Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.
-Mary Oliver, from the poem “sometimes”
Every Friday since the pandemic began, the Veriditas community of labyrinth enthusiasts from around the world have gathered online to participate, reflect and share in a handheld labyrinth meditation. Last Friday, I facilitated the gathering with the help of the inspiring cello music of Rob Hodges. During these gatherings, we each trace the path of our own small labyrinth with our fingers, as a way of "walking" the labyrinth together, virtually.
There are many different ways we can define the word presence, many types of presence. We have physical presence when we are physically sharing a room. We have Zoom presence, so familiar to us after two years of pandemic.
So Presence is a type of proximity in one form or another.
Presence is also the bearing someone has when they come into a room. It’s how we carry ourselves and how we often describe people: What kinds of presence they bring or How they fill a room. And that acknowledges something less tangible than the physical aspect of ourselves.
And presence is also about attention. When we are being present to our surroundings or to the people with us, we say we are "paying attention." Presence is about the level or degree of attention we are giving. It’s kind of like the expression "presence of mind," but it’s not just about mind. When we are giving full attention, it happens with the whole body, whole heart, whole mind…perhaps the whole spirit.
Then there is presence of place. In a train station, even with a blindfold on, you would know you’re in a train station. It has presence.
I’m sure many of you have been in some place that arrested you - the presence of that place - whether is was a redwood forest, or a school full of laughing and playing children. Or a place that makes you feel bigger - like walking into Chartres cathedral, or walking into a stone circle, climbing a mountain, or arriving at a new city for the first time - a presence that looks and feels and smells different from our normal experience.
By contrast there is presence, not always positive, in the sounds of a nearby highway, from which you feel the sense of urgency just by the sounds of the cars speeding along.
The presence of place then leads us to another type of presence, if you look it up in the dictionary, it’s one of the definitions listed for the word presence: Invisible spirit. The presence felt but not seen. And I think this goes beyond something like a forest. Of course a forest has an invisible presence, but we can kind of sense that it is a forest presence. Beyond that there is a presence that is not necessarily identifiable. Maybe I feel like an animal is watching me, though I don’t see it. Maybe it’s the presence, the sudden sense that I’m walking the labyrinth with a loved one who doesn’t live close to me, or someone who is departed. Or a guardian of some type.
Or perhaps it is simply a sense of the numinous: the presence of divinity. The very much intangible sense of the profound, which I think many of us at some time in our lives, especially as children, have experienced. But this is not something we speak about often in “regular society”. It’s not something easy to put into words. Numinous presence is something I think those of us who walk the labyrinth seek and perhaps experience, at times. It is something that is arresting, that suddenly appears in spite of us. It brings us out of our past and future thinking and brings us into the present in some form. Presence makes us Present. Sometimes this is result of devotion and practice, of practice at being present, practice attending to what is within us, and what surrounds us.
Alan Ginsberg said, “It’s the quality of attention that makes things sacred.” That quality of attention can prepare us for experiencing the numinous. Attention invites dialogue of the inner and the outer. Presence is no longer something just outside of us, instead it becomes part of us. Or perhaps it always has been part of us, the inner witness - the unchanging part of ourselves that has been with us all along. When we sit with the inner witness, step into that place of attention, well, that is when the still point finds us. And in that still point is where we find Presence.
I go inside, and shut the window.
They bring the lamp and bid me goodnight,
And my contented voice bids them goodnight too.
If only my life could always be this:
The day full of sun or bright with rain,
Or else stormy as if it were the end of the world,
The gentle evening, passing groups of people
Observed with interest from my window.
A last friendly glance at the tranquil trees,
And then, with the window shut, the lamp lit,
Without reading anything, or thinking anything, or sleeping,
Feeling life flow through me like a river along its riverbed,
And there, outside, a great silence like a sleeping god.
translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Patricio Ferrari
- Alberto Caeiro (Heteronym of Fernando Pessoa)
From his book The Keeper of Sheep