The Practice of Living Presence

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A Zen master once said to his students:

In order to have warm human relations, we must pay attention to what is. In other words, we must touch the source of existence. Only then can we take a deep breath; only then can we feel relief. Under all circumstances, we must be rooted in the source of existence.

What does it mean to be rooted in the source of existence? What is this source and how can we know it?

lotusIn my experience, being rooted in the source of existence does not involve the thought-mind or require concentration. What is required is more like an intuitive openness, perhaps comparable to our peripheral vision or our experience of spatial dimensions. It’s a subtle capacity we have, to be able to open ourselves intuitively like this. For me it has a kinesthetic feel to it, as if the back of my head has disappeared, or the space inside my chest has no boundary.

So to benefit from what the Zen master said — under all circumstances, we must be rooted in the source of existence — we will need to allow our intuitive capacity to spread its wings, and not just try to understand conceptually what he’s saying.

The source of existence is immanently present, and it is alive.

Everything we see and feel, including the intimate and ever-changing feelings of our body and the thoughts we think, is inseparable from the source of existence. It is not that there is a source over here making existence over there, or that a source in the past made existence happen now. Existence and its source are immediate; they are happening all at once, and that happening is alive. I’m not referring to carbon-based life here, but to the immanence and impulse and creative becoming-ness that we experience moment to moment as the dynamic of reality.

Existence as we know it is continually changing and moving. It is alive with itself. Quarks appear out of nowhere, light blossoms from stars, our eyes move across the page, cars on the street roll by — everything is flowing forth magically, becoming what has never been before.

To the extent that we can appreciate this aliveness we root ourselves in the source of existence. Again, this is not an intellectual appreciation but an intuitive openness to how everything we perceive shares this blessed aliveness in this moment.

Simultaneous with aliveness and its ever-changing nature, is a numinous, ineffable stillness I call presence (it also has many other names.) Presence is the silent host of all that appears. It is what allows aliveness to flow forth. One way to intuit what I mean by presence is through the analogy of space. Space allows things to show up. If there were no space there would be no possibility for chair, table, or our bodies to appear as they do. Presence is like that, but is even more mysterious since it’s not dimensional in the way we imagine space to be, and yet it is everywhere.

Presence is silence itself, perfectly clear, open, and contentless. It may be difficult for us to understand how these apparent opposites — aliveness and stillness, sound and silence, co-arise as the source of existence, but they do. It’s like what happens when we listen. Our listening is silent, and that silence allows us to hear sounds. In the same way, our most intimate awareness is silent, pure, and clear, and that silent clarity allows existence to appear.

How marvelous, the presence of everything that we perceive, that is alive and changing, is simultaneously still, silent, and unchanging! Inayat Khan speaks of this primordial silence: “…our eyes cannot see it and our ears cannot hear it and our mind cannot perceive it because it is beyond mind, thought, and comprehension.” In this same passage he describes beautifully how we awaken to the silent quality at the source of existence:

This all-pervading, unbroken, inseparable, unlimited, ever-present, omnipotent silence unites with our silence like the meeting of flames.

The Great Silent Presence and our own silent presence meet, and though they were never separate, experiencing their meeting is what roots us in the source of existence.

The Zen master (Katagiri Roshi) begins his instruction with the words, “Under all circumstances” — Under all circumstances, we must be rooted in the source of existence. That’s a tall order. Again and again circumstances find us oblivious to the source of existence, caught up in odd assumptions about what is real and what matters. We need help here. We need to discover ways that we can easily remind ourselves of the living presence that is the source of existence.

To that end, below is an outline of a simple practice that might be helpful. In this version I use breathing as the sensory focal point; you can experiment with other sensations once you get comfortable with the practice. Then you can do it while walking down the street, or eating a meal, or in the midst of a conversation. Having done something like this practice for a few years, I‘ve found that over time it’s become less step-by-step as in this outline, and more fluid and creative. Whereas the practice here takes several minutes, eventually you may find it happens in a few seconds and becomes the kind of effortless kinesthetic movement I mentioned earlier. Good luck!

The Practice of Living Presence

1. Sit quietly. Come to rest; body and mind relaxed and alert.

2. Bring your attention to your breath. Breathe naturally.

3. With your attention on the living, changing nature of your breath, simultaneously open your awareness to the presence in which your breath rises and falls.

4. Effortlessly allow your awareness of presence to open to the boundless presence in which your surroundings appear, and in which your body and its sensations, thoughts, and feelings appear.

5. Notice that everything that appears moves, everything that arises comes and goes, while presence doesn’t. Recognizing movement in stillness, sound in silence, living presence: this is the key point.