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Essence has been combined with The Elixir of Enlightenment, a short introductory text directed toward students on the path who are frustrated by either the spiritual or psychological barriers that Western life can present. Discusses the values and shortcomings of spiritual training, and explores why an impasse may occur. Reveals how a precise understanding of your own personality can free your inner resources so that your essential being can ...
Essence has been combined with The Elixir of Enlightenment, a short introductory text directed toward students on the path who are frustrated by either the spiritual or psychological barriers that Western life can present. Discusses the values and shortcomings of spiritual training, and explores why an impasse may occur. Reveals how a precise understanding of your own personality can free your inner resources so that your essential being can lead you toward enlightenment.
PRESENCE AND ESSENCE
IN GENERAL, PEOPLE RARELY have, and never recognize as such, the experience of essence. So we will begin by looking at a related quality of experience that is more commonly felt and talked about: the quality of presence. The expression "I am present" is often used in spiritual and psychological circles, with an assumption that its meaning is understood. We ask: what does this expression mean? What does being present actually signify? Most of the time the expression is not used in a very definite or clear way; most people, if asked, are unable to explain what they mean by "present."
But there must be an actual condition that warrants using the expression "I am present." What is that condition? The expression literally means that there is an "I" that is present at the time. Is this literal meaning accurate?
Obviously, when we say "I am present," we don't mean exactly that we are aware, otherwise we would say so. There is a difference between the meaning of "I am present" and the meaning of "I am aware," although the two can and frequently do coincide. What is the difference? What makes us say "present" instead of "aware?" What is in the experience of "I am present" that is different from the experience of "I am aware?" What is the element that accounts for presence?
We want to inquire into the meaning of presence by contemplating and analyzing the actual experience of presence. Let us examine a familiar situation, the aesthetic experience. My eyes catch the sight of a beautiful red rose. Suddenly, my sight is clearer, my smelling is keener. I seem to be in my seeing, I seem to be in my smelling. There is more of me here, seeing, smelling, and appreciating the rose.
This phenomenon is not simply one of increased awareness, so that more of the rose is experienced through my eyes and nostrils, so that more of the rose is experienced through my perceptual system.
In the experience of increased presence, it is as if I meet my perceptions midway. It is as if something of me, something more or less palpable, is present in my eyes and in my nose. Something in me besides my perceptual channels is participating in the experience of the rose. And this something is not memory, not past associations with roses.
In a sense, my greater awareness actually enhances the presence of the rose, or of any aesthetic object, such as a piece of music or a painting. Sometimes greater awareness enhances only a certain quality of an object—the beauty of the rose, its color, its smell, or its freshness. But sometimes the rose as a rose, as a presence in itself, is felt. If that experience is deep enough, our own presence is enhanced. "I seem to be more here," the expression goes. But what is this presence? Is there really an "I" that is more present, or what exactly is it?
Of course, the aesthetic experience is not restricted to a response to beauty alone. It might be the experience of awe when confronted by the immensity of the ocean or the grandeur of a mountain range. It can be the experience of admiration when one witnesses heroism in an individual or a group, or the courage or boldness of an explorer.
We are considering the moments, however rare they are, when we feel as if there is somehow more of us partaking of the experience. We want to understand what "more of us" means. More of what? What is the element that gives our experience this taste of presence?
We are also aware that some individuals have greater presence than others. We say, "He has more presence," or "He's an imposing presence." But can we say what is really being referred to here? We are not referring to the quality of presence of mind, which is greater awareness. "Presence" itself is more than that.
Presence also can be sensed at times of intense and deep emotion, when a person is fully feeling an emotional state, not controlling or inhibiting it, when he is involved wholeheartedly in the feeling, totally immersed in it in a free and spontaneous way without judgment or holding back. This usually happens only when the person feels totally justified in feeling the emotions.
For example, an individual might experience a great loss, like the death of a loved one, and so feels justified in feeling the grief and the sadness. He might get so involved in the sadness, so immersed in it, that the feeling deepens as if it were miles deep, going to greater depths and profundity. This state might become so deep and profound that it feels thicker and denser as he gets more deeply immersed in it, so deep and profound that he experiences himself permeated by a kind of presence. It is as if the profundity and the depth are an actual presence, palpable and quite clearly there.
Another example: A person might feel justified in feeling angry and indignant about being insulted or unjustly treated. The anger becomes so powerful that at some point, if he goes goes unreservedly with the feeling, the person will experience in the anger some kind of force powering it. This force or power is so clearly manifest that it assumes a palpable presence. It is as if the mounting power of the unrestricted emotion evokes more of the person. He feels himself so present in the emotion, so at its center, that a clearly sensed and substantial presence seems to infuse the emotion and fill the body. His body feels packed with power, so densely that power becomes a presence. This presence seems to be the source of the emotion and power, both in it and behind or under it. At such times, the person experiences intense contact with the body, along with an astonishing capacity to use and direct it. It is as if at that moment the individual actually exists in his arms, for instance, and hence can use them with an unusual amount of control, efficiency, and immediacy.
