What does it mean to be present?
It means not being identified.
What does it mean to be identified?
It means behaving and thinking as if you are someone. It does not matter who that someone is. It could be a friend or a celebrity, you as a child, parent or sibling, a boss or victim, a writer or athlete, anything at all…factual or entirely imaginary. Of course, these identities may describe things you actually do and roles you have taken on. But if you fall into these roles and act from them unconsciously, you are identified, which is what sufis call sleep.
Each of us has more than one identity. At the deepest level, we identify with our bodies, or more particularly, a body image that we call ‘me’, and we self-identify as the thinker, repeating with Descartes that “Cogito ergo sum”…I am the little voice in my head. All identities have a psychological structure which separates or sets apart me from other, making smallness. Perhaps we could call it ‘subtraction by division’.
Every identity is false because it is a limitation, it is less than who you are. At the same time, each identity probably contains an element of the truth in that its characteristics reflect deeper qualities of being or perhaps their opposites. Our personalities are counterfeits, imitations of who we would be if we were conscious and living in being.
Can these roles be voluntarized? If we are aware of them, are we still identified?
Being aware of your identification is likely not enough to shift it. To voluntarize it is quite another matter. That is a topic for another day. First, see your identities as they manifest in real time. They will have recognizable patterns of behaviour—set postures and gestures, speech patterns, voice intonations and so on.
Try writing down a description of yourself. Do you have anything to say about yourself that is not a feature of one of your identities? What function does identification perform in your life? This is what is meant by the classical Greek admonition: Know Thyself. When you know these constructions, you may begin to know the being that lies beneath them.
Can any of us function in ordinary life without identification?
As presence learns to recognize itself in the state of being present, the momentum of sleep is lessened and identification doesn’t reassert itself so quickly. This opens up the possibility of subtle doings and perceivings that are not available in sleep. On the other hand, you may find that presence is eerily sober and you are not able to participate in customary roles and social exchanges. What was formerly intoxicating is sobering and what was formerly boring is now intensely satisfying.
Essentially, you have three alternatives: confine states of presence to the safer confines of the school, learn to act ‘normally’ in the ordinary world, which is challenging but immensely educational, or risk painful episodes and abrupt endings with old friends and family members.
It isn’t necessary to be present all the time, as if that’s even possible. Can you be present when it is called for, when the opportunity to respond presents itself?
If everything in creation has a function, what is the function of identification?
Identification is the gravity of the psychological realm. Identification is the basis for individuation by which the one becomes many—a brilliant creative act, it seems to me. Humans have an innate need to say ‘I’. If there is nothing to identify with, there is great insecurity, anxiety, instability. Most identities provide only temporary and partial relief at best. Is it possible to transfer the experience of ‘I’ to conscious being, to presence and attention? Can I say ‘I’ and mean a reflection of an inner formless world rather than the outer one of form? First relinquish, then attain.
There is more to being present than non-identification. There is always more than one way of seeing and there is always another essential feature to weigh. Do not put things in a box. As the opposite of presence, identification is the basis for a fruitful inquiry into presence…what can be called ‘going by way of the negative’.