Theory of Presence
I first became interested in the connection between spirituality and personality in my early twenties. I wanted to know how a person could remain connected to the deepest sense of himself. I was drawn to theories and therapies that study the interconnection between personality and spirit, which are often called psychospiritual or transpersonal.
Transpersonal or psychospiritual theorists’ and therapists’ work shows us that the experiences we have as babies and children fundamentally affect how our personalities develop. Further than that, our personalities strongly influence our spiritual development, the way we perceive the world, and the extent to which we are connected to what is most unique, as well as most universal, about ourselves.
Twenty years studying babies and children has led me to explore more about what exactly happens to babies and children to disconnect them from their most truest selves, and what we, as parents, can do to help our babies and children live their fullest potential, giving their gifts to the world.
In the most observable way, I like to look at this in terms of presence.
What is presence?
Almaas describes it as the conscious experience of existence. When we experience presence, what is present is our essence – which is the part of us that we were born with. “Presence is the presence of essence,” (Almaas, 1986,13); “When the child is born he is completely Being.” (Almaas, 1996,12); “The Essential Self is a very simple and pure sense of presence.” (Almaas, 1994, 267); “The Essential Self can be seen from the earliest time, when we notice a certain look of alertness and directedness suddenly appearing… the presence we see in the infant is, in fact, the presence of he Essential Self…. [a] look of alertness, persistence and goal-directedness.”
Essence has different qualities, which are experienced by the baby as he moves through different stages of development, from a melting sweet merging from about two months to one year, to strength, to joy and love. (Almaas, 1994, 266). This Essential Self becomes the most dominant around 10-16 months, when, ”He feels unique and singular without knowing that it is because he is experiencing the Essential Self. This is the characteristic of the full experience of Being. One is, but one is not reflecting on the isness. There is no mind in this experience.” (Almaas, 1994, 274).
“Developmental psychologists, psychotherapists, neuroscientists, and spiritual practitioners all agree that living fully in the present moment is an optimal state of consciousness, often synonymous with being in a state of healthy response. Spiritual teachers such as Eckhart Tolle and David Deida call this “presence.” (Witt, 2007, 55)
What does presence look like?
We can observe behaviours that indicate presence – such as alert eye-gazing, focussed interest in something, a sense of fullness that pervades the room, open relaxed eyes, a full relaxed smile.
For a person to remain connected with the deepest part of them, they need to experience certain things.
The holding environment
The first is holding, not just in the physical sense, but also in the wider emotional and spiritual sense; the holding environment is where the baby experiences himself being held in empathic concern. “A good holding environment, then, is the environment that is needed for the human soul to grow and develop into what she can become. It needs to provide a sense of safety and security, the sense that you are, and can count on, being taken care of … dependable, consistent, attuned to your needs, empathic to those needs.” (Almaas, 1998, 39)
Holding includes; being held in a way similar to being in the womb, the emotional climate of the family, the relationships with siblings, and the experiences that the whole family is going through. The more that the family provides optimal holding; the more the child can develop a personality that allows their own unique Being ness. Thew holding environment is never perfect, and the less it meets the child’s needs, the more the child develops what is often called a false self. Each individual has a different proportion of real self to false self; the proportion depends on their early experiences.
Mirror, mirror on the wall
In addition to the holding environment, mirroring of the baby is of prime importance. When a baby’s essence is mirrored, he stays connected with it. As he grows, he knows at the deepest level who he is. There is congruence between how he feels in his body, his intuitions and preferences, and how he thinks about himself.
What is mirroring? “Mirroring occurs as the caregiver can look at the infant and recognise the unique individual human being who exists there. As the infant experiences his or her self reflected in the caregiver’s attitude, the infant is able to realise that she or he is indeed a unique, individual human being.” (Firman and Gila, 1997, 33-34)
A child stays connected to his own true essence not only through his parents seeing him accurately, but also through a modelling effect – the parent models a state of presence and the child naturally learns to live in this state. “Children mimic expressions, behaviour, sound and touch. We’re born with mirror neurons in our brains that influence us to replicate expressions, sounds, movements, and states of mind.” (Witt, 2007, p.27)
Many adults feel a sense of disconnection from their “real self”, or experience a sense of emptiness or vagueness, or a sense of something missing.
There are two levels of mirroring – mirroring of the child’s unique self and mirroring of his particular states or feelings.
“The empathic mirroring connection seems then deeper than any of the child’s particular sensations, different emotions and feelings or various passing states of mind … whether tired and upset or rested and calm, the baby can experience a continuity of being abiding through it all… the infant can be annihilated my nonempathic response even while seemingly content at the breast.” (Firman and Gila, 1997, 35)
“Humans have mirror neurons in their frontal cortex that mirror other’s states of mind. This is a biological base of empathy, and one way that all children absorb information, nervous system to nervous system.” (Witt, 2007, 136)
If a baby does not experience the empathic holding, he experiences a type of falling, or non-being, which is a very unpleasant experience.
Instead of accurate mirroring, the mirror may be clouded over with the beliefs and unmet needs of the parents, who may in all good intentions, say things like, “He’s so clever, just like his father.” Or “She’s so emotional.”
