The Gift of Presence: Being an Empowering Friend to Ourselves

In my first two posts, I suggested that in order for us to have a good life, we must start by loving ourselves, and loving ourselves entails giving ourselves the best and the most noble gifts. I also suggested that one of the most important gifts we give ourselves is the gift of respect, which is the gift of treating ourselves as a person rather than as an object. I think most of us realize that we need to respect ourselves, but we often are unsure about how exactly to show ourselves respect. In this post, I discuss the gift of presence which is one of the best ways we give ourselves respect. I first explain what presence is and why it is important to give ourselves this gift. I then explain how presence, which is a way we accept and love ourselves, is not the same thing as resignation or giving up hope that things can be different. Lastly, I give some practical suggestions for how we can practice presence in our lives.

When we give ourselves the gift of presence, we are with ourselves in all of our moments—our joyful and sorrowful moments, our moments of success and failure, the moments when we love ourselves, and the moments when we feel full of shame. We recognize and accept ourselves in all of our human emotions and experiences. It is important to realize that we need recognition and acceptance both from ourselves and others. When people recognize and accept us, even in our most painful moments, it is a way they say, “I see you and honor you as a human being.” To be a human being is to experience a wide range of emotions. For example, being sad and discouraged is just as much of a human experience as feeling joy is. When people recognize our emotions, they allow us to be fully human, and it is a way that they are an ally with us in our humanity. On the other hand, when people refuse to acknowledge certain moments of our lives (perhaps our really difficult moments), they are not allowing us the full expression of our humanity. Since we cannot help but be human, to be denied our humanity is a painful and often debilitating experience. The same is true when we deny ourselves certain moments of our human existence. In doing so, we do not allow ourselves to be fully human and, whether we realize it or not, this is very painful. To explain why presence (which is a form of recognition and acceptance) is so important to us, consider the following scenario which I will call the painful friend scenario.

Image result for pre raphaelite pictures

The painting above is “Windflowers” by John William Waterhouse.

Imagine that you are with a friend. You have been looking forward to having a meaningful conversation with that person because you have been having a difficult time, and you need a friend to understand how you are feeling. But rather than being engaged with and responsive to you, your friend is constantly checking her phone, looking at everyone else but you, and she consistently remarks how she wishes she was somewhere else. When you try to explain your difficult emotions, your friend generally ignores you, and when she does pay attention, she scolds you for feeling the way you do. Imagine how this would make you feel. You would feel neglected and rejected, and it would likely cause you a great deal of suffering. The painful friend has failed to give you the gift of presence.

Sadly, I think that most of us often act like the painful friend to ourselves without realizing it. We often fail to give ourselves the gift of presence, especially when we are suffering from painful emotions. Consider how often we try to ignore or press down our negative emotions or shame ourselves for having them. Consider how often we wish we could be different or be somewhere other than the place we are now. When we do this, we treat ourselves as an object, not a person. We treat ourselves as though our purpose in life is merely to behave as we wish so we can accomplish some other goal—such as gaining pleasure or achieving success. We fail to realize that our purpose in life is actually to be a human being (because that is what we are) and that being a human being means experiencing a full range of human emotions and needs.

Perhaps it is difficult for us to understand how to acknowledge, respect, and accept ourselves when we have especially intense feelings like depression or anger or shame. We might worry that by acknowledging and accepting our feelings, we resign ourselves to feeling that way forever. It is important to note that when we are present with ourselves in our more intense and painful emotions, we are not resigning ourselves to feeling this way for the rest of our lives.[1] It is possible both to give ourselves the gift of presence by accepting our difficult feelings while also realizing that eventually it will be good for us to move past or let go of these feelings. When we do this and give ourselves the gift of presence, we are being an empowering friend to ourselves.

Let’s consider how an empowering friend treats others. When an empowering friend realizes her friend is depressed or angry, the friend accepts this about her friend. She might even say something like, “I can understand why you feel that way.” This doesn’t mean that the friend resigns herself to the other person always feeling that way. It doesn’t mean that she never tries to help her friend move past these feelings. Rather, the empowering friend realizes that often the first step to moving past difficult feelings is the recognition and acceptance that the feelings are indeed occurring. Similarly, it is only by recognizing and accepting our feelings that we can begin to understand why they are occurring. When we understand this, it is often the first step in helping ourselves move past the difficult feelings. This is much like how it is when we are sick. Ignoring that we are sick or pretending that we aren’t sick or wishing we were healthier or had a different body will not cure our sickness. It is only when we recognize and accept our illness that we create the possibility that we might actually become well again someday (perhaps through visiting the doctor, asking for help, getting the problem diagnosed, etc.) Accepting that we are ill isn’t resignation to our illness. It is actually expresses hope that we can become well again.

It is the same way with our painful feelings or actions. Our painful feelings will not go away if we ignore them, press them down, try to escape them, or wish we weren’t experiencing them. They won’t go away by us telling ourselves that we are wrong to have these emotions or by telling ourselves that we should be more successful and productive instead of being sad all the time. It is only by acknowledging and accepting difficult feelings through giving ourselves the gift of presence that we create the possibility of understanding ourselves. It is through the gift of presence that we understand the cause of difficult feelings and that we create the hope that we might be able to move through them someday. When we practice presence, we respect ourselves as people, and it is one of the best gifts we can give to ourselves. The Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh echoes this idea in his book True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart when he writes, “When you are really there, you have the ability to recognize the presence of the other. To be there is the first step, and recognizing the presence of the other is the second step. To love is to recognize; to be loved is to be recognized by the other. If you love someone and you continue to ignore his or her presence, this is not true love.”[2] He adds, “The most precious gift you can give to the one you love is your presence.”[3] Of course, Hanh writes about presence as a gift we give to others, but we can also recognize our own presence and in doing so, we give ourselves the gift of presence. This is an act of self-love.