Now, what is this presence that exists in the arms, in the body, that seems to bring with it power, energy, contact, and awareness? We are seeing that presence is more of an actuality than an idea or a metaphor. We are getting a sense that presence is much more profound, more real than feeling or emotion. We are approaching, although still vaguely, an appreciation of what presence is.
The presence one experiences does not have to be one's own, and does not have to be individual. One can experience the presence of another. A whole group can be aware of a presence. Even one who is not particularly attuned to the quality of presence cannot but contact presence is some unusual and unique circumstances. One such situation is that of a mother giving birth to a baby.
At times, when the mother is not under medication, when she is fully participating in the birth, her presence may be elicited. The mother may feel a fullness, a strength, a solid determination, an unmistakable sense that she is present in the experience, fully involved in it.
The situation of giving birth is real; it is not social, and it cannot be faked. For a woman to do it in full consciousness, without the aid of mind-dulling medications, she might have to pull out all of her resources, pool all of her strength and determination, and be genuinely present.
This full presence of the woman also may be sensed by others. One may see it as the presence of intensity, of intense feeling and sensation, or of intense energy and attention. One also may be aware that the woman is present in a way unusual for her. She seems to have a fullness. She seems to have a glow, a radiance. The presence is unmistakable, beautiful and powerful.
The experience of presence in this situation may be seen, if one is sensitive and aware, not to reside only in the mother. If all present are fully participating—and this often happens in such situations because of their dramatic intensity—then the presence is seen to pervade the room, to fill it and impregnate it. There is an intensity in the room, a palpable aliveness, the sense of a living presence.
The experience of presence is most clearly felt when the baby is born, when it is out into the world. One may then experience a shift, an expansion in the energy of the room. One feels that the room definitely has a new presence, a fresh presence. The baby is experienced not only as a body but something much more, something much more alive and much more profound. One may, if sensitively attentive, behold the newcomer as a clear and definite presence. The baby is a being. A being is present, with no name, no history, no extras. And there is blessing.
One may in fact observe that different babies have different qualities of presence. The quality of presence is not just a matter of their size, how they look, or what sex they are. Each seems to have its own unique quality of presence, which is quite obvious at birth and which continues to be the mode of being for the particular baby. One may behold the emerging presence of the baby as a sweetness, a fluffiness, a tenderness. Or the presence is felt as a peacefulness, a quietness, a stillness. Yet another baby confronts us with a presence of clarity, lightness, and joy. Another might fill the room with strength, solidity, and immovability.
This experience of a situation being filled with a certain presence also may be felt in the purity and aloneness of nature. In moments of quietness and solitude in nature, a person becomes aware that the natural environment itself has a presence that profoundly affects his mind and heart. It is not uncommon, when one is not occupied with the concerns of the world, when the mind is empty and still, that nature presents itself not only as the objects constituting it but as a living presence.
A range of high, rocky mountains can then be felt as an immensity, a solidity, an immovability, that is alive, that is there. This immensity and immovability seems sometimes to confront us, to affect us, not as an inanimate object but as a clear and pure presence. It seems to contact us, to touch us. And if we are open and sensitive, we may participate in this immensity. We may then feel ourselves as one with the immensity, the immovability, the vastness.
Just as mountains have their particular presence, so do forests, oceans, rivers, and meadows. One may even sense the presence of a tree, as Krishnamurti relates in one of his solitary contemplations:
"There was an intensity about the tree—not the terrible intensity of reaching, of succeeding, but the intensity of being complete, simple, alone and yet part of the earth. The colours of the leaves, of the few flowers, of the dark trunk, were intensified a thousandfold...."
We can expand our inquiry by considering presence in situations of stress or danger. Sometimes, a person under extraordinary duress, when his ability to function might be expected to be reduced, will be saved by a surprising power or capacity surging from within.
His perception will suddenly become acute, his mind lucid, his body agile and responsive. He will experience a level of courage and intelligence not normally available to him, an extraordinary strength and will, an unusual command over his mind, emotions, and movements.
At such a time, great feats can be accomplished in response to vital needs. A person might feel, dimly or lucidly, that a power has awakened in him. It is as if the whole being has gathered in one integrated intensity, which makes possible the emergence of a calm strength, a poignant presence that deliberately and knowingly acts according to the needs of such a moment. Excitement is gone, emotions are absent, and thoughts are stilled. What remains is exactly what is needed to meet the emergency.
