Presence, Not Present

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Checking In

A wise koan from the Washington States Parks Department

Wilbur’s slender body is shaped like an S, his nose one of the S-tails. He is snoring through his long snoot. The rare winter sun is pouring through the window in front of me. My beloved Mitsubishi heat robot breezes warm air into the room. On some level, everything is fine.

If I am still, if I let go of past and future, I can linger here, in the fineness. Better still, if I let go of “I,” let go of my ego, I can ease into a place, or state, which is infinite fineness.

I’ve visited the infinite fineness a few times in my life, never for long. And I’ve stumbled across descriptions of it in my own research: Buddha nature, essence, true self, presence.

Most of my visits were facilitated by psychedelic medicines like ketamine, and [redacted]. My anxieties fell away. Pain fell away. My identity crumbled and blew away. But something was left. Something vast and peaceful.

It is the space between each breath. It is the part of you that is aware that you are aware.

And it keeps coming up in my healing inquiry. So, reader, I want to tell you about it.


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Presenting Presence

The first thread is the idea of presence.

Back in December I mentioned I was taking a course entitled “Healing with Presence.” The teacher, a therapist named Riyaz Motan, guided about 50 participants on an 8-session therapeutic exploration into presence. I’ve since taken another course on presence with Riyaz’s mentor, an elder named John Prendergast.

Six or seven years ago I would have laughed at the very idea of these courses. And I would have laughed at the following sentence: I suspect presence is a kind of magic💫

*Also on my list of things that are probably magic: Consciousness, life, love, art, music, and language. Discuss.

In meditations guided by Riyaz, and later, John, I was able to touch the frontiers of presence.

It is the subtlest of states. It is *not* being present. It is not mindfulness.

Instead, imagine an ocean wave trying to touch into its “oceanness.” Or imagine sitting in a quiet room and eventually becoming aware of the room tone, the subtlest, quietest noise that sits under the everyday distractions of sirens, screens, and your own endlessly yammering mind.

Watching Riyaz and John work with participants was remarkable, even through the glitchy lens of Zoom. I watched Riyaz work with a participant on a wrenching personal loss. At one point the person was crying. By the end, they were quiet, peaceful. Sleepy baby energy.

As John worked with his students, he had the uncanny energy of the lifelong meditator.. Compassion, patience, and kindness seemed to radiate from his little box on the Zoom screen. He had the peculiar facial expression—soft eyes, the barest smile—that I see on photos of spiritual masters like the Dalai Lama, Thích Nhất Hạnh, and Pema Chödrön.

To watch Riyaz or John was illuminating. When someone cries in front of me, my stress levels go through the roof. SOMETHING IS WRONG! I BROKE IT!

Riyaz and John were anchored in their own presence. And from that place they were unshakably calm and compassionate. But not disconnected, not spiritually bypassed. They were attuned to the finest subtleties of their participant’s experience. Even through Zoom.

Riyaz would say, Something shifted there.

Participant would say, Yes.

Riyaz would say, Just be with it.

And reader, as I Zoomed in from my little island, sometimes I’d feel it too.

Presence, Meet Self

The other thread is Self.

In my trauma research, I kept coming across this strangely named therapy modality: Internal Family Systems (IFS). IFS is a type of parts work. It is based on the idea that we are not a singular personality, but a family of identities. You may have heard of the inner child, or the inner critic. These are examples of parts.

Richard Schwartz, the founder of IFS, came to the system organically, in concert with his clients. His first insight came from his client’s language: Phrases like “part of me wants to…” or “There’s a little voice that says…” He began address these parts and voices directly.

He was able to organize them into categories:

Protectors, who get into all sorts of mischief protecting you from pain, shame, or fear. Witness the procrastinator that keeps you inactive so you don’t risk the pain of failing at a new endeavor.

Behind those protectors: Exiles. Child parts of you that were wounded at a particular point in your childhood. The protectors guard access to these exiles in order to distance you from the pain these child parts still carry. Witness the little girl who was told she had an ugly voice, and so hides herself and her voice in a deep dark hiding place.

But Richard kept running into another part that seemed distinctly different. The part was reliably calm, connected, curious, and compassionate. It would often emerge in the midst of a contentious session with protectors and exiles, as a wise, gentle voice.

Richard called this part the Self. It is the center of the internal family, the natural parent figure. From the IFS perspective, much of what we call mental health challenges can be understood as a disconnection from Self. As an internal family run, effectively, by children.


I believe that presence and Self are the same thing.

The former descends from the Buddhist tradition, the latter, from a Western clinical psychologist. Two paths to the same insight.

By whatever name, presence seems to have its own healing magic. I saw it in Riyaz’s therapy demonstrations. And I experience it with my IFS therapist.

In either approach there is a kind a faith amongst practitioners that presence simply works. Riyaz has created a therapeutic practice around it under the acronym FABU (focus, accept, be with, unfold). I’m reminded of a related practice, as popularized by Tara Brach, RAIN (recognize, accept, investigate, nurture). TK PODCAST Both are practices simple and reliable enough to be practiced by non-experts. It’s even possible for a person to practice on themself.

Likewise, Richard Schwartz talks about how the IFS model is simple and intuitive enough that people can practice it in on themselves or with friends. In fact, the go-to guide for IFS is entitled Self-Therapy (Jay Earley).

Puppet Presence

I’ve not seen any discussion on whether puppets are qualified to work with presence. But as soon as I began training in presence, Squirrel began bringing up presence in his videos.

He started with a chat about the Self.

Then he talked about procrastinating parts, from an IFS lens.

Then he guided viewers (~240,000) through Riyaz’s FABU process.

The viewer comments seem to vindicate my intuitions about presence. The videos resonate. Presence even works on TikTok. I continue to walk in Squirrel’s fuzzy pawprints.

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