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The Power of Being Present

Today’s post is by Bryan Berghoef

“Hello? Are you there, Dad?” I am awakened from my thoughts by my youngest child poking me, as I had apparently gone somewhere else while playing a game with her. This is a less common experience than it used to be, but still happens from time to time. We so often live our lives in our heads. We daydream or are simply absent while we work. We think ahead to next week or next year while we are talking. And as a pastor, we might even find ourselves leaping ahead mentally to the end of Sunday worship before it even begins! In the two years since I enrolled in Shalem’s Going Deeper: Clergy Spiritual Life and Leadership Program, going deeper for me has been a slow but steady growth in simply learning to be present. To be present to the Holy One in each moment, to be present to myself, and to be present with whomever I am with, be it family member, parishioner, friend, or community member.

As a father of four young children and the pastor of a new church, this is an important practice for me. The question is, how do I cultivate this practice, and in what ways does it create spiritual growth and depth of prayer in my life?

For me, presence with God—or prayer—is more about posture than about words. It is about an inner posture. A stillness in which I am open to the Holy One. Such a posture usually requires an intentionality and a certain practice; it rarely just happens (though it may!). By and large, it must be cultivated. This inner posture is often assisted by an outer posture that reflects the state I am striving to be in: sitting cross-legged with my hands resting open, on my knees. Or sitting in a chair with attention to my feet on the floor, my back upright yet relaxed, and my arms in a comfortable position. These postures can signal that we are open to God. We are in a place of peace and listening.

The more I make space for such intentional time, the more I find myself living in the presence during other times of the day: when I am working on a task, at appointments, writing sermons, or picking up my kids. It gives me a taste of the Apostle’s admonishment to “pray without ceasing.”

A second practice is learning to be present with myself, which might actually be a bit more difficult. I think it is easy to hide from ourselves. To ignore what we are actually doing. We may have intentions of being or acting or living a certain way, but we make exceptions. Or we justify our behaviors. Being present with myself means I am going to open my eyes to myself. I am going to look at what is going on and how I am choosing to act. It also means I am going to have compassion on myself.

To do this means I have to take time for self-reflection. This might be an end-of-day examen, such as the one that St. Ignatius practiced, or it might be a simpler time of reflection. A second helpful way might be to seek out a wise and trusted friend, for a mutual time of sharing. Such a relationship should be sought out with deep care and attention.

Another practice that helps me be present to God and to myself is walking outdoors. I find that when I walk with a contemplative posture, being outdoors is a wonderful way to pray and be present. I try to walk more slowly and open my eyes to the natural world around me, remembering that the divine presence flows through all of life.

Being present also means paying attention to my body. Eckhart Tolle notes that when there are physical aches and pains in the body, we must pay attention and watch the body and feel its energy. If we get absorbed by a dark mood, it often means that we are no longer present with ourselves. We have lost the ability to observe ourselves and have been swallowed up by what he terms “the pain-body.” We are, in a word, unconscious. And being unconscious is the opposite of being present. So we must observe and notice what is happening in our bodies and listen to what they are telling us. We must treat our bodies well and care for them as we would for a friend. This is an essential part of what it means to be present with ourselves.

Spaciousness within my own life is critical and necessary to having healthy and life-giving relationships with others. What often prevents me from true connection with others is that I am distracted and obsessed with myself. When I have already done the work of self-reflection and of opening to God, suddenly I feel that I have nothing but time and space for the person I am with. There is no longer a rush to “get through” the conversation or “move on” to the next item on the schedule. I can simply sit, be present, and listen.

The Buddhist lama Tarthang Tulku notes the power of the spiritual practice of being present, or of seeking full awareness. He uses the analogy of a lotus flower that grows in the mud, yet displays a remarkable presence and beauty amid the murky mess. That is an apt analogy for life in general, and certainly life in the ministry! It is muddy. It is messy. There is stress to manage, problems to be solved, people to heal. And what I have found, through my time at Shalem and especially during the Clergy Program, is that it is possible to be like that flower growing there in the mud: to display calm and presence in a way that shines and gives peace to those around you.

Know a clergy person who might want to deepen his or her spiritual life? Shalem’s Going Deeper: Clergy Spiritual Life and Leadership Program is enrolling now. The deadline to apply is March 15. Click here to learn more.

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