Artwork by Daria Hlataztova

Much has been written about the art of mindfulness, especially focusing on how to create wiggle-room between an event and our reaction to it. We are asked to consider: Who is the “I” that experiences the event? And can we find the inner witness who sees oneself experiencing? All of this valid, important work takes us deeper into the seat of this “silent witness” so that we’ll be less governed by the unpredictable ebbs and swells of the emotional life. It can be a tremendous tool for moving through difficult passages with equanimity.

But more often than not, I see this practice creating a kind of dissociation or detachment from the feeling life. Especially in folks who haven’t done the hard and dirty work of integrating their shadow, meditation can be used like any other form of escapism, to circumvent the true encounter with our less-than-desirable inner (and outer) guests.

The result of this brand of presence often creates the opposite of what it intends. Rather than fostering the oneness it exalts, it feeds the very separation we are trying to heal by creating an image of spirituality that is unattainable. The focus on enlightenment rather than embodiment distances us from the messy business of being human.

If you’re doing it right, presence, rather than detaching you, sensitises you to your environment. It puts you smack-dab in the discomfort, the disagreeability, the pain, the awkwardness, and the contradiction — this is where you can grow more skilled at meeting life where it’s at, rather than how you’d prefer it to be. In other words, allowing the full spectrum of events to be included in your experience, rather than mounting resistance to them.

By extension, presence also makes us more porous to life’s mystery, or what Timothy “Speed” Levitch calls the “ongoing wow of now.” When we think of presence in these terms, as an aperture or opening to what is, we immediately feel a spaciousness stretching around the word. And it is this capacity for presence that awakens a natural sense of accountability towards, and authentic engagement with our relationships, communities, and the natural world.