As parents we all have blind spots, feelings we are unable or unwilling to see in our babies and children because we are protecting ourselves from feeling those same feelings. For example, Jenny began to realise that she was unable to tolerate any feelings of sadness in her two-year-old daughter Sammi. One day she sat with her daughter when Sammi was crying, and memories returned of when she herself had been left alone to cry. In sitting with her own sadness she then could hold Sammi and give space for her sadness too.
Other parents are uncomfortable with effusive joy, and will, and in subtle or not-so-subtle ways, tell their child not to express those feelings.
Babies and children are highly skilled at reading our cues and will quickly learn which feelings are acceptable and which are not. Feelings which are not giving the loving support of presence become frightening and thus avoided – even feelings such as excitement or great joy!
As I was writing the first draft of this, my daughter was doing some washing up in her own little green washing-up bowl and said to me, “Eurgh, yuk, there’s bits in here”, and I heard myself say, “But it’s just the bits from the kiwi fruit that you were eating.” I’m so glad I was thinking about this article, because it helped me catch myself and quickly follow that by, “Oops, are you feeling disgusted?” and went and changed the water for her.
Many parents, wanting to do the best they can for their children, try to stop their children ever expressing upset feelings. They believe that this protects their children. But it seems that this is not the case. Much psychotherapeutic theory and practice indicates that it is not so much that difficult events cause long-term effects, rather that it is when a child experiencing these is not given empathy that they do.
For example, “Painful events per se do not cause trauma; it is a break in the empathic connection which causes trauma.” (Firman and Gila, 1997, 99), and,“Pain is not pathology. It is the absence of adequate attunement and responsiveness to the child’s painful emotional reactions that renders them undendurable and thus a source of traumatic states and psychopathology.” (Stolorow and Atwood 1992, 54).
How does a baby or child deal with the anxiety that occurs when they are not seen as who they truly are, and how do they keep connected to us parents even when we do not see them as they really are?
In psychological language, it is called splitting – dividing ourselves, others, the world, and spirit into parts which could be called good and bad. This protects us from pain but at a large cost. It means that the child develops not connected to his own uniqueness and authenticity, his true nature, but rather, his personality reflects the demands and needs of his parents and community, and hides his true Self.
This sounds “bad” enough, but things sound even more awful when looked at from a psychospiritual perspective. Looked at this way, our parents are the first people to facilitate (or not) our connection between the deepest sense of ourselves (Self) and our experience of personal existence.
So when our parents do not give us that empathic mirroring, the connection between these two aspects of ourselves is threatened. To avoid the pain, we split ourselves into good and bad, and we split our relationship to Ultimate Reality, and we then perceive reality in positive or negative ways. Then the most painful and the most joyful parts become hidden, or repressed, over time. So not only do we protect ourselves from our most uncomfortable experiences, but also from the deeper meaning of life, the divine … “Our deepest sense of beauty, joy, and creativity; our ability to appreciate art, nature and other people; our sense of a …connection to all of life.” (Firman and Gila, 1997, 112)
The more stressful and traumatic experiences we have had, and repress, the more these joyful possibilities get repressed. Not knowing that we contain these possibilities, or that we are connected to the Divine Ground of Being, we then search for them outside of ourselves – in relationships, jobs, belongings, belief systems, religions.
The splitting means that instead of experiencing a connection with Self, we experience it as a “higher or more sublime sphere separated from the conscious identity and everyday life.” (Firman and Gila, 1997, 128). Then, spirituality appears to have little to do with everyday life. “But of course, it is only splitting that creates the impression of a higher realm. In actuality these ideal contents and energies are very much a part of everyday reality, embedded in every aspect of our here and now existence. It is simply that we have been made blind to them. Our ability to see them – our lens for viewing this aspect of reality –has been broken off and forgotten.” (Firman and Gila, 1997, 128)
It is like we are in a trance.
I recall my first glimpse of the sacred in everyday life – after meeting my husband for the first time, I was cleaning the bathroom. Suddenly, the whole event became full of love and reverence. Cleaning the bath was like touching the divine.
So, from our own blind spots, our children develop what is often called ‘the false self”, which is not an accurate mirror of their true essence but is built upon the fuzzy mirroring they receive from us and other significant people in their lives, such as teachers and relatives. Other therapists/theorists such as Firman and Gila call it the survival personality – a reflection of the needs and demands of the environment – compared to the authentic personality, the unique and authentic personality who experiences freedom and continuity of being.
“Primal splitting, like primal wounding, is indeed ubiquitous and normal, but … this is not to say it is natural and necessary.” (Firman and Gila, 1997,107). In other words, it is possible for a child to remain connected to his essence.
“Good enough empathic response … will allow a sense of I-amness that can engage and manage the widest range or psychological experience, including the many natural polarities of the human personality; affection and anger, pain and pleasure, dependence and independence, or contact and withdrawal, for example.” (Firman and Gila, 1997, 108).
Losing connection with essence, losing presence
How do so many people lose connection with their essence? Almaas talks about the rarity of a person who does not lose his connection to essence. He describes a gradual loss of the connection with essence, whereby essence is covered up as the personality and identity develop, until the person believes himself to be his personality. Almaas talks about how the different aspects of essence are lost one by one. Different experiences lead to disconnection from different aspects of essence.
Almaas describes (1986) how one aspect of essence, merging love, can be lost – through distance from the mother, frustration by her, too much clinging by her, or physical or emotional abandonment. “This always happens because there is no perfect symbiotic relationship between mother and infant because of many factors.” (Almaas, 1986, 94). When the merging love is lost, the baby experiences an emptiness, which is very painful. The child learns not to feel the loss and to cover it up by developing parts of the personality. “In time, there will be no essence in the person’s conscious experience. Instead of essence or being, there will be many holes; all kinds of deep deficiencies and lack. However, the person will not usually be consciously aware of his perforated state.” (1986, p.97)
Almaas explains how so many forces of society misunderstand, ignore or reject the child’s essence, because most institutions of society are formed and run by the personality, who does not understand essence. He says, “The child is still the essence, and regardless of how much the parents love their child, they are bound to misunderstand and suppress his being, the essence. Adults are mostly personality, and no matter how much they try, they will misunderstand and hurt the child’s essence.” (1986, 104)
Most importantly, he says that, “A parent who is loving, caring, and supportive of the child helps the personality to grow more balanced and healthy and is less opposed to the being ness of the child. But this is still a far cry from actually seeing the essence, understanding it, and encouraging it to grow according to its own truth. Regardless of how loving the parents are toward their children, if the personality is the centre or their life, the same will happen to the children. They will end up with the personality as the centre, essence being buried.” (1986, 105).
In order for a parent to be able to recognise the essence of their child, they need to be able to recognise their own.
When a baby or child experiences that broken mirror, he will find a physical means to help the repression. In Firman and Gila’s work, this is called an addiction, compulsion, or attachment.
In Aware Parenting, it is called a control pattern. Firman and Gila explain how anything used in this way avoids the pain whilst searching for what is lost. “Each addictive structure contains a drive away from negative qualities and a thrust towards positive qualities.” (Firman and Gila, 1997, 138). This helps us understand control patterns in babies in children.
Just as Firman and Gila say that anything at all can become the object of an addiction, so in Aware Parenting, pretty much anything can become a control pattern, although there are particularly common ones. As an adult, these not only take the common forms of food, exercise, alcohol, smoking, drugs, nail-biting, etc., but also much more subtle ones like romance, intuition, thoughts, feelings and states of consciousness, peace, or even the search for enlightenment.
By comparison, when we heal the dissociation from the higher and lower aspects, “we become more aware of the beauty, joy, and love surrounding us or begin to feel less alienated and more cognizant of our belongingness in the universe. It is not that we leave the world to enter a higher realm; it is that we realize that the world itself is that higher realm – the world has only appeared to be devoid of this transpersonal richness because we had split off our ability to perceive this richness.” (Firman and Gila, 1997, 145) We also become aware of all the pain and suffering that is going on in the world every moment.
Supporting our children to remain connected to their Essence
Gurdijeff said, “Essence in man is what is his own. Personality in man is what is not his own. A small child has no personality as yet. He is what he really is. He is essence. His desires, tastes, likes, dislikes, express his being such as it is.” (Almaas, 1986, 84)
“One may observe that different babies have different qualities of presence … 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 … a sweetness … or a peacefulness, of clarity. Another might fill the room with strength.” (Almaas, 1986, 5)
“In a nontraumatizing world, this awareness of a connection to Self would abide through all the unfolding stages of human development. There is no inherent reason why consciousness of this connection need be broken in natural development – this connection is the source of personal freedom and responsibility.” (Firman and Gila, 1997, 128)
There would be a sense of complete unity and connection, alongside a complete sense of being fully oneself.
Awareness of her baby’s cues takes clear perception. As parents, our own experiences will influence what we are able to see and what we are able to bear. The beliefs of our culture, and whether we see ourselves as mainstream or alternative, will also affect the interpretations we make about our babies. For example, a crying baby will be seen very differently depending on whether the parents believe that babies manipulate their parents, or that babies should never cry, or that babies have feelings to express and need to release stress. The interpretations will then determine the responses of those parents.
The way that our feelings were responded to when we were small will affect the way we respond to our baby’s feelings. If our parents thought that when we were crying, we were tired, and put us to bed, then we may well see through the same lens. Or, we may react to what happened to us, and aim to do things very differently. Family and cultural beliefs will determine which feelings will be acceptable, and thus which a baby stays connected with, and which feelings, desires or preferences he disconnects from. No doubt you have heard things like the following said to children; “Boys don’t cry”, “You don’t want me to pick you up”, “Stop running around, you naughty girl.”
Staying connected with Essence is not an all-or-nothing thing but instead happens along a spectrum – the more connection will occur when there is:
1. Accurate mirroring of internal states. A mirror reflects exactly what happens.
2. Parents being connected with their own Essence, and thus being very present with their baby or child. The degree to which the parent is present affects the degree to which the baby or child feels seen, heard, and really understood at a deