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  • Writer's pictureKurt Keefner

I am Present in the World

“I am present among the things of the world, and they are present to me.” 

This statement is profoundly significant to me, but at first glance it’s not really clear what it means or why it might be important to anybody other than myself. We will have to peel back a few layers to get to the answers in these matters, but in my opinion, the return very much justifies the investment of time and energy. 

The keystone concept is presence. Starting with a very rough unpacking of the idea of presence: it means existence, not as a bare abstraction, but as you ideally participate in it. Our sense of presence gives us a heightened awareness of self and world. It’s the boldness of things when you really pay attention to them. Your own presence is something that you can feel all over. It suffuses your body and engages your eyes. It is your “aura.” The presence of the things in the world is experienced as their vividness and solidity, whether we are talking about objects that are literally visible and solid or not. 

It may sound a little silly at first, but the experience of presence means that self and world seem “really real” to you. This way of putting it presupposes that there is a way for things to seem “real” without seeming “really real.”

Let me provide a few concrete examples of a lack of a “realness feelings”: The first is a person who takes the world and his place in it completely for granted, going through his life without lifting his eyes from the pavement and without seeking out bracing alternatives. Such a man is not experiencing presence. Things are not really real to him, because the potentials of the self and world are part of what reality is, and our gray fellow isn’t allowing himself to see them. For this unfortunate person, everything is surface. But presence has depth.

A second example is a person for whom the world consists basically of abstractions. Such a person lives in his head, cut off from sensual, emotional, and social experience. His intuition, his “feel” for how things are, may be stunted. He may even have only the most awkward of relationships with physical reality. Only this person’s concepts are “really real” to him, and perhaps not even those.

Yet another instance is a person who adopts a false sense of life and makes his life a staged drama or comedy with the things around him as cardboard props and other people as just part of his story, lacking their own fully independent existence. “Reality” for him is basically a mirror reflecting his pretenses back at him.

To make self and world seem “really real,” we need a special kind of mental focus, which is the subject of this essay.

I don’t always feel my presence, but when I do, it’s an experience of hereness. Presence can feel like the soothing warmth of a hot shower or the brisk chill of autumn air or an earned sense of accomplishment or anything that makes you more aware of your being. This experience can be liberating, expansive, joyous, serene, or shocking. Even when you sit with grief, presence can sit quietly beside you.

Hereness is how I experience the presence of myself, but the presence of the world can be here, near to me, or there, far from me. It can be the way the floor presses on my feet when I stand on it, the sunlight in my eyes, the sound of crickets, even the factoring of a quadratic or the galaxy in Andromeda.

In all cases the experience of presence is at root a matter of reaching out to things and letting them in at the same time. This point is key: to experience presence you not only have to focus on reality, you have to be open to it. Too much of an effort to control it results in an imposition of your own categories and anxieties on it.

A metaphor I use in discussing presence is “coalescence.” When you focus on presence, either voluntarily or through being startled, you take the “diffuse” molecules of your self and the world and pull them together into something solid, definite, and centered. This is what it means to be in mental focus.

Does my statement about presence at the top of the essay translate into anything beyond the unremarkable observation, “I exist, and I am conscious that the world exists”? At a basic level, you could say that that’s just what it translates into. But for my purposes “presence” means existence considered and experienced in a special light. You could say that “existence” is prose, while “presence” is poetry.  

We can build a bridge between the two perspectives. When we grope for abstractions, especially for the first time, we almost inevitably use metaphors, and these metaphors are frequently the etymological foundations of the words that represent the abstractions. The etymology of the concept “to exist” points the way. It is from the French exister (17c.), from Latin existere/exsistere "to step out, stand forth, emerge, appear; exist, be."   (Different sources have slightly different etymologies.)

In terms of the metaphor on which the concept of existence was scaffolded, for something to exist it must step out and stand forth. In other words, it must assert itself. People literally assert themselves, but as I use the term, things like stones and trees assert themselves too: They exist whether we pay attention to them or not. They do not bend to mere will. They have their own “weight,” and they “push back” at us when we interact with them. They make “impressions” on us, and an impression is what you get when you press into something. And not only do concrete objects assert themselves; things like light beams and pi do, too, although solid objects are probably the paradigm of presence.

It is the experience of the self and world asserting themselves that I emphasize when I say presence. Presence is the “stone-ness” of things, although living beings are obviously more than mere rocks. This is close to the concept of existence, but I am imbuing it with the poetry, with the feeling of being.

When I use the term “presence” with regard to the self, I am trying to capture our experience at every level: intellectual, physical, emotional, intuitive, aesthetic. I chose the word presence because it emphasizes the “hereness” of things and because it has the metaphorical connotation of a personality that asserts itself within our attention, as in “That person has real presence.”  

The majority of entities in the universe have only an objective existence. To borrow Thomas Nagel’s formulation, for most things there is no meaningful answer to the question, “What is it like to be an X?” Rocks do not have an inner life.

The existence of human beings, however, is both objective and subjective: objective because we have a basic nature, both physical and mental, that cannot be changed by mere will, just like a stone’s cannot be, and subjective because we have, as John Searle would point out, an irreducibly first-person point of view, which stones and such do not. There is “something like” being a human being. We are doubly present, and at some point we will have to take account of that condition. (Objective and subjective existence correspond roughly to the Continental distinction of being-in-itself and being-for-itself.)

  

“Presence” is not a technical term from philosophy. Although in my usage it has a literal meaning which we will soon investigate, it is richer in connotations than such terms—again, more like poetry. To me it seems uncontroversial to say that there are some things in human experience that can be best expressed through art and poetry. The term presence, as I will soon define it, also exceeds the bare statement “I exist” in that it captures more specifically the kind of being a person is and what it is like, at a fundamental level, to be one.

My hope is that I can help you feel your own presence and that of the world more intensely. I believe that experiencing presence can help make everyday life more special and that it can energize us. My plea to you the reader is that you not allow your presence to be smothered by the mundane when you could choose to assert it as the torch asserts the flame. This is your birthright. 

All of this might sound good, but it is, admittedly, rather vague, perhaps nothing more than a collection of abstractions and pretty words. It is incumbent upon me to bring the idea of presence down to earth. For the purposes of this essay, I’m going to concentrate on the presence of the self. 

In “The Tables Turned” Wordsworth famously wrote that “We murder to dissect.” Well, I am going to attempt to “dissect” presence, to break the poetry down into prose. Hopefully I can do so without murdering it. I liken such a process to good literary criticism: I will try to ensure that my analysis does not drain the experience of its wonder, while attempting to point the way to an appreciation of the phenomenon that is richer, precisely because it is more spelled out. 

I spent thousands of words trying to capture what presence feels like before I was satisfied. Let’s begin at my end, with my formulation of presence as it applies to the self. We will dive in to the frigid waters of clinical analysis, like members of the Polar Bear Club, and later warm ourselves at the fire of the phenomenon rekindled by our renewed experience. 

Here is the formulation:  "My presence comes into focus when I deeply experience myself being the conscious, living, physical object that I am, immersed in a world with other objects and persons that are not me." 

The formulation has a lot of moving parts. I will explain and integrate them as we go. At the end, I will restate the formulation and discuss how the feeling of presence can be attained.

  

It may surprise some readers that the idea of being a physical object is at the center of the formulation. They might not like it, may even resent it, believing instead that the true self is a non-physical mind or a soul. Probably this reaction is because when people are told that they are physical objects, they think of the philosophical theory of materialism, which typically treats human beings as machines or mere chemicals that are not living or conscious in any meaningful sense.  

I don’t believe that the claim that we are physical objects leads to such conclusions: “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your physics, Horatio.” Living things are, it seems, made of chemicals, but chemicals in a very complex organization driven by the forces of what is necessary to exist and reproduce. Those forces impinge on the chemistry and physics and create something distinct from chemicals in a test tube. Life may not be designed by a creator, but neither is it random. 

Furthermore, if a theory in physics cannot accommodate the existence of consciousness, then too bad for that theory, because nothing is more certain than the existence of reality and consciousness. Science must bow before these facts.  

What distinguishes you (and the rest of the animals) from other physical objects is that you are alive and conscious. If you put aside your preconceptions, you might see that there’s no reason why a physical object cannot be alive and conscious. I cover this issue in another essay.

The physicality of human beings is a central part of the formulation for two reasons: First, our basic contact with the world is through the senses, and the senses respond to physical phenomena. At a fundamental level, perceivable physical entities, their attributes, actions, and relationships, are the furniture of the world. Consciousness is one such attribute, relationship, or action of such entities, depending on how you want to look at it (but not a substance, except metaphorically). You are one such entity.  

  

The second reason why I include physicality in the formulation is that it reflects our lived experience. We occupy space. We have mass. We have physical parts and do physical things. We can only move in certain ways. Our consciousness is centered on our location in the physical world. We see with our physical eyes and grasp with our physical hands. Whatever thoughts and mental images are, they are centered on our physical head. When we think quietly, we imagine ourselves into a kind of metaphorical space, based, I think, on how we occupy literal space. We feel emotions in our physical torsos. To be valid our abstractions must ultimately be grounded in the physical world, as inhabited by conscious, physical beings such as ourselves. Even the truths of mathematics are ultimately based on groupings of physical objects.

We are fundamentally physical beings living in a physical world, everything, even our “spiritual” aspects, derives from the physical self: love, nature, art, science--all of the things that have real spiritual value--are rooted in the physical world. That does them no dishonor and it does not reduce them out of existence. It just requires that we ground our selves and feelings instead of letting them float in some kind of purely mental space.

Finding presence helps me “feel at home” among the things of the world, because self-consciously occupying space and having mass are my fundamental manner of asserting my existence—they are how I “push back” at the world—although, as we will see, there is much more to the presence of the self than that. Although we are physical objects, that doesn't mean we should understand ourselves from a primarily scientific point-of-view. Perhaps paradoxically, I am not a materialist. We start from experience, and our "physicality" is experienced as having mass and occupying space and being able to project ourselves into the world. Moving and thinking, if done with the right kind of focus, can give us a thorough experience of presence.

When we speak of physicality, we typically are referring to the body alone, which is usually thought to be a physical vehicle that the true self owns, inhabits, and steers. The true self is frequently held to be the mind or soul or brain. This doctrine of Cartesian dualism, along with its variants, claims that I am a mind or soul that has a body.

However, as I see things, I do not have a body, even though I am a physical object. I don’t even have a mind or soul, in the sense of an entity that is distinct from the body. In no sense am I a consciousness + a body. I am one person, indivisible.  “Mind” and “body” are metaphors used to designate aspects of the unified self. When I experience my presence, I experience my oneness.  Heal the specious division of mind and body, which many people feel without ever having opened a book of philosophy, and you will almost certainly experience your presence more fully because you will stop erecting walls inside of yourself.

This is not how most theories of materialism conceive of human beings, and there is no reason to be concerned about being reduced to mere subatomic particles. Even though we don’t know what the ultimate constituents of matter are or the causes of consciousness, it is perfectly acceptable to regard oneself as a conscious material object, just as we seem to be on an everyday level, so long as we refrain from doing armchair science, speculating about the unknown relationship between consciousness and matter, a temptation that many philosophers cannot resist.

Although earlier I described our sense of presence as an intense state of self-awareness, I do not include the term “self-awareness” in the formulation. Of course, a heightened awareness of one’s presence can be achieved by reflexively attending to oneself, but that is not necessary and it is sometimes misleading to require it.

My problem with “self-awareness” is that the concept of “awareness” as such has a dualistic tendency or pitfall—not Descartes’s mind-body dualism, but a different, related kind: the dualism of knower and known. There is the I that is aware and there is the thing I am aware of, namely, my self. At least conceptually, that’s two different things.  

For most things the separation of knower and known is perfectly appropriate. I see the table over there: two things—the table and I. That is true even of some forms of self-awareness: I see a cut on my hand. But when it comes to presence, I don’t want to separate the self that is aware from the self that it is aware of, at least not at primarily conceptual level. That seems to me like a fundamental source of alienation.

The first reason for this is that the dualism of knowing I and the I that is known sometimes maps onto mind/body dualism quite neatly. The knowing I becomes nothing but knowing (mind) while the knowable I becomes the object of the senses (body).

However, even when the dualism of knower and known doesn’t lead to mind/body dualism, it can lead to a still greater impoverishment of the self. When Descartes pares his self down to a pure knowing thing and concludes “I think, therefore I am,” his “I” is an abstraction in a vacuum that has to be proven to exist. It’s an abstraction contemplating an abstraction. Absurdity is too kind of word for such a notion.

This approach to life would have to lead to an unwholesome intellectualization. The self for Descartes is a “thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling, and also imagines and has sensory perceptions” Nowhere on the list appear feelings such as emotions or intuitions, and perception comes at the end of the list, almost as an afterthought. For Descartes, the self is essentially mind, in the narrow sense of reason. This is the antithesis to my approach to presence.  

In my approach, I am one entity, not two, one beholding the other, but since there is a twofold quality to human existence in that it is both objective and subjective, I need a way of capturing both attributes in the same word or phrase.

