The soul is made of love and must ever strive to return to love. Therefore, it can never find rest nor happiness in other things. It must lose itself in love. By its very nature it must seek God, who is love.
– Mechthild of Magdeburg
My partner asked me shortly after the first of the New Year the difference between the practice of presence and the act of loving. This happened to be in reference to a familial matter and her questioning the actions of another in relation to both herself and her understanding of her feelings. Feelings aren’t necessarily love, although love is often contingent on feelings. However, if one is hurt by someone and what that person has said or done, especially without thoughtful consideration of that person’s feelings, being present in experiencing those feelings can be pure anguish and may even curtail the access to loving or feeling love.
We often believe when we reach a certain age, at least the age when we can define ourselves in biological time as being an elder, that we might know enough to shield ourselves from our own insufferable natures and to rise above them. Furthermore, we often believe we can practice both presence and actively love when we experience moments of bliss: the Saturday morning concert at Tanglewood, finding the gem on the visit to the hospice shop, raising a fine glass of cabernet to toast the blue cheese and mushroom omelette that you lovingly created, all those walks you enjoyed together, laughing in the sun. Those occasions become deeper when we are present and loving.
However, practicing presence, really staying with the moment, each and every moment, with mindfulness is not easy. That is why it is a practice. We are given yet another opportunity to not only practice presence but also another chance at deepening and broadening our capacities to love. This, through such effort, further opens the heart in ways we are not privy to at once, but the heart does open more broadly and with more depth—not only in regard to our personal lives, but for all those around us.
We never know who we may affect. The medical intuitive Caroline Myss recalls an anecdote about a young man who was so depressed that he had decided to board a city bus back to his apartment and commit suicide. A woman standing by the curb waiting for another bus looked up to the window where the young man was sitting and smiled. She just smiled—in goodness, the goodness of the day, the goodness of life itself. This, the young man relayed to Myss, was the anecdote and panacea for him to not take his own life and to begin to live a newly inspired life altogether. The woman standing by the curb, waiting for her own bus to take her further into her own life, was not only practicing presence but was also offering her love. Granted, it was just a smile, but that smile bore what Erich Fromm may have called love for one’s neighbor, even a young man whom she may not have been able to intuit was as depressed as he was. This woman was both present and loving, and the sheer power of this pairing can be incalculable.
However, what about being present and loving when someone has requested you do something that may, momentarily, seem heartless? How do we manage to smile and bear such a psychological and psychic burden? How do we calculate the injury to our heart? Similarly, how do we practice presence through each moment, which can seem endless, during such a dilemma?
Actually, there is nothing other in such a situation than practicing presence and actively loving, as much as that can be difficult, since both may seem inaccessible at the time. Also, inner prayer works. Inner prayer always works. It is just not our initial response to living through life’s more difficult situations.
The Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” which can also be amended to be prayed for another) provides nearly immediate nurturing. Additionally, I am always reminded of the Holy Mother, especially when I am driving back to my studio from my partner’s home and I pass a statue of her, which prompts me to begin to inwardly recite “Hail Marys” until reaching my destination.
What truly makes the most difference is returning oneself to each and every moment, which constitutes the practice of presence. What constitutes such practice is staying present. It is not rehashing the past, nor is it clouding what is called the future with the murkiness of thoughts, one way or another. Any mindfulness practice is work, and practicing presence is mindfulness practice. When we practice active spirituality on this level, we begin to notice a door open in the heart. No matter what anyone might have said or done to us largely falls away—or at least the pain of it does. What is replaced is the nascent glow of light within the heart. The warmth of the glow is what has been created through the spiritual alchemy of the practice of presence and prayer, which are forms of active love, and the light of compassion, which is an outstanding guiding force—and one that is healing, as well.
We live in a society that is ruled by outcomes: the outcome of an election; the decision of a judge; the final score of an athletic contest; whether or not we might see our partner again, and under what circumstances. What we can come to terms with during any challenge or trial or duress is that the most opportune, and best, place we can find ourselves is in the moment. It is all we ever have—by not ever really having it, since it is evanescent.
However, we also experience and observe that through being present in the moment we are able to realize our eternity. As much as that initially sounds overly intellectual, it is also quite actively real. All those Saturday morning concerts in Tanglewood still exist. We can hear the orchestral beauty of the Boston Symphony. We can relive immemorial dinners and the sensuality of having walked and laughed in the sun. We may be alone in the world, which is certainly the case with our living in the duality of existence, but we can also feel connected to everything and everyone in the similar spiritual truth that all is one.
And, maybe, just maybe, we can begin to experience the light and warmth of the door swinging open in the heart, emanating both love and compassion, filling us and possibly lighting the way for those closest to us and all those we may or may not meet.
Wally Swist’s recent books include The Map of Eternity (Shanti Arts, 2018), Singing for Nothing: Selected Nonfiction as Literary Memoir (The Operating System, 2018), and On Beauty: Essays, Reviews, Fiction, and Plays (Adelaide Books, 2018). His book A Bird Who Seems to Know Me: Poems Regarding Birds & Nature was the winner of the 2018 Ex Ophidia Press Poetry Prize and published in 2019. His other books include The Bees of the Invisible (2019) and Evanescence: Selected and New Poems (2020), also from Shanti Arts of Brunswick, Maine.