Summer Musings on The Practice of Presence
Judith S. Schmidt PhD
During this summer, I have been reading and reflecting on several facets of the Practice of Presence, a wisdom practice that is central to our learning at the Center for Intentional Living.
Reflections from Child Development
D.W. Winnicott tells us that ‘there is no such thing as a baby’. There is only an attuned unit of mother-child, a finally resonating field. In infancy, when things are well enough, we not only nurse at the breast for the nourishment of milk. We are also drinking the deep cellular wisdom, the music that we are always in communion, always face to face with others, with all living things of our world. . In our beginning, gazing into the face of our mother, when things go good enough, we are at the portal of sensing that all is sacred.
- Recently, at the local nature preserve, I saw a young child put his face to the earth, listening, waiting to hear. That child knows
- My friend Anna Maria told me that she and her family, including her young grand-children, dove to sit in a circle on the ocean floor. A dolphin came into the circle, came face to face, making eye contact with each of them. In those moments, dolphin and humans and the living waters were face to face, at one with the sacredness of the One.
It is only when things do not go well enough, when a mother is depressed or overwhelmed, perhaps by loss, by poverty or war, or for some other reason is not present to her infant, that a sense of exile from others takes root in the new being who then stands like a tree alone in the forest. Until such time as someone arrives to hear the tree’s call, it lives in a dysregulated terror of disconnection from itself and others. It lives in the terror of non-existence, for we exist only in relation to others. In the presence of another’s empathy, an earned secure attachment forms. Out of that first disconnection, that first wound, a profound heart-felt compassion opens for the wounds of others.
Reflections on the Right Brain
Allan Schore teaches us about what happens when a mother holds her infant and they gaze into one another, face to face. As mother holds her baby to her heart, on her left side, as they gaze upon one another, each mirrors the other’s right limbic brain, bathing together in a limbic love bath. This bathing is the beginning of growing a wise heart. Something critical is happening. A fundamental way of being and behaving is being shaped at the very foundation for the rest of life.
The right brain is where emotional bonding takes root, where bodily sensed communication of the music, the prosody, the timber and tone, rather than the words is registered. Here, in the right brain are heard the words under the words, including the language of the body. From the beginning of life, the right brain is in touch with emotion and the body’s felt sense of things. Here are rooted the faith that there is goodness in a safe world. Here is rooted the capacity for empathy, for compassion between one person and another and between all living things, including the earth and air. Here, at our beginning, are planted the seeds of seeing the world as inter-connected and whole, each being as unique. In the poem ‘the Gift’, Li-Young Lee recollects his boyhood memory of his father as he, now like his father, bends over his wife’s hand to remove a splinter lodged there.
To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he’d removed
the iron silver I thought I’d die from.
It is also important to know that at the beginning of life, the infant and young child read faces to determine if they are safe or threatening. The small almond shaped part of the brain, the amygdala, is primed for survival, ready to warn us to fight, to take flight or to freeze in the face of danger. The amygdala is our legacy from our evolutionary ancestors who lived in jungle and forest and had to react with full speed in order to survive. This rapid- fire reactivity to physical and/or emotional threat is with us as part of our inheritance even though we are not in need of it in the same way as were our ancestors. Even today, we read angry faces faster than happy faces.
If things do not go well at the beginning, the terror of being overwhelmed by both the threat of no-connection and the danger of poor connection takes root. The lack of capacity to trust being in safe contact with one’s self and with others primes the amygdala to be over activated, on red alert. Instead of living in a secure, flexible, bending into what is before us, there is the protection provided by a rigid defense of wariness of the stranger, of the Other.
Reflections on Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and the Emissary:
The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World
McGilchrist tells us that, unlike the right brain, the left is not concerned with connection. Its way of relating to the world is to pay attention to details and categories in order to make sense and systematize the world. The left brain is not concerned about stopping to look at a tree, or to bend one’s ear to the earth, or to marvel at a flowering Queen Ann’s Lace. It is interested in forming concepts: trees, earth, flowers.
According to McGilchrist, our two hemispheres are meant to complement one another. He tells us that the right brain is meant to be the master, first registering the wholeness of our world, then sending information to the left brain to be categorized and analyzed and then sent back again to the right brain so that there can be a totality processed by a whole integrated brain.
The left- brain, the emissary, has forgotten that it is the servant meant to report back to the master, and has instead taken over our world with its technical and informational achievements. Concepts and categories do not feel the plight of the hunger and thirst of so many, or for those suffering in tribal wars, or for the polar bears who cannot fish because the ice they stand on is melting.
The emissary has lost its way. There is a home-sickness in the land, a longing for the sense of wholeness and holiness that matters to the heart.
Reflections on the Thought of the Heart
James Hillman, the Jungian psychologist, was greatly influenced by the Sufi tradition. Hillman tells us that the Sufis, in their ancient wisdom, believed that imagination resides in the organ of the heart. Current neuroscience tells us that the right brain, which holds our images of wholeness and healing, not only regulates the heart but is, as well, informed by the heart’s neurotransmitters.
