’ story, and to Andrew for the inspiration for this post.

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8 Responses to Lack of Presence

  1. concerened citizen says:

    Have you tried ACID dave ? All these things you express are reality then!Thats how we can de-program but then who will make th telly work ?

  2. Mariella says:

    This reminds me Dr. Winnicott´s transitional space : where a

  3. etbnc says:

    Thanks for revisiting this topic, Dave. _Presence_ has been a helpful resource for me. I read it recently, and my wife is reading it now. She has commented frequently about the insight and wisdom it offers.For me, suspending, redirecting, and striving for presence have been helpful, especially in integrating the opinions and assertions that accost me daily.Cheers,

  4. Dr. Lenny says:

    Campbell’s diagram reminds me alot of cell division in process. the intertwined spaghetti of the picture could also be inverted totally – with two outside foci and the spaghetti in the muddle in the middle. Then it would look like the political spectrum. Excluding, of course, the 80% disenfranchised.Great posts – i am going to link your site at the zone.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks, everyone. This is kind of fun to think about, and your thoughtful comments add greatly to the process.

  6. Oldude59 says:

    Dave – I came to your site from searching – flow or optimal experince. My perspective is somewhat different than most who view your site. I’m the CEO of behavioral clinic that focuses on “harm reduction” chemical additiction treatments. We are attempting to use the notion of optimal experience in our treatments with addicts.Do you know of any clinical situation where your “presense” notions are in use?

  7. Oldude59 says:

    Dave – I came to your site from searching – flow or optimal experince. My perspective is somewhat different than most who view your site. I’m the CEO of behavioral clinic that focuses on “harm reduction” chemical additiction treatments. We are attempting to use the notion of optimal experience in our treatments with addicts.Do you know of any clinical situation where your “presense” notions are in use? If there is such a place would you email whatever info you have?

  8. Dave just a quick question – the sales data for Presence – I wrote a very critical review at its publication where I pointed out that their corporate focus was a fundemental error – what is the data that you refer too – I am assuming that the book did less than they hoped – I am such a neophyte!

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