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Passionate Presence: Becoming Fully Present Every Moment of Every Dayby Catherine Ingram
Over the millennia the search for meaning and belonging has been humankind's most fervent pursuit, and to that end religions and philosophies abound. Yet, in our time, many people feel alienated from all religion and philosophy, sensing them to be based in superstition, dogma, or hierarchies of power. The need for meaning and belonging remains the same, yet the traditional options for fulfilling that need have less and less appeal. In desperation, we have turned to consumerism, technology, and celebrity voyeurism as our new religions, and these, too, have proven unsatisfying. The modern world, for many, has become a soulless place.
Out of this disappointment comes a large and growing interest in finding meaning that is not based in beliefs or traditions, but instead relies purely on direct experience. Many people sense the spiritual, the mysterious breath of existence. Yet, though they sense the mysterious, they remain grounded in reason. Rational mystics, I call them. It may seem to such people that they are alone in their view, that they are not fit for either religion or the marketplace. They may feel that they are not fit for this world at all.
I know well the loneliness that comes when one no longer feels part of a spiritual tradition yet is wary of a purely mechanistic or biologically determined view of life. Some years ago I experienced an existential depression that lasted several years and fostered a cynical view of reality. Having previously been on a spiritual journey since the early seventies, I had studied with renowned teachers in Asia and the West and had immersed myself in a worldwide community of meditation practitioners, primarily in the Buddhist traditions. In addition to rigorous meditation practice, we studied what in Sanskrit is called the dharma, which loosely translates as "truth" or "the way." For over a decade I had also worked as a journalist specializing in consciousness and activism in order to have access to and, in a sense, private tutorials with some of the great spiritual leaders and thinkers of our time.
These were heady years of feeling part of a growing spiritual movement. But there came a point when none of it made sense anymore. All religious beliefs began to fall away and seem nothing more than fairy tales attempting to assuage anxiety about the purposelessness of existence and the fear of death. This falling away of beliefs occurred completely on its own and was the last thing I would have wished. After all, it is very comforting to have a nice coherent story about the purpose of life and a belief in the hereafter. Instead, I plummeted into a vision of reality that was pointless and heartless. Having long since seen the futility of finding peace in the pursuit of power or money, and, now, set adrift from any connection to dharma, I felt a stranger to every world. I no longer spoke the language of my oldest and dearest friends, and a cold desolation engulfed me.
The silver lining of the cloud of depression is that it sometimes opens us to fresh perspective. When our strategies have failed and we have found no consolation in any quarter, we can either fall into madness or into realizing that what we have always wanted-a passionate aliveness at peace in itself-is, strangely enough, found in a simple shift in perception.
In my case, meeting my teacher, the late H. W. L. Poonjaji of India, awoke in me a clarity that objectively viewed the story of my depression and pierced through it to underlying peace, dissolving the depression along the way. Poonjaji exhibited a possibility of living in the quiet center of one's being while remaining fully engaged in activity. His was a passionate expression of life, devouring its delights while remaining aware of its tragedies. Nevertheless, one sensed in him a silence that the world did not touch.
Despite my many years of meditation practice, I had never experienced silence in an ongoing way. I had tried to come to silence through techniques of taming the mind, and that had been futile. Yet now all effort to still the mind fell away and my attention began to effortlessly rest in the silence beyond thought. Crazy thoughts continued, but interest in them lessened. Movements of mind, emotion, fear, or elation became as waves on an ocean of peace. An acclimatizing process began to occur on its own. Just as mountain climbers, when approaching a high altitude, must spend time camped at points along the way with no particular task other than to let their bodies adjust to the new altitude, I could feel my awareness adjusting to silence while doing nothing to assist it. The silence did all the work, just as being at the higher altitude does the acclimatizing work for the climbers.
Within this silence, I also began to feel a pervading presence in everything, and a feeling of love overwhelmed me. I realized that I had always felt intrinsic presence and love on the periphery of my awareness; it was completely familiar. Pure presence is our fundamental experience, even when we seem to be lost in the stories and activities of life. Like breathing, it is taken for granted. Yet it is what we most clearly remember when we think back to the earliest times of our existence. The details of our past may be fuzzy, but being itself is clear. At the ages of four, ten, twenty, or ninety, what has or will most consistently define our experience is the simple fact of being and, if we go deeper, a feeling of love.
