Introduction to Presence
Chapters on line: Description and Table of Contents / Chapter 1: Introduction: Emerging Clear Awareness / Chapter 2: Roots of Consciousness: Primordial Affective Emotions / Chapter 4: Spectrum of Awareness / Chapter 6: Magic of Awareness: Enlightened Futility / Chapter 15: Summary: Emerging Consciousness and Twilight Awareness
What are you aware of right now? Presence means being aware of the moment with undivided attention. Some people think that to be present, we have to shut out all but one thing at a time. Instead I’ll be advocating a wide-open presence. Such relaxed awareness may include many things at once. For me, presence means being with life as it is in all its fullness.
When the word “presence” stands alone, it can be both a means and an end. Many spiritual and psychological traditions advocate presence as a means of cultivating wellbeing. It is a tool or a technique meant to get us somewhere. But presence can also be an end in itself — a description of what it’s like to be content with life as it is. It can be a place where we arrive when we are truly right here.
When I sit in meditation watching my mind-heart drift hither and yon, presence both reminds me to be aware of the current moment and brings me there all at the same time. And it bypasses the need to conjure up a sense of a “self” that is doing it all. Rather than feeling, “I am present,” there is just presence.
To be clear, presence is not a thing that can be known. But it is the space within which things can be known. It’s like outer space. On a clear night we can gaze out into infinity. “Outer space” is not the stars or planets or derelict satellites. It is the space that encompasses all those objects, large and small. It is not a thing, but without space to hold things there cannot be anything. Without inner space, or consciousness, we cannot know anything.
A synonym for presence is “clear awareness.” Without some presence, nothing can be known.
The word “emerging” in that phrase can be a verb or a modifier or both. As a verb it’s about clear awareness coming forth. Perhaps something can help it along. As a modifier it describes an aspect of clear awareness. And as before, the phrase doesn’t require a subject — a self — that is doing or modifying the emerging.
My mind works visually. When I think “emerging clear awareness,” I imagine a clear sky at twilight, like the cover of this book. The sun is out of sight, just below the horizon, even as it sends light into the visible sky. And there is also a hint of vast emptiness — like what we see gazing into a moonless night. In the twilight image, it is unclear whether the sun is rising or setting, whether it’s dawn or dusk. A simple way to describe that feeling is “presence: emerging clear awareness.”
It will become apparent in the coming pages that as awareness gets clearer and clearer, there comes a moment when it fades into cessation (nirodha in Pali, the language of the Buddhist text) and extinction (nibbana).
Throughout this book, we’ll be fleshing out these metaphors beginning with the questions “What are consciousness and clear awareness?” “How do they work?” and “How do they relate to presence, inner peace, and wellbeing?”
I’ve been intrigued by these questions since I was a child trying to imagine viewing the world through the eyes of my cat or a bird or my friend, Rex, down the street. Six decades later, the questions still underlie my deepest yearnings.
While I don’t have definitive answers, I have wandered down enough dead ends to be able to confidently eliminate some paths. What I have found is two paths to understanding consciousness and presence, paths that are illuminating and offer great promise. They are:
• The Buddha’s simple, original teachings
• The neuroscience of the brain in general and homeostatic balancing in particular
I know, those paths seem incompatible. For one thing, they employ very different vocabularies. Buddhist meditation speaks about mindfulness, awareness, sati, metta, sampajanna, jhanas, nirodha, nibbana , and more. Neuroscience talks about neurons, myelin sheathing, the brain, error correction, Bayesian inference, amygdala, neocortex, periaqueduct gray (PAG), and more. The neuroscience of the brain and the path of meditation sound like different galaxies.
But as I began to comprehend what brain research has discovered in the last fifty years, I began to see these findings reflected in my meditation, even though the language and concepts were alien to my training. Indeed, from their scientific writings, I couldn’t tell whether or not the researchers had regular contemplative practices themselves. But bit by bit I could see in my practice what they were talking about. It clarified many aspects of my experience. Comparing technical understanding of the brain to the Buddha’s understanding of the mind was complicated. But when I found connections, my meditation deepened and took me to places I had not thought possible. Gradually I was convinced these two paths were looking at the same experiences but through very different lenses. The Buddha looked from inside experience. Neuroscience looks from the outside. However the actual phenomena had more in common than was apparent at first glance.
For example, a careful reading of the Buddha’s teachings suggests that part of spiritual practice involves eliminating greed, hatred, and delusion. He never said it means getting rid of pain and pleasure. Those are wired into us. We can’t control what we feel. But we do have some influence over how we respond: we don’t have to grab hold of pleasure or push away pain.
So his First Noble Truth is not about eliminating suffering. It is about understanding how it operates. This understanding reveals that the core of suffering is tension (tanha ). The Second Noble Truth is about allowing that tension to subside. This leads to the Third Noble Truth, which has to do with realizing a deep sense of peace and wellbeing (nirodha).
Meanwhile neuroscience talks about homeostatic variables such as body temperature, blood oxygen, hydration, rest, social contact, and much more. These variables must be kept within narrow ranges or we get sick or die. When a homeostatic variable goes out of its optimal range, we feel bad and suffer. When it comes back into balance, we feel good. So pain and pleasure give us a reading on how healthy our system is and motivate us to take corrective action (e.g., putting on a warm jacket, drinking, resting, eating) to bring us back into healthy equilibrium. Pain and pleasure are vital signals that help us self-regulate.
Thus, the Buddha’s Noble Truths and the concept of homeostasis are pointing to the same phenomena. The language, points of view, and conceptual frameworks are different, but what we do about it is the same, whether we are a good student of the Buddha or a good student of neuroscience and homeostasis.
Most of us view the world through two eyes. Each eye has a slightly different image of the same landscape. The subtle differences allow us to discern depth. Once we realize that the Buddha and biological science are looking at the same world through the same brain, we are able to perceive with greater depth and wisdom.
Therefore, in the coming pages we will explore presence, consciousness, and awareness by alternating between these two perspectives. We will shift back and forth in order to get a fuller and more nuanced understanding than is possible through a singular point of view.
We’ll start in chapter 2 with primordial affective emotions because they play an outsized role in our wellbeing. Without them there is no clear awareness, no consciousness, no presence, nothing.
All emotions have several components which may include affect (subjective feelings), cognition (thoughts, expectations), expressions (gestures), motivations (tendencies to act), and physiological changes (heart rates, breath rates, neurological firing). In addition, primordial affective emotions are wired into the brain itself.
When affective emotions are active, we have normal consciousness including monkey-mind and all the rest. When they are active but quiescent, we are clear, conscious, and at peace with the world. The present moment becomes quietly luminous. Working wisely and kindly with the affective emotions puts us in touch with some of the roots of consciousness and wellbeing. Even if it’s difficult and seemingly complicated at first, the payoff is enormous.
Chapters 3 through 6 explore what happens when affective emotions are alive and working smoothly, and how to bring them back to quiescence when they have run off. Subsequent chapters follow a similar pattern of weaving back and forth between the Buddha’s insights and neuroscientific discoveries as we explore other topics. Those topics are grouped into three larger sections:
• Constructing a Consciousness – as outlined above (chapters 2 through 6) including the special role of homeostasis and complexity in birthing consciousness (chapters 7 and 8)
• Constructing a World – the way consciousness builds a model of what’s out there in the world using guesswork (chapters 9 and 10)
• Constructing a Self — – the way consciousness creates a sense of self out of thin air (chapters 11 through 14)
When all those topics are resolved and relaxed, they leave behind an abiding and sometimes enigmatic sense of presence.________
Copyright 2023 by Doug Kraft
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