The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers. ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
Who do you enjoy spending time with the most? Why? What does that person have in common with your favorite teacher? Your lover? Your best friend? Your beloved pet? Your child? They may be very different individuals on the surface, but scratch a little deeper, and I bet you'll find that they have one thing in common: they are present—their unique constellation of inner stars is lit, and their actions, words, emotions, and body language are in synch. They are aligned with their authentic self, but they're also in tune with you, appearing simultaneously full and empty. Being with them makes you feel seen, loved, and connected—more integrated, at ease, and grounded in the here-and-now.
Most of us weren't explicitly shown or taught at home or school what it means to be present, how to be present in our bodies and others, and how important and rare of a gift it is. Even if we got the message that our presence mattered—by being with or observing others with great presence—how to access and cultivate this secret power and energy within ourselves remained a bit of a mystery until game changer Amy Cuddy entered the scene and made our abstract understanding of presence considerately more concrete and accessible.
Amy Cuddy is a social psychologist at Harvard's business school and the author of Presence: Bringing your Boldest Self to your Biggest Challenges. Her Ted Talk, Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are, is one of the most viewed talks in history. Thanks to her, 36 million viewers and countless readers have learned that a minor posture adjustment before a socially stressful event can significantly enhance our presence and performance.
Her simple but brilliant research showed that embodying a high power pose (body expanded, open, victory V arms) versus a low power pose (body hunched, collapsed, folded arms) for just two minutes while sitting or standing caused a significant rise in testosterone (and greater risk taking) and a drop in cortisol (and less overwhelm and stress) in both male and female participants. The hormonal changes produced improvement in self-perception and mood—the high power pose participants reported feeling more powerful, assertive, and confident during a stressful interview, and were perceived to be more passionate, captivating, enthusiastic, and clear compared to the low power posers.
Amy hopes that her quick and easy intervention will help level the playing field in areas where marginalized groups—women, immigrants, minorities—have typically assumed the low power pose and are adversely affected by unequal distributions of power, access, and resources. She discovered that four to six-year old children already associate high-power poses portrayed by a gender neutral wooden doll with boys and low-power poses with girls, illustrating that the prejudicial assignment of stereotypical low and high power postures starts as young as kindergarten.
She also found that if we are near someone who embodies the alpha posture, we tend to compliment them and make ourselves smaller. While it's entirely possible for two people with goodwill to negotiate how to express their full presence and power in each other's presence, the empowerment of those in low power positions often requires shaving off excess power from those in high power positions who tend to resist this. A good number of people are not interested in giving up their unequal share of power, especially when they fear that they will die—literally or figuratively—without the persona crutch, status, privileges, or coping possibilities that this excess power offers them.
This kind of intervention could backfire in contexts where those in higher power positions are highly invested in the hierarchical power dynamic, and those in the low power positions have become equally invested in these dynamics for their own safety and survival purpose. In the worse case scenario, messing with this status quo could, for instance, get an abused wife or child beaten, or a Black person arrested or shot.
Ironically, overwhelming pain and feelings of being stuck in powerless positions are what initially caused many perpetrators, who were once in the low power role, to lose perspective, overcompensate for unresolved anger and helplessness, and get greedy when presented with an outlet or taste of power and control. This unhealed wound feeds the vicious oppressed-oppressor cycle and is the most prominent threat to both inner and outer peace.
Contemporary spiritual teachers, such as Tara Brach, Jeffrey Foster, and Eckhart Tolle, take a different route to Rome, or home, that deflates the appeal of this risky temptation and opens the door to deep healing. Their take on being present is more aligned with Buddhist and Taoist thought and rooted in present-moment awareness. They teach that alignment of the mind and body with this larger field of intelligence, our true home, allows us to transcend our human inclination to dichotomize and reject parts of ourselves that we view as bad, powerless, and undesirable. Within the spaciousness of here-and-now presence, we learn to hold, accept, honor, and integrate paradoxical aspects of ourselves and begin to identify with our most potent and deepest presence beneath thought, emotion, and preferences.
Each one of these teachers likes to use the metaphor of a wave and the ocean to demystify these esoteric notions of presence. While our ego-mind labels every rising ripple of emotion, sensation, urge, and thought as a separate entity from the ocean, each wave still remains as intimately connected to the ocean as our arm or leg is to our bodies. Rather than boost our personal power with a bold alpha pose and a certain outcome, they would say that we discover our true power when we liberate ourselves from our aversion of certain feelings and love for others, and bring nonjudgmental attention to the present moment sensation.
Each one of these waves rises out of the same ocean water and functions in service of the whole, just like the cells in our body. In a recent podcast, Tara advocated "dropping the story line"—the diced-up version of ourselves and reality—concerned that this false and limited story will keep us in the shadows. Jeffrey concurs that the "story is always old, the silence is new," and Eckhart has advised to "surrender to the moment, not to a story through which you interpret this moment."
But what if rejecting the story altogether is another polarizing mental sleight of hand? What if being truly present in our totality means honoring the hidden treasures in the darkness and shadow of the false story? What if this is how we retrace our way back to ourselves and give birth to our sacred story, the unique way in which we liberate ourselves from the grip of our false stories and struggles?
It seems to me that paradoxical reality would celebrate our unique path as much as our collective oneness. Each one of us is both a wave and part of the ocean, just like our feelings, not distinct and separate, not better or worse than the other. And while the metaphor of the wave and ocean makes it easy to understand the lack of separation, we are not just ocean, waves, and in the flow with only water. We are also earth, air, and fire. Like earth, we enjoy embodying our essence and sun-ripening slowly, and like air, we rejoice when our story inspires others and breathes new life into them. Our heart and fire, like the sun, invigorates our body, our unique passions, and makes us feel alive and connected to something bigger than ourselves.
While containing, splitting off, repressing, rejecting, and condemning undesirable parts and persons may produce some relief, the unresolved energy and self-denial lurking under this quick-fix will fester and once again emerge as pain, burning fever, a rash, cough, inflammation, or some other symptom to invite us to examine our split and distorted notion of reality and humanity.
When I do this deeper introspection, I feel the power of life, love, and divine essence course through my body and veins, filling me up with its healing presence. And when I trust these feelings and view others and myself as miraculous microcosms of nature, constantly harmonizing, recalibrating, and integrating ourselves according to a masterplan of unfathomable intelligence and potential that only expands into the direction of greater mystery and interconnected wholeness, it seems like we both more easily become it.
Loraine Van Tuyl, PhD, CHT, holistic psychologist, depth hypnosis practitioner, and shamanic healer from the Sacred Healing Well, is devoted to helping wisdom keepers, seekers, healers, and teachers dive deep into their self-healing potential and carve out their sacred dream paths in service of their dynamic whole self and the greater good.
Her memoir-in-progress, Amazon Wisdom Keeper, is an eye-opening account of her spontaneous shamanic awakening and initiation during her graduate training in the mental health field. What gives her story an added twist is her ability to anchor into her rich cultural background and mystical upbringing near the edge of the Amazon rainforest when standing her ground, challenging indoctrinating double-binds in her field, and placing all bets on her spiritual integrity, intuitive wisdom, and clarity—each one severely tested after escaping the chaotic aftermath of a military coup in her native Suriname and losing almost everything that she knew and loved at the age of 13.
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