I remembered this feeling from my earliest days with my Italian grandmother, Caterina Versace, who died when I was seven and who had been like a mother to me. We would silently walk among the blue hydrangeas in her yard, and everything inside and out appeared to be glowing and shimmering. This all seemed perfectly normal at the time.
But, as I grew older, I somehow lost the sense of it. Although the awareness of simple presence and love was there all along, I overlooked it by searching for meaning and purpose and promises of life ever after. On meeting Poonjaji, the search fell away and in its place an appreciation for mystery and an awakened awareness emerged. I was overcome by the sensation of underlying unity. Everything was in its place-just so.
This understanding conveys a sense of belonging. I recognized that we are not merely interconnected; we are suffused with the same essence as that of everything. Steeping in this sense, we no longer spend our time clutching to what is turning to dust or chasing abstract ideas, such as meaning and purpose. We walk in a sense of totality; the world being entirely our own. It is not that we possess it but that we are it. Like water into water.
There is a story about a little fish who swims up to his older and wiser fish friend and says, "You go on and on about water. I have been searching for it everywhere and it is nowhere to be found. I have studied all the texts, practiced and trained diligently, and met with those who have known it, but it has eluded me." The wise old fish says, "Yes, dear. As I always tell you, not only are you swimming in it right now but you are also composed of it." The little fish shakes his head in frustration and swims away, saying, "Maybe someday I will find it."
We are so like the little fish. We search everywhere outside ourselves to try to find ourselves. We collect experiences, relationships, knowledge, and objects. We hope for recognition from others to validate our importance. But while we may have found pleasure or rewards in various ways, we have often overlooked our greatest gift, hidden in plain sight-our own passionate presence. We overlook this gift because we are so busy searching elsewhere for something more. As long as we depend on an enhanced sense of ourselves to be happy we are likely to be disappointed. Telling ourselves stories about what is missing forces us into a relentless pursuit of desires akin, as Poonjaji would say, to beasts of burden driven by a madman. Happiness comes in relaxed simplicity, living in present awareness, and contentment with this life that is granted.
Because it is simply what is so, this view comes effortlessly in deep relaxation. When striving is exhausted (usually through disappointment) and we no longer hope for anything outside ourselves to make us feel whole, we may begin to notice a startling quality of aliveness-how fulfilling it is just to be-and this sense of being infinitely extends and includes all of existence. Usually people associate a sense of unbounded presence with epiphanies in life-being present at a birth, or a death. People lose themselves in sexual union, in nature, or in the presence of heart-wrenching beauty. In those moments they forget to keep up the story about the one having an experience, and all that is left is the actual experience of presence. Yet peak experiences are only portals to our true nature, which is already occurring completely on its own. What is known as realization is merely feeling this immaculate presence here and now, realizing or being fully cognizant of the ordinary miracle of just being. This needs no attainment since it is already occurring. It requires no special circumstances, no life epiphanies, no meritorious preparations. It is fully present each moment of our lives. It stays fresh and innocent despite our sorrows, regrets, and whatever damage or failures we feel we have sustained. No suffering or transgressions have marred it, just as no exalted deeds have enhanced it. Countless thoughts and experiences have come and gone, and none of them have adhered.
Though meeting a teacher facilitated this awakening for me, it is not always necessary. In fact, awakened awareness is not dependent on any particular circumstance. We are each endowed with clear perception that becomes dormant or obscured through the conditioning of fear, loss, and belief. When we deeply relax in silence, our awareness effortlessly shines with a transforming brilliance. We live as sensible and practical people, but with a twinkle in our eyes. We go about our business as usual-answering phones, taking care of children, riding the subway-and we enjoy a quiet sense of presence through it all. Aware that we are living in a grand mystery, feeling the radiance of its presence everywhere, we also take care of the tasks at hand.
I began sharing these understandings in 1992, initially at the invitation of Ram Dass, spiritual teacher and author of the classic Be Here Now. Since that time I have traveled extensively, conducting public evening events in the U.S. and Europe. These gatherings, called Dharma Dialogues, are interactive discussions alternating with periods of quiet. The dialogue's purpose is to bring one's attention to present awareness and see through the mind's habitual ways of trying to squirm out of it. Each night is different, a kind of improvisational Socratic conversation that eventually leads, in almost each case, to silence. In addition to Dharma Dialogues, I have also led many silent residential retreats. It is in the retreats, when people are simply quiet and free to float in the deep waters of their being, that I have noticed the emergence of a surprisingly consistent intelligence. This intelligence is cross-cultural and transcends biological abilities and educational backgrounds. People who may not have been considered intellectually gifted experience this intelligence as do people who have had little education. It could be thought of as an intelligence of the heart because it seeks harmony and the equilibrium of goodness. I call it awakened awareness because it is innate and suddenly just wakes up. It is this awareness or intelligence we refer to when we say we are in our "right minds." We might add that awakened awareness is when we are in our right hearts as well. When we are in our right minds and hearts, we are instinctively loving, generous, and clear.
