By Jesse Wolf Hardin
“….I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on the earth.”
-Thich Nhat Hanh
All things happen in a place, in context and relationship, in present time. It is always now and here where we act on our choices, effect the world, and taste its pleasures. The quality of consciously being here for that opportunity and experience is what we call “presence,” but it is certainly not something we can ever take for granted. Every moment is a decisive one, with a choice as to what degree we are either dwelling on our tasks problems… or dwelling in the sense and satisfaction of the actual experience.
Outside our cabin we’ve set up a rudimentary hot-tub, an old cast iron hulk rocked in with a fire pit dug out directly beneath. Those times the rains overfill our storage, we carry the extra bucketfuls over to it and enjoy the most amazing soaks. But even here, engaged in mindful practice, it remains an effort to stay present. Even with the hot water relaxing the muscles and loosening that death-grip of the linear mind, even with the steam rising before us as from a great cauldron of creation, and a gentle rain with the effects of an elixir. Still the words come, betraying the experience. “Wonder how the plug I made is holding up. Cork would have worked if…” (Shhhh!, goes the steam), “Seems hotter than last time” (Hush, the heat is speaking to you!). “So much to do before going to town tomorrow…” (Hey, where are you?), “Should be enough rains to fill another tub or two” (Wake up! You’re missing out on the bath at hand, the feel of the wind evaporating the drops of water on your cheeks, the look in wifely eyes, the incremental melting away of tension from each and every floating muscle).
Before the word “dwell” came to mean “to inhabit,” it meant “to linger.” Thus when eating there is a potential for our consciousness to dwell within a world of taste, as for our beings to linger inside the flavor of each special moment. There is a tendency among people, however, to watch television or talk nonstop at meals. Other than the first bite, we may consume an entire plateful while barely paying attention to its banquet of sensation, the fine distinctions between spoonfuls of the same entree, the slow sensuous melt of butter fats, the interplay of orgiastic spices. Once the first sample mouthful has met with our approval, we may not take notice of it again for the duration of the meal unless alerted by an unexpected flavor, an incongruous texture or suspicious smell.
When that happens, an element of life is lost to us, just as it is when we give less than our full attention to the fingers of the masseuse kneading our backs, or obsess over the coming day while a glorious sunset lights up the scene around us. One can, in fact, go their entire adult life focused on either anxieties over the future or nostalgia for a long lost childhood of fun and adventure, always a step ahead of or behind the actual experience they are going through. It’s possible during sexual activity to be so focused on a mental fantasy or titillating memory that one is barely present with the lover they are with, and for a botanist to be so engrossed in analysis that she forgets to delight in the brilliance of common flowers… that she fails to stop and heed the “be here now” clapping of lime green cottonwood leaves. Small birds nest inside many of the hollow street signs of our cities, their little heads turning to watch every person that hurries by, while it’s usually only the occasional child who notices their peeps and dallies to look and listen. And many of us would likely be in grave danger crossing the road without traffic lights, inured to the sound of vehicles until we hear the alarming screech of braking tires.
Historically, our species started out every bit as present, aware and attentive as the wildest creature. Evolving consciousness made it possible to sense the world beyond our local bodily forms, contemplate the future, and build a culture of collective memories as no other plant or animal yet has… though not yet at the expense of primal awareness or lived experience. It was only with the rise of early civilization – and the resultant divorce from the natural world – that we as a species began to suffer a disconnection from the messages as well as needs of our aware and intuitive bodies, from our ecological context and responsibilities, and from the rewards as much as the demands of the always momentous current moment.
In time, and almost by default, it became the role of uncommon Medicine Women and shamans to purposefully retain and utilize the increasingly rare quality of presence. It was usually their born propensity for heightened awareness and deep feeling that led them to their calling in the first place, and then their specialized work certainly required it. The shaman was able to benefit and learn from the distant flights of consciousness, because of his ability to be simultaneously but substantially present in more than one place at once, and see deep into the heart of a person or problem by focusing his attention and energy on single point, by intently being nowhere else.