You may be convinced that giving yourself the gift of presence is a good thing to do, but you may unsure about how actually to practice presence. One of the first times I began to think about the gift of presence seriously was when I was teaching Asian philosophy at a local university. In my class we were discussing a passage in the Sayings of Buddha where the Buddha is talking about the practice of mindfulness, which is actually the practice of presence with one’s self. The Buddha stressed the importance of mindfulness as a way of relieving the suffering in one’s life and in the world.[4] The Buddha says,

And how does a monk live watching feelings as feelings? Here, when a monk feels a happy feeling, he knows he is feeling a happy feeling; when he feels an unhappy feeling, he knows he is feeling an unhappy feeling; when he feels a neither happy or unhappy feeling, he knows he is feeling a neither happy nor unhappy feeling.[5]

The first time I read this passage, it really underwhelmed me. I thought, “Is that it? Is this really one of the Buddha’s great secrets for relieving the suffering of the world?” But I only thought that for a little bit because I actually decided to try out out this this practice of mindfulness and presence for a day. When I was walking to the bus, I noticed and knew I was walking to the bus. When I was eating my lunch, I noticed and knew I was eating lunch. When I was feeling anxious, I noticed and knew I was feeling anxious. When I was having problems falling asleep, I noticed and knew I was having problems falling to sleep. When I felt especially ashamed over a mistake, I noticed and knew I was feeling ashamed. When I felt sad, I noticed and knew that I was feeling sad. I accepted and was with myself in all of these moments.

While it felt a little weird to notice myself in all my moments, I also realized that this practice had an immediately calming effect on me. My life felt slower, more gentle, centered, and peaceful. A weight lifted off my shoulders because I finally gave myself the attention I had been seeking. I was a friend to myself, and I relaxed. As I relaxed, the moment became more vivid because I was finally in it rather than distracting myself from it. If you want to start giving yourself the gift of presence, practice mindfulness as the Buddha describes it. You don’t have to notice yourself every minute of the day. Rather, you can check in with yourself at various times and notice what you are doing and how you are feeling, accepting whatever arises in the moment.[6]

As I have started to practice presence more, I have also become more acutely aware of the times I am not with myself. I will sometimes find myself being everywhere but with myself. I am thinking about everything I have to do that day, or worrying about something that happened in the past, or fretting over something that won’t happen for several years and may never even happen at all. I find myself feeling scattered, anxious, and tense. When this happens, I will remind myself, “All I need to do is be here with myself right now. Those other things will work themselves out.” Immediately when I think this and become present with myself, I relax again and am peaceful. Through giving myself the gift of presence, I have suddenly become an empowering friend, rather than a painful friend, to myself.

Giving ourselves the gift of presence does not require us to think about ourselves at every moment of the day. Nor does it require us to avoid thinking about anything other than what we are doing and where we are in the moment. The gift of presence merely invites us to check in with ourselves regularly and to notice what we are doing. It invites us to dwell peacefully with our difficult feelings. It invites us to love whatever arises for us in the course of the day. I saw a book the other day titled Whatever Arises, Love That. I have not read this book, so I cannot speak to its content. However, I love the title because the title reminds us what the gift of presence is about. Whatever arises in our lives, we need to accept it and be with ourselves in that arising. In doing so, we become an empowering friend to ourselves and give ourselves the gift of self-love. In my blog post next week, I will discuss the gift of compassion, which is a complement to the gift of presence. The gift of compassion empowers us to relieve our own suffering, as well as the suffering of others.

Note: I originally intended to include a section on praxis (action and reflection) in this post to help readers extend the practice of presence into their lives further if they so desired. I still intend to do this, but this post is longer than I originally thought it would be. Therefore, I will be sharing the praxis section of this post a little later.

 

[1] In her book There is Nothing Wrong with You (which I highly recommend), Zen Buddhist practitioner Cheri Huber illustrates the difference between resignation and acceptance. She suggests that resignation is something we do with our head down, while acceptance is something we do with our head up. Of course, the “head down” or “head up” spoken of here can be metaphorical rather than literal. She is suggesting that resignation leads to feelings of defeat, whereas acceptance can lead to expectancy and hope that our difficult feelings will eventually pass.

[2] True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart, Thich Nhat Hanh. Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boston, MA: 1997, pg. 13-14

 

[3] True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart, Thich Nhat Hanh. Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boston, MA: 1997, pg. 6

[4] The Buddha’s primary focus in life was the relief of human suffering. He wasn’t primarily interested in metaphysical questions such as the nature of the soul or whether there is a god or an afterlife. Instead, he focused on the causes and the cures of human suffering. Because of this, while Buddhism can be practiced as a religion, many people practice Buddhism as a life philosophy and find that it helps them relieve their suffering and understand their own values more clearly—whether they are religious or not. So, for example, the Catholic monk, Thomas Merton, practiced Buddhist philosophy later in his life and said it helped him become a better Christian. There are also non-religious folk who draw on Buddhist philosophy for practical guidance in living. When I reference Buddhist writings in this post (and also in later posts in my blog), I am primarily interested in the practical philosophical insights of Buddhism that are applicable to all human beings, whatever their religious orientation is.

[5] Sayings of the Buddha. “Establishing Mindfulness.” Rupert Gethin, trans. Oxford University Press, Inc: New York, 2008., pg. 146.

[6] In many Buddhist communities, a bell rings at certain points of the day to remind the community members to be mindful and present with themselves.

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