Practicing Presence

The world is going at unprecedented speed but we barely have time to notice. Rather than stop to wonder why, we are addicted to going faster. Maybe some of us get lost longing for the past. Few of us seem to spend much time in the present.

Wise men and women point to a secret to life. It’s that we can only experience now. We can learn from the past, of course. And we should plan for the future. But what we feel – what we experience – only ever happens when it happens. And in any moment of happening, there are a million amazing things worth celebrating.

We have become so distracted and disconnected that we are losing the ability to live life in the moment. I recently read that the average American is spending 11 hours in front of screens each day. This disconnection affects or relationships, decisions, actions and life satisfaction. It’s no surprise really. How are we supposed to do things well when we are somewhere else inside?

I take people into the wilderness and help them make time to stop. When we do this, we share exercises to help open all of the senses. I then leave them, alone in a beautiful place for a few hours… sometimes days. When I return, they beam, as if something deep inside has been switched on again. How do can we keep that glow alive? 

Children and animals are the real teachers in this world. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to glide through life like a cat, easy and purring with senses wide open, ready to react to anything with style? Or how about with the wide open curiosity and joy of the playground – like a five year old – but when preparing meals or in conversation or at work.

I met an Eskimo elder last year, who, as soon as he wakes up, sips a glass of water, and gives a big cheer. You can see the way he tells it – he feels a childlike happiness from sipping the water. You can see it on his smile and the kindness of his eyes.

We need this. The world needs more of this. In our research working with nature and meditation, we see there are so many benefits of slowing and noticing. Going into a forest with a gentle, open mind has a positive impact on many things including stress, our immune system, our memory, empathy, creativity and lots, lots more.

There are folks at MIT working with an idea called ‘Theory U’, which is all about transforming society through ‘presencing’. The idea – roughly – is that we can collectively let go of small habits, attachments and patterns of the past and find a different kind of place from which to create a new future together. The process calls for working with heart and will. I think this calls for a new way of being.

So how do we do this? How do we master the art of presence? Because these things are not about process – not the build-a-house kind of process. Rather, this is about being – and being calls for working with qualities within.

Being happens in many ways – not just in our heads but all of our bodies and hearts. So a first thing to do is reconnect with all of our bodies and human systems. Working with practices such as T’ai Chi and Qi Gong – gentle martial art forms – helps us do this; broadening awareness around the body; to internal sensations; and to dynamics of being such as groundedness, openness and flow. More than think about these things, we can feel them. We can really practice them.

I’ve also come to believe that presence is connected to the skill of taking care of ourselves. I had the fortune of learning from Thich Nhat Hanh a few years ago – an extraordinary person, and one of the greatest proponents of mindfulness today. In so much of his work, Thich Nhat Hanh shows that being in the moment is about bringing awareness to the heart. ‘Hold it like a mother holds a baby’ he says. Whatever is happening in the moment, an aspect of mindfulness is to hold it with care and compassion. There is some kind of alchemy across noticing and caring: bringing us even closer to now.

We can also do much more to open up the senses. John P. Milton, an environmental and spiritual pioneer (and mentor to some folks at MIT and Theory U) says we have nine ‘fields of experience’. These are our sight, sound, touch, taste and smell (as we learn in school) but also motion, thought, feeling and ‘chi’ – or life force. Each field is a window to the world. We experience everything in life through these fields. Yet, in a world where we spend 11 hours behind screens each day, we are losing the skills to notice what is around us. With care and time, we can open up each field of experience, and deepen them to connect with other things around us and the ‘bigger picture’.

Which brings me back to my Eskimo teacher, and the qualities of wonder and appreciation. I have learnt from people like him that it is possible to rediscover feelings of wonder in ourselves and bring them to the forefront of life. We can find these feelings as if they are somewhere in the body but have got a bit lost. A ceremony of waking up, sipping water and cheering helps to find these. Equally, going into nature with a lens of appreciation helps to wake the heart and senses. These little ceremonies are important. They are about feeling five years old again, and they show we can rekindle the capacity to celebrate every moment.

Finally, there is an often neglected friend to presence. And that is relaxation. Again inspired by John Milton – and ancient traditions from Taoism to Tantra to indigenous wisdom – we work with a balance of presence and relaxation. This is because we can try so hard to be present, that we tense up and lose ourselves in trying to be present. The real magic happens when presence and relaxation combine, opening up our awareness in a completely new way.

These are busy and challenging times, when each of us – and humanity – needs to be at our best. So it’s time to revisit what it means to be – and how to take this to the world. And that just needs a bit of practice.

Click here to find out more about my Being & Presence workshop and our Way of Nature Be Here and Present Quest – great opportunities to practice presence.

As ever, and in time old fashion, I’d like to thank the teachers who have helped me learn about these things: John P. Milton, Thich Nhat Hanh, Angaangaaq Angakkorsuaq and all my friends through Way of Nature. If you’d like to know more about Theory U, take a look at


2 thoughts on “Practicing Presence

  1. Thank you, I enjoyed your article very much. What you describe is what the practice of Forest Therapy is about. Interesting about the nine “fields of experience.” Forest Therapy Guides are trained structure invitations using a palette of 12 of senses. I think our list is compatible with yours.

    I recently put together a five-minute video that is an invitation to engage several of the senses by noticing what is in motion in the natural environment. You and your readers might like to see it… my suggestion is to put away any other distractions, give yourself a gift of five minutes of relaxed watching, making no effort at all.

    Happy trails!

    Liked by 1 person

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