Henri Corbin, Sufi scholar and inspiration to Hillman, speaks of the power of the heart, the himma, signifying the act of meditating, imagining, of ardently desiring with all of one’s life force and intention, from one’s deepest being that what is good and whole and beautiful in this life.
Corbin tells us that every act of himma is an act of love and is led by the angel of our destiny who goes ahead of us as an invisible guide. He tells us that every act of creative imagination is an act of prayer, born of the longing to raise our world up to wholeness and holiness. According to Corbin, “prayer is not a request for something. It is the expression of a mode of being, a means of existing and of causing to exist…prayer is the supreme act of Creative Imagination.”
It is in the worlds of embodied and creative imagination that we are open to receive news of what is possible beyond our known categories of left-brain creativity. There we learn of what might exist and of what we might help to exist. In order for the new to enter and surprise our habitual consciousness, there is the need to stand in the empty spaces of unknowing which is part of right brain capacity. In this reality, we can bear waiting in silence to receive from outside our known maps of our world, to be created before we conceptualize.
What enters through the doorway of imagination is always a surprise. We sense the freshness of ‘beginner’s mind’, like the child who has his ear bent to listen to what comes from deep under the rich soil. In such moments, we sense that we are visited by an in-flow from an unknown Source. We sense that we are a mystery to our own selves, if only we let go of who we think we are and what we think we know.
Here, my summer musings come full circle, back to mother and child. When things go ‘good enough’, by the age of eighteen months there is the development of an area of the brain called the middle pre- frontal cortex, behind the middle of the forehead. From here grows neural circuits to every other part of the brain, shaping the capacity for emotional integration, for self-regulation and for empathic connection, helping us be secure within ourselves and with others. This is also the area of the brain that is shown to be most active during mindfulness meditation and is the ground for our sense of morality and compassion, for our Practice of Presence. It is right behind the third eye, in exquisite alignment with both the heart and the gut.
And, as well, there is our old friend, the amygdala, our ancestral legacy before the birth of our higher brain. We pivot on the hinge of tension between our primal instinct for survival in the face of the Other-as-threat and our deep longing to stand with our fellows on the ground of inter-being. The Practice of Presence begins here in this tension, opening space for our witnessing self and our creative imagination to be in touch with the activation of the amygdala and to return us to the ground of the heart.
Yesterday, as I was writing these musings, the doorbell rang. When I came to the door, a young man was standing outside, holding a clip- board and pen, obviously wanting my signature and a check for some cause. The cause was an anti-fracking campaign and the young man was one of many young men who have appeared on my door step over the years at work for what they believe in.
The only difference about this young man was that he was the first on my doorstep wearing both a lip ring and a nose ring. I witnessed myself feeling intruded upon and vaguely uncomfortable with his body rings.
Here we are on the landing outside my door. It is a very hot day and sweat is dripping down his face. His shirt is soaking wet. In the moment, I am aware of swinging between my compassion for his working out there during a heat wave and of sensing my fear of this young man. For some reason the body piercings have touched my danger button. The words under the wordless fear might have been: young men with piercings don’t petition in the heat to stop fracking. My left brain could not find a category for this apparent contradiction and so my amygdala took over.
We stand together at the top step. I sign the petition. I write the check. Before leaving, the young man asks for something to wipe away his sweat. I give him a face cloth to take with him. I sense that he has registered my fear because he seems surprised that I have given him more than some paper towels. He thanks me, goes on his way as I return to my writing. I am vaguely unsettled.
Later in the day, while meditating, my thoughts come back to the young man. I replay those moments on the top step. In my meditation, creative imagination takes me to my place of refuge, the place I go to when I am in need of sorting myself out.
I am there, in the rose garden at the Vedanta Retreat in Olema, where it is always blessedly silent and where the scent of roses enters and calms me and opens my heart where my wise self abides.
In the silence, I hear a very compassionate voice whisper: you did not offer the young man a glass of water. Perhaps it is the voice of the angel who goes ahead of me. The voice is both truthful and tender.
My heart breaks open. I sob, remorseful that I did not see him as a human being, did not sense his need for water as he sweated.
I hear the whisper: Offer it to him now.
In creative imagination, I return to the top step with a glass of cold water. I hand it to him. I smile. He smiles. We are face to face, safe.
In creative imagination I have implanted in my brain the thought of my heart: offer a glass of water, offer a glass of water
Here is the seed of a new neural pathway, capable of both calming my amygdala and guiding my right-action. Although I cannot repair the past encounter with the young man, there is now the possibility of repair in the future.
I will offer a glass of water. In the silence of rose garden arises the whisper from creative imagination, arises the prayer for repair, arises the thought of the heart… all becoming a living gesture into the future.
This is the gift of the Practice of Presence