For years I had been reflecting on the universal nature of this awareness. I had noticed, especially in retreats, that people in the daily group sessions would speak in almost mystical poetry to describe the ordinary events of their days. I realized that what we now call mystical works of poetry from former eras were simply descriptions of reality by people of those times, such as Rumi or Hafiz of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. They weren't trying to be poetic. They were describing feelings and life as they literally experienced them. They were reporting from the field of awakened awareness.
In retreat, I began to notice similar descriptions spoken by people who had never been exposed to these ideas. I have often been startled to hear perceptions and feelings described in nearly exact language by, for example, a person who lives in rural Scotland and one who lives in Hawaii. I realized that this intelligence crosses time as well, that the awakened awareness of the Buddha, Christ, or Rumi is not distinctly different from that of our own. People over the centuries have stumbled upon this inherent intelligence in countless ways and expressed it in art, poetry, music, science, and even religion. My attention began to reflect on and marvel at the similar expressions I observed in people who exhibited awakened awareness. It became a secret hobby of mine to notice these similarities wherever I traveled in the world. One night I awoke from a dream in which I had identified seven primary qualities that naturally and consistently emerge in awakened awareness. I got out of bed, wrote them down, and went back to sleep. The next morning I looked at what I had written and saw the basis for this book.
The seven qualities-Silence, Tenderness, Embodiment, Genuineness, Discernment, Delight, and Wonder-are familiar to everyone. Yet we often overlook them in our pursuit of worldly things or spiritual advancement. In awakened awareness, however, these qualities are our daily company, our best friends. They come from our own innate wisdom and guide us better than any philosophy ever has. This book is therefore simply a reminder of what you already know in your heart of hearts, in your own awakened awareness. Someone who recently read the manuscript said that during the reading she often found herself thinking, "Yes, absolutely right, but how do we get there?" The irony is that in the moment of saying, "Yes, absolutely right . . ." she was in awakened awareness itself. It is your own awakened awareness that recognizes truth. You don't have to strain to find it or strive to intellectually hold onto it. Insight is best metabolized fresh. There is no need to remember anything for later. If you try to grasp it, you end up with dogma. If you relax into the quiet center of your being, your own awareness will notice every wink of the mystery that comes your way. silence
She had been on the quest for so long that the reasons for it were no longer clear to her. She was just moving, step after step, too tired to think. Having recently fallen down a slippery bank into a thicket, she was bruised and scratched, her daring leaps of former times now too difficult to execute. Seeing a river in the distance, she made her way there to get a drink and wash her wounds. Afterward she lay under a nearby tree thinking that if she could just get some rest, she would be able to renew her journey with invigorated determination. After all, the quest was important. The quest was all there was. She was about to drift off to sleep when she noticed an old woman sitting on the riverbank nearby. The woman, who had been gazing at the water, turned and silently gestured to her, opening her arms with palms outward as if to say, "Just this."
Yes, just this, the woman thought as she fell into a deep sleep. When she awoke several hours later, evening had fallen and the old woman was gone. Getting up, she realized that something was very different. The stars were now shining pinpoints within her being, their light no longer traveling from a distance but encompassed by her awareness as glowing prisms within the vast regions of herself. The river and its sound, the trees and their smell-all now existed in a sweeping whole, a multidimensional canvas of color, forms, and sensations. She realized in a flash that it had always been so. Her restless thoughts, so long her only companions, disappeared into a void as soon as they arose, as though pulled into space. They were whispers in a cathedral. They were ghosts, without relevance. She remembered that she had been on a quest, but now the idea of it seemed strange, and she could no longer hold the thought of its importance.
The silence, on the other hand, seemed almost loud in contrast. She spent the rest of the night feeling like a bird that had been freed from a cage into a palace of starlight, the silence now and again punctuated by the words "just this," though even these words were claimed by it.
Copyright © 2003 by Catherine Ingram
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