The practice of presence
How do we exist in the world? How do others experience us?
But year after year of living in a world of such magnitude makes it easy to quit seeing it and to lose awareness of God in the urgent and everyday business of getting across the street without getting hit by an 18-wheeler. That is why we work together as a community to have awareness of the great presence of God in our lives. We seek to wake ourselves up, to make sure that the roar of the vacuum cleaner doesn’t drown out the knock of the treasured Guest at the door, to deliberately step out of the fast lane so that we can see and hear and touch the God who is around and within us and can shut up long enough so that we hear and truly listen to the story of God coming to us, born in Jesus. Born in us.
Eugene Peterson in On Living Well
I pick up my phone a lot. It’s habitual so I don’t notice that I’ve done that. What I notice is hurrying to set it down so that I can look one of my boys in the face when they have entered in the room. Needing to set my phone down pricks my mind. “Why did I pick it up anyway?”
Since I’m not using social media, my phone changes slowly. I can look at pictures, which is actually fun. I can add books to my Amazon wishlist, which helps me find novels at the library and keeps track of the growing list I want to read. I can check Feedly for new blog posts or glance my email. But nothing is constantly updating or providing me with unlimited content.
That lack—and it is a very good lack—means when I do pick up my phone, unless I’m texting a friend, I set it back down pretty quickly. The void leaves me time to notice that one of the trees in the backyard has yellow leaves already. I have six watermelons on my vines in the garden. There’s a baby rabbit hiding in the tall grass on the hill. I’m thirsty. One of my boys needs to tell me about his bad dream last night. And, oh yes, there was the friend I promised to pray for. Sometimes, I’m just bored and that is good for me.
I’ve sat at tables when everyone is looking at their phones.It’s normal and discomfiting. But it’s not just phones. We can be distracted from what’s in front of us by many things: jobs, important people, how others perceive us, our own thoughts, that awkward thing we said to a stranger fifteen years ago.
What I’m attempting to learn is to be present where I am and that is harder than simply quitting Instagram. I want to be aware of the physical world around me. Does my garden need watered? What flowers are blooming? How does where I live inform how I live? One of my goals is to be aware of the phases of the moon. I want to be startled by the vastness of space and intricacy of insects. I want to be delighted by a plethora of small things.
I also want to be present to the people of the world. In my own home this has actually been the hardest with everyone home all the time during the summer because I do have to answer emails, respond to texts, look at the weather. But I’m practicing leaving my phone in one spot and when school starts back, I’ll guard that pick-up to bedtime time closely. But I’m aware of this other places as well. It’s hard to listen to my husband if I won’t pause a podcast, meet someone new at church if I won’t look up from my phone that I’m hiding behind, see the people in line with me if I’m scrolling or seething because I have to wait. I can simply train myself not to see people because they might need something and I don’t want to be bothered. Instead I want to be present in joy of others, present in their pain, skilled at listening without immediately pivoting to my stories.
God is always present with me, but that doesn’t mean I am always aware of my presence with God. I want to be “with God” even if I’m not reading my Bible in my chair. Beth Moore once said we can carry an awareness of the Holy Spirit like we carry the awareness that we are pregnant with our first child. It’s there, a low hum under everything else that’s going on. God with me while I make dinner. God with me while I break up fights. God with me while I translate Greek, write these emails, read for class. I don’t want to fill my mind with such clutter that I can neither hear God nor speak to Him nor see Him present in the world and people around me.
I even want to be present to myself. A few years ago, I learned that I can search backward from certain feelings. If I’m feeling anxious and I wasn’t two hours ago, what happened? Was it a conversation? A post on the internet? Something I remembered was happening next week? I want to pay attention to my body. Do I need to stretch? Drink some water? Grab a snack? Should I go to bed early tonight instead of watching a show or working on homework?
This practice will take a lifetime.But I’m committing to it because I want to live what’s in front of me right now.
Here are a few ways that I’m practicing presence:
1. Grounding in the senses. What can I smell? Touch? See? How does my food taste? What does their voice sound like? God made us embodied humans and these experiences contribute to our understanding and enjoyment of the world.
2. Practicing thankfulness. Sometimes I pause and thank God for things that are happening right at that moment. I do write down three things about the previous day on the back of my prayer list. This practice forces me to be pay attention to my life and to remember God.
3. Assigning thinking times. Maybe you don’t need this, but I need scheduled time to think about things. Otherwise I can be wrapped up in my thoughts and not at all present to what’s happening around or in me.
4. Not carrying my phone with me. I try to leave it in an assigned spot, unless I’m using it as a camera or playing a podcast while I fold laundry. Phones are complex.
5. Asking “who’s here?” And “what do they need?” Also, sometimes, “What do I need?” Because I am also a person in deep need of communion with others.
In The Deeply Formed Life, Rich Villodas ends the book with two chapters on missional presence. This book is high on my list of recommends. I’ve worked through it three times, once by myself, and once with both of the two women I disciple. Villodas points out that mission begins “with God’s posture toward the world” and that the deeply formed life “is one that creates space for others.” In all my life I want to remember that I am seen. I am in the presence of God and that God sees the world and other people and myself in particular ways. Then I want to remember that everyone else is longing to be seen; my seeing them is a small reminder of the God who always sees them.
We all know there are emergencies and texts with the people keeping our kids and other reasons to engage with tech. That’s different than scrolling non-stop in the presence of others.
I rarely pay attention to the enneagram now but it can be a useful tool. The enneagram taught me that people interact with time differently. Some of us live constantly looking forward to what’s next, some always in the past and what’s already happened. A few are gifted in being in the moment.
I love this so much. I am scheming for how to leave social media behind and still do my work well. My sabbatical whet my appetite for it and I want more!
Thank you for writing this, Lisa! I both enjoyed and was challenged by it. So glad I can still access your writing!