I’ve been using the noun “present” to mean the current, fully experienced moment, but the word can also refer to something that we give to somebody. It stems from the Old French “bringing something into someone’s presence,” and the experiencing of present time is indeed a present — a gift — from the Anima, from Spirit, to us. And a gift we pay a high price for ignoring. Both usages of the word originate in the Latin adjective praeséns, “at hand, now, here.” The gift at hand, the gift of conscious life, close enough to touch!
If it’s disrespectful to turn down a gift, to turn one’s back on a teacher or friend in the midst of making their point, then surely it is all the more so to ignore the miracle of the moment, to turn away from the present experience and face inward towards a mental movie, to ignore the communications of the world around us and focus solely on our own internal dialogue… or to pass by the awakening dandelion, absorbed by a mental picture of a wrapped rose at a distant florist’s. We can get literally “caught up” with abstract thought, caught and held fast like fish in a trawler’s net, surrounded on all sides by wide-eyed images and flailing priorities, caught up in our heads while the real world we are a part of remains largely ignored and unengaged. All the while, reality waves its earthen arms, feathered wings and evocative cloud forms in front of us, as though to win us back.
Presence is a combination of noticing and grounding, the opposite of obliviousness and disconnection. In presence, there is no tolerance for distraction, and no room for denial. It includes being there completely for dangerous or uncomfortable situations, noticing not only the pleasant odors but also any unpleasant but telltale smells. It is literally the place of action and response, where we create and accomplish. On the other hand, it not in the imagination so much as in the now, that true ecstasy can be found. It is there that we come together with our lover, where the jam meets the tongue. Indeed, bliss is not ignorance, as the old saying claims. Bliss is a gift of living in-tense-ly, where each moment unfolds anew, where even the most cherished of memories are wholly experienced in present tense.
The means exist for our return to the now, no matter how distracted or resistant we might be. The doors to the present can be blown open by an unexpected clap of thunder, the tart bite of an orange, a morning’s splash of cold water on our face, the sudden starting or stopping of the evening wind, or the first glimpse of a falcon dropping through the air in pursuit of downtown pigeons. And they can be teased open by a whiff of homemade bread, fresh out of the oven. Relaxed open by the ministrations of massage. Sang open. Danced open. And breathed open, with a sigh. Opened, and entered.
Entering the present we are ourselves penetrated — by every real thing around us, by the weather and the ground, by the people that are with us, by the totality of life. While we may not be able to exist without future considerations and schedules, we’d do well to remain aware of the degree to which we default in our engagement with the world around us, neglecting available gifts and lessons. The present can never fit onto a schedule, for it is both too big and too fleeting for that. Mark the now on your daily planner and it is already gone. The calendar we focus on describes a world that isn’t here yet, which as any child would tell us, pales in comparison to that which is.
For the student of Anima, presence is the crucial first step in the path of connection and power. Multi-tasking should never be expanded past the level at which you can be fully conscious of all aspects of every ongoing project. Greater-Body (sometimes called “out of body”) journeys should be predicated on your ability to consciously and effectively center and ground. Presence is literally the essential groundwork for building up you powers of intuition, discernment and decision-making, and of energetically (with your consciousness) as well as physically effecting the reality that we as Medicine Women and Shamans are working to co-create.
With the continual regaining of sensory attentiveness – of the vital present – comes a great awakening… to the sense-gathering organs and the sights, sounds, tastes and appeals of the larger world/self around us. To the bone and truth laden ground below us, the enticing trees and the birds that call from them, the breath of wind that fills us and the smell and color of the fruit on the table. To the clouds that fall as drinking water, to sate an awakened thirst. To the needs and gifts of family, coworkers and friends. To our instincts, calling us to a life of purpose, magic and meaning, in the language of dreams.
It’s Fall as I write this, and already the elk are bugling in the canyon. The high cascading notes sound like the percolation of wild lust, like bravado, excitement and hope. Like the gate keepers’ flourish, announcing our destined return. Like a clarion call.
We’re welcomed back no matter how often we try to leave. Welcomed here, grounded in authentic self and inspirited place. Welcomed back to the wild now… and in these ways, welcomed home.
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