A Conversation About Presence

A while ago, in response to my daily photo blog, a Rabbi asked me the following question:

I am curious about what you mean by presence? Is it more or different than mindfulness? What is the source of the ‘presence’? Internal? External? Human? Divine?

This seemed a pretty fundamental question, so after some thought I wrote a response which I thought I’d share here.

Your question is a deep one and I could probably write an entire book on the subject!  I’ll try here to highlight some of my thinking and my experience, but I don’t feel that I can really do the subject justice in this brief reply.  My answer is informed by my daily photography practice of presence which is reflected in this blog, as well as my very practical work as a Public Speaking Presence Coach, and as a long-time yoga, tai chi, and meditation practitioner.

In my experience, presence is a practice that is initiated internally at the individual level but manifests externally through our connections and relationships.   When we individually drop into full presence with ourselves and the people around us, we find we are not alone and that we’ve touched into something much larger than ourselves, what I think of as the collective.

Here are a couple of thoughts at the level of the individual (much of which comes from my work with public speaking clients):

  •  Mindfulness is definitely part of it, in that we can’t have presence without attending to what’s present in the moment. But simply having an internal experience of attending to the present moment isn’t enough to have real presence, not the kind of presence that leads to a shared collective experience.
  • I sometimes think about my work with clients as helping them develop a practice of what I call a “relational meditation”.  What I mean by this is rather than focusing on our breath or our thoughts as we would in a mindful practice, we instead pay exquisite attention to the connection we are making with the individuals in our audience.  It is our awareness of each person and an acknowledgement of their very real presence in our audience that becomes our focus of attention.  And, this emphasis on the importance of relationship creates an experience of presence, both for us and for our listeners.
  • So many of the clients that come to me for public speaking coaching are coping with some degree of fear of speaking in front of a group.  I’ve learned that this fear primarily results from our feeling separate, alone, isolated.  What I’ve found is that when our focus is on connecting with our audience, our sense of isolation departs and the fear begins to dissipate.

I have distilled what I’ve learned about presence as a public speaking coach into what I call the Seven Crown Jewels of Presence in Speaking, Leading and Life!  I initially identified them for my public speaking clients but have found that they apply to all aspects of life.  In my mind they speak to core principles of humanity, humility, authenticity, and service and each of these leads to a sense of presence.

Beyond my work in public speaking, though, I’ve learned some profound lessons about the idea of collective presence from my photography blog.  Probably the most mind-shifting for me is the idea that presence is not something we have.  It’s really something we give.  The objects and scenes that I photograph are just there.  It’s the act of seeing the image and photographing it that gives it presence to the viewer. (It’s a little bit like zen koan about the sound of a tree falling in the woods.  Is there sound if no one is there to hear it?)

When have you followed what your mind told you?  When have you followed your heart?
When have you followed what your mind told you? When have you followed your heart?

One of my favorite images posted to this blog very early on was titled Bungee Dilemma.  My guess is that not many people would consider bungee cords to have presence.   And yet, for me and the many other folks who have interacted with this image over the years, the very act of focusing my attention on these bungee cords has given them a presence that has lasted far longer than the moment when I took the photo.

“Where you put your attention that’s where energy goes.”  And, where there’s energy, there’s presence.

In the same way, as speakers, leaders, livers of life, when we turn our attention to others and focus on them rather than solely on ourselves, we actually give them presence.  The paradox is that they, in turn, think of us as having presence.  When this happens we seem to enter a shared space together that goes far beyond the distinction of me and you.  To me this is tapping into the collective and for some people might feel like touching into the Divine.

I often ask my speaking clients to identify people with presence who have influenced them in a positive way.  I then ask them to identify qualities that characterized that presence.  In every group, almost universally, someone will give an example of a speaker who they felt was “speaking directly to me”.  In a sense, what they are saying is they felt truly seen by the speaker. And, by being seen they see/feel/experience the presence of the speaker.

To paraphrase Rumi,
“Out beyond me and you there’s a field.  I’ll meet you there.”

This is what I consider true presence.