"B" is for Being Present
by Patricia Adams Farmer
"The biggest gift you can give is to be absolutely present, and when you’re worrying about whether you’re hopeful or hopeless or pessimistic or optimistic, who cares? The main thing is that you’re showing up, that you’re here and that you’re finding ever more capacity to love this world because it will not be healed without that. "
–Joanna Macy, On Being interview
Not as Easy as It Sounds
Being present, the most basic attitude for the spiritual pilgrim, is not an easy practice. For being present means not only letting the bright gladness of summer daisies seep into your soul; it also means a face-to-face encounter with the fears that haunt our days. Rilke says:
“Let everything happen to you:
beauty and terror.
Just keep going.
No feeling is final.”
Sometimes beauty is hard to let in; we cast a suspicious eye on anything too wonderful, too beautiful; It won’t last, it will go away and leave us. The raw, the fearful, or the calcified parts of our souls prevent us from offering our full and unfettered presence. But, still, the stubborn beauty of the world awaits the fullness of our presence.
Perhaps we first need to learn how to embrace life as is it, as Kazantzakis’ famous character in Zorba the Greek. When asked about his domestic life, Zorba responds, “Am I not a man? Of course I’ve been married. Wife, house, kids, everything . . . the full catastrophe!” Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Full Catastrophe Living interprets Zorbas’ words this way: “‘Catastrophe’ here does not mean disaster. Rather it means the poignant enormity of our life experience.”
A Little Lesson from Ecuador
I learned Zorba’s secret the hard way when living in Ecuador, an experience of intense beauty and unprecedented terror—both extreme realities greeted me in equal measures the moment I got off the plane. It was as if this new world was suffering from bi-polar disorder, and it forced me to think of reality in an entirely new way.
Surrounded by the wild tropical forest on one side and a raw, unspoiled beach on the other, I was ensconced in one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever experienced. For a while, I lived with iguanas and wild goats and green parrots and palm trees and salty sand filled with blue rocks and clay remnants from cultures long past. There were deprivations, too, which naturally come with the wildness: things like electricity and water and chocolate chips.
But none of this defeated me. Rather, it was the terror that brought me to a point of spiritual crisis. It was the kind of terror born of being a stranger in a foreign land, prey to muggers and scammers and the shadowy side of this unpredictable and exotic land.
What my spirit needed to survive was not so much toughness, but largeness—the ability to be fully present with the “whole” of my strange and exotic experience, the beauty and the terror.
In Ecuador, I learned the art of being present to the whole of life, the full catastrophe. Sometimes it meant taking a few minutes each day to write down my fears and then breathe with them compassionately, holding them like a screaming child on my lap. Only then could I gather enough courage to move on to the beautiful parts. And there was much beauty to be had.
Being Absolutely Present
I think this is what the eco-philosopher and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy meant when she said we need to be “absolutely present” with the world. It means facing everything—the full catastrophe—with courage and love. It means we vow to love ourselves, our loved ones, and the earth itself “in sickness and in health”—the full catastrophe. Being present with the world means showing up and listening, not only to the good and uplifting news around us, but also to the cosmic groans of an iceberg twice the size of Luxembourg breaking off the Antarctic ice shelf.
When a loved one is sick or dying, what do we do? We sit beside them. We don’t have to say anything. Simply being present is the poetry of love.
I believe God is like this: compassionate Presence, feeling “the poignant enormity” of the world—the beauty and the terror—because that is what love does.
We Each Need Two Journals
If you want to follow in the image of divine love, which is wide and deep, allow yourself a little time today to sit and breathe with the world as it is. Be present with the fullness of yourself—light and shadow. Be present with your friends, even when they are not at their best. Be present, too, not only with the enchantment of the earth but also with its sorrows, and its slow destruction by our recklessness and greed.
We each need two journals—one is a gratitude journal, which strengthens the beauty of our souls. The other is a gripe journal, which dares to name what irritates us, what enrages us, and what we fear. Instead of strengthening the negative, writing about it oddly diffuses its power over us. We can finally move on to the beauty—and there is much beauty to be had.
Perhaps, if enough of us practice being fully present with both the beauty and the terror, we will wake up one day to find ourselves whole, our relationships restored, and our planet on the mend. It all starts with the courage to be fully, stubbornly—absolutely—present.