So, for these reasons, I don’t say “self-awareness” in my formulation of presence. It is just enough wrong just enough of the time. Instead, I opt for the phrase “experience myself being the X that I am.” Experience is something I, a conscious being, live through or undergo. I in some sense participate in it. I am involved in it, immersed in it. I am not necessarily outside of it, merely observing it. “Experiencing myself being the X that I am” may not as a locution have swanlike grace but I think it is a significant improvement over “being self-aware,” which is only one kind of experience. 

When I experience myself being a physical object (living and conscious), I am not beholding that fact as a mere concept to be held at arm’s length and examined. I am living as that which constitutes me: I am the physical object that I am, through and through, and my point-of-view is irreducibly the point-of-view of that object and nothing else.

Perhaps I am being overly cautious in avoiding the traditional wording of self-awareness. I do have to admit that the introspective self-awareness of presence is possible and can be healthy. But I feel that there is a tendency in some people to identify the self as a disembodied point of view, like the detached, voyeuristic camera in a motion picture that has no solid self behind it. If I am right, then a dualistic conceptualization of self-awareness might sometimes lead to dissociation from or a shriveling of the self. At the very least we have to avoid a rationalistic over-reliance on concepts, as opposed to a fuller experience of self and world.

As far as a “fuller” experience goes, note that when I say “experience” in the formulation, I add a modifier. I say “deeply experience.” I know that that sounds like fluffy language, but I had to condense several things into a single word in order to avoid the formulation becoming unwieldy.    

“Deep” experience includes experience at every level of our person. We experience ourselves and the world via percepts, concepts, numbers, emotions, intuitions, the felt sense, hunches, sense of life reactions, empathy, crystallizations that emerge from the unconscious, and so forth. I call this set of experiences “robust reason” and I begin the discussion of it in another essay.

A well-known example of robust reason would be gut feelings. Gut feelings defy the division of mind and body, because they are both mental and physical. They are not always correct in what they tell us, but they had better be attended to. For example, if you see a moving shadow in a parking garage at night, go with your gut and be prepared to escape or defend yourself.

On the other hand, if you are considering making a major investment in a start-up, listen to your gut for clues, but do a hard-headed analysis of the company’s strengths and weaknesses. Outside of potential emergencies, gut feelings and all of our other windows on the world should be integrated so that our conceptual logic and our intuitions can be in alignment. Certainty that comes through the whole person is sublime.

Deep experience, if we cultivate it, is a reflection of our wholeness. It heals the seeming breach between mind and body. We would be terribly handicapped if we didn’t literally feel gut feelings, emotions, twinges of recognition, etc. Such aspects of whole-person knowing are experienced as meaning-laden physical feelings. Robust reason is the third dimension of our conscious lives. A beautiful mathematical equation (such as Euler’s Identity) can be as elegant as a beautiful woman, and elegance is as much experienced as a feeling as it is an abstraction. Coming to see the elegance of an equation can help you experience your own presence as an elegant being. That is, it can if you let it. I’m advocating that you do let it by making the feeling explicit.

It’s easy to say that all this “deep experience” stuff is just unconscious integrations of what’s already “in there.” That’s true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough, because our intuitions and the like are psychosomatic, just as emotions are. They are not in their first draft verbal. Our integrations typically do not pop up into full consciousness in the form of propositions but rather in the form of feelings, images, sounds, etc., which can sometimes be translated into words. I don't see how cognition could work any other way, no matter how rational the knower is.

The phenomenon of deep experience also addresses a possible objection to my formulation. I suspect that some readers might respond to my idea that presence requires the experience of physicality by saying that they could feel presence just by withdrawing into one’s thoughts, into something like one’s Cartesian pure consciousness, by quiet self-contemplation of the naked I. It is not clear to me whether completely tuning out everything non-perceptual is really possible, but if it is, the resulting experience is not the experience of presence in the sense I mean the term.   

Some might say that I am falling into the No True Scotsman fallacy by claiming that a form of self-awareness that I don’t like is not really the experience I do like, because I have defined the possibility away, but I would reply that the experience of presence requires wholeness, and if one really withdraws into one’s thoughts, one is choosing to live in one’s head and to shut out many if not most emotions, intuitions, etc., which well up from bodily experience. In other words, such intense withdrawal leaves behind a large part of one’s existence.  

Presence is not a sterile intellectual exercise, but a profound participation in everything that is going on within ourselves. In my own case, I know that when I sit and think, I feel my posture and breathing in the background. They are the hum of my living self. I would be wary of any thought that did not have a physical component, which, for example, would include intuitions as I feel them in my “body.” Pure “head thinking,” except in emergencies, is, in my estimation, partial, even dangerous.  

I’m not an expert about meditation, but I gather that in many forms of it, one focuses on one’s breath. Breath is perhaps the fundamental experience of our physical nature since it is at our bodily core, is crucial to living, and is both voluntary and involuntary. One should not always be thinking about breathing, but doing so can bring one back into the experience of presence, which is often disrupted by the rapid or shallow breathing of anxiety.  

The formulation also contains the idea of being “immersed” in the world. This is metaphorical. What I mean is that, when we assert ourselves by existing, we assert ourselves by being in the world, moving through our environment. We touch the world and it touches us. We are not minds watching mental representations of the world—the world is right there and we are in it.  

What we are immersed in is a world of other things and persons. We are not all that exists. We are not the center of the world, even though our consciousness of the world is centered on ourselves and our physical location. Other things and persons are just as real as we are. They are not us, and our experience of our presence is heightened by their separate presence because it gives us something to push back against. 

I have accounted for almost all the elements of my definition. What remains is the idea of presence coming into focus. We do not always experience it. I can choose to focus on my presence or I might be jolted into it. But most of the time we should not be seeking out the experience of presence. Most of the time we should be immersed in the activities of living.  

Experiences such as problem solving, flow, relaxation, ecstasy and the communion of parent and child are just as important as the experience of presence. Life would be impoverished without any of them. However, from my personal perspective I would suggest that presence is the most fundamental. It is, in a way, the pilot light for human life. Maybe I feel that way because the experience of presence is the experience I need most, since I have dissociative personality tendencies, but I think that many people have some tendency to sleepwalk or dream through their lives, and a greater experience of presence would be beneficial to them.

Now that we have taken the definition apart, let’s put it back together again. I hope it will have new resonance:  

"My presence comes into focus when I deeply experience myself being the conscious, living physical object that I am, immersed in a world with other objects and persons that are not me." 

Please think about the words; let them seep into you. I don’t mean that you should chant the formulation or memorize it, but that you can use it to foreground different aspects of your own presence as you touch them. Feel your physicality. Use all of your ways of knowing. Move in a world that is immediately at hand. Don’t engage in self-alienation. Be here where you are. 

The experience of presence is not a mere intellectual exercise, although it can be intellectually exciting to explore. Fundamentally, understanding presence is only a means to an end. The end is to live presence, to feel and breathe presence. To feel your volume and your mass and your breath and your consciousness suffuse your whole person. To exist and be real in a world of things that exist and are real, including abstractions if they are tied to physical reality, as they must be in order to be valid. Presence isn’t always joyous, but as long as blood flows through your veins and your brain reasons, presence means life. 

How do we achieve and maintain the experience of presence? By performing a paradoxical action of both allowing and creating it. In allowing presence, you relax the barriers within you and let yourself feel your body and feelings, not just your emotions, but also your intuitions, gut feelings and the rest (as appropriate; I’m not advocating navel-gazing).  

In creating presence you choose to focus your attention on yourself and the things in the world, opting to reach out to their presence and to coalesce the diffuse molecules of awareness into the realized potential of your self. This process can take place on a dance floor or in a lover’s embrace, but for me personally it most saliently occurs as the breeze rustles the leaves and plays gently on my cheek. I choose to be here.   

There is so much more to be said about presence! And so important too is the presence of other conscious beings. When you and I look into each other’s eyes with our guard down and no intention of using each other, we both peer into a deep well of presence. 

“I am present among the things of the world, and they are present to me.” Presence is the experience of divinity in a godless, but living, world.

I don’t want this essay to end. I hope it has brought some degree of enlightenment to you, whether new or renewed, as writing it has brought to me. Whether we ever meet or not, we are present here together.  

  

1 Comment


bgreifinger
May 04

I sit and suddenly am intensely aware of my being. A heightened sense of existing. I pick up my hand and observe in a sense of wonder my actual being. I feel a heightened sense of focus of the world around me and a higher sense of purpose. My body responds with a greater purpose of movement and importance thru the world. Let's do this! Let's. BE attending to the act of being and move with great intent. Let's BE active. And thus I become...I engage my self more fully and keep focusing on that which is more entirely special....the ME. The SELF.....

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