The Practice of Being Present
During our initial meeting, a new client recently expressed to me, "Everything you've said to me, I already know. Essentially, I know what the problem is, so I don't know how you could help me." Within a week or two this conversation, a client I have been seeing for a little while expressed the realization that, "Insight is not enough. It's not enough to know things about yourself, or even understand the problem. You really have to experience that knowing, to feel it, to see it on a different level."
Many people I work with express the first of these two thoughts in the initial stages of our work. If they persevere and continue working with me, they usually then move to a question: "If I already know this about (myself, this problem, the situation, etc.) why is it that I can't seem to change it?" Moving from statement of what it "known" to a question about what is not known, is a critical step in any process of personal growth, therapy or spiritual work. It is a movement away from the closed system of habitual thoughts, beliefs and perceptions about ourselves and the world that keep the "problem" firmly in place. It is a letting go of the self-defence system of the ego mind that tries to firmly maintain a fixed identity, a self-image, and an opening up to the possibilities of changing perceptions and beliefs that is necessary for true insight, understanding and change.
As the comment from my second the client expresses, we need to experience our understanding of ourselves from a new perspective, one that is felt. It is one thing to recognize intellectually that I have certain insecurities, and that I tend to express those insecurities and/or protect myself in certain ways, through certain patterns of behaviour. It is entirely another thing to enter into contact with the felt experience of the fear underpinning those insecurities, of the defences that have been developed, of how those defences block my fully experiencing of life, block being fully present in my life.
The first type of "self-knowledge," self-awareness or insight is akin to doing a lot of reading about a country and seeing lots of pictures. Everything you read, all the pictures you look at, are mediated information with a specific agenda, constructed to create a specific impression. And while you develop this "knowledge" you are sitting safely in your familiar environment, living within the bounds of your usual life, self and identity. You may think you know a lot about the country, but if you try living there for an extended period of time, you realize that experiencing the people, the environment, the culture, the language, etc. is an entirely different thing. You also realize that experiencing yourself within that environment changes your perception of yourself. For some people, this may simply be a pleasant experience of expansion and growth. For others, it may be a very uncomfortable experience of having difficulty letting go of one's perceptions and beliefs in order to adjust to the reality of the situation and to be able to be present within it. But this is no less an invitation to expansion and growth. It offers the possibility of realizing that, "What I thought I knew, what I believed, did not prepare me for the reality of my experience; in fact, it only further solidified my own thoughts and beliefs."
We are embodied beings. Everything that we struggle to change within us, every emotional issue or inner conflict, is fundamentally and at the core, occurring in our bodies. This is the realm of our reality. Regardless of what we think or want to believe, the processes in our bodies that include, but are not limited to, our conscious feelings, will ultimately determine our choices, our decisions and our actions. If we can be present to our embodied processes, our feelings and responses, our irrational impulses and insecurities, then we both fully know and understand what is going on, and can work with these processes in a conscious and intentional way. To be present to these processes means being able to locate our awareness within our bodies and feeling them.
If we try to stay in our minds in order to think about, analyse and solve these issues, at worst, we just continue cycling through and reinforcing old, habitual patterns of thinking, including the patterns of the ego mind's self-defence systems. At best, we get to a point where we clearly "see" the problem, and even its causes. Sometimes, that clear perception enables us to make the changes or corrections that allow us to move forward and put that problem behind us. But when it doesn't, our usual response is to just continue trying harder at doing the same thing – thinking and analysing – that is not working.
When thinking through issues is not working, when it is not leading us to resolution or solution, then we need to "dig deeper" and allow ourselves to go to where all this thinking is trying to prevent us from going: into the body, into the felt experience. However, the ego mind will often have a backup "defence" in response to this: "It won't do any good to go over the past. What's done is done. I want to move forward.… If I allow myself to go there, what's the guarantee of what I'll get out of it?… I don't want to get stuck in my feelings." There are three simple questions that put this into perspective:
- How is your approach to this so far working for you?
- Is your desire for change, your desire to resolve this strong enough to try something new, to take a risk, or is your motivation stronger to remain within what is "known" and familiar?
- Doesn't the strength of your motivation, your mind's arguments, to avoid "going there" suggests that there is, in fact, something quite significant "there"?
Now, sometimes people are very much in touch with their feelings about something. For example, someone who is struggling as an adult may be very much in touch with intense feelings of grief, or anger or pain related to, say, childhood abuse. But they can be stuck in these feelings, often in a state of victimhood, which is disempowering in and of itself. Those feelings, that state, and the story behind them can also become a fixed identity, a subconsciously motivated way to stay within the bounds of the familiar. Nevertheless, being connected with the emotional energy of the problem is the first step to being able to work with and change that emotional energy. Becoming more present to these internal processes, to these feelings, allows you to be aware of, and in touch with what is occurring, without being "stuck" within it, or overwhelmed by it.
The reasons for the existence the "problem" is a form of disconnection from self, from feeling, from fully knowing ourselves in integrated way. This disconnection occurred as a defence system and is both self -reinforcing and self-perpetuating. It is designed to prevent us from actually knowing or understanding ourselves and the problem in a real way, because at the time that it was developed, the feelings involved were felt to be intolerable, and impossible to resolve. Therefore, it will tend to keep us going in circles on the surface rather than to "dig deep"; however, the defence system and the disconnection, as well as the emotional energy, all originate in the body. Therefore, we must go into the body to fully know ourselves, to really understand what is going on, and to engage in a process that leads to resolution and to solutions.