What matters for our discussion of presence is that in those rare crises of life and death, when our ordinary capacities for perception and action fail us, there can emerge in us a power hitherto unknown: a calm and collected presence that can take charge and act unhampered by our thoughts and emotional states. This condition is not experienced simply as the absence of hampering thoughts and emotional conflicts. There is, rather, a positive presence of a power, of a superior intelligence that is not physical, emotional, or mental.
This potential increase of presence in dangerous situations is utilized by some people, adventurous or athletic types, in the form of seeking or arranging situations that make it necessary for them to be intensely present. We are not speaking of the person who looks for emotional excitement by getting involved in dangerous situations, but rather of the individual who, knowingly or unknowingly, seeks situations of danger where excitement and emotionality are an impediment, where instead, calm strength and intelligent presence are required.
This potential of situations of extraordinary duress is recognized and utilized by some systems of self-development. The disciple is encouraged to stay awake and present in situations of extreme emotional difficulty or physical fatigue. At such times the usual everyday mind cannot function. The individual will tend to discharge emotionally or go to sleep if the fatigue is the result of prolonged lack of sleep. But if he is kept awake, and willingly attempts to be present in this situation, there might emerge within him an intelligence or a strength that would change his whole situation.
In Zen Buddhism, this is accomplished by giving the disciple a koan, an enigmatic phrase or question that cannot be understood by the discursive mind. The person goes over it in all ways possible for him, mentally and emotionally, until he reaches mental and emotional exhaustion. If he is ready, and if the situation is ripe, then a momentary silence and stillness in him will bring a flash of satori, an emotionless and wordless realization. Inexperienced followers usually assume that the realization must be some kind of insight. However, the deeper realizations in Zen are glimpses of beingness, of being-as-such, of the presence of reality. The deep realization is the experience of presence.
G. I. Gurdjieff, the Russian teacher, used the method of subjecting students to extreme duress. He frequently put his disciples into situations so difficult that most of them believed they would be impossible to tolerate. The students might walk long distances for days, beyond their ordinary endurance level, or they might perform menial tasks for days without sleep.
Some thought that the purpose of these efforts was to build a certain kind of strength and endurance, which is partially true. The real significance of those situations emerges when we understand that at the same time the students are supposed to practice "self-remembering." Self-remembering is defined here as paying attention to both inner and outer environments. Some of his students assert that self-remembering also means maintaining the awareness that one is paying attention.
In fact, this practice is only an exercise that will lead in time to actual self-remembering, which cannot be explained to a person who has never experienced it. If Gurdjieff had meant by self-remembering splitting the attention in two—one part directed inward and one part directed outward—he would have just said: pay attention inside and outside. Why bring in the word self and the word remembering?
One might argue that self means what we experience inside, plus our awareness or attention. This would include our emotions, sensations, and thoughts, plus our awareness of them, but this perspective is limited. It is due to not knowing that our inner experience doesn't actually include other categories of experience.
We see the Gurdjieffian practice of self-remembering as the first step, the initial effort needed for real self-remembering to happen. However, if we limit ourselves to this understanding, we might never recognize the experience of true self-remembering because our preconceptions will function as barriers to our experience.
Gurdjieff insisted that usual efforts are useless for self-development. He talked about super-efforts, efforts that transcend the usual limits of the personality and are not directed toward satisfying its usual small needs. "Man must understand," he said, "that ordinary efforts do not count. Only super-efforts count. And so it is always and in everything. Those who do not wish to make super-efforts had better give up everything and take care of their health." Super-effort "means an effort beyond the effort that's necessary to achieve a given purpose," said Gurdjieff.
Imagine that I have been walking all day and am very tired. The weather is bad, it's raining and cold. In the evening I arrive home. I have walked, perhaps twenty-five miles. In the house there is supper; it's warm and pleasant. But, instead of sitting down to supper, I go out into the rain again and decide to walk another two miles along the road and then return home. This would be a super-effort. While I was going home it was simply an effort and this does not count. I was on my way home, the cold, hunger, the rain—all this made me walk. In the other case I walk because I myself decide to do so. This kind of super-effort becomes still more difficult when I do not decide upon it myself but obey a teacher who at an unexpected moment required from me to make fresh efforts when I have decided the efforts for the day are over.
Excerpted from ESSENCE with The Elixir of Enlightenment by A. H. Almaas. Copyright © 1986 A-Hameed Ali. Excerpted by permission of Samuel Weiser. Inc..
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Chapter One Presence and Essence
Chapter Two Essence
Chapter Three The Loss of Essence
Chapter Four The Retrieval of Essence
Chapter Five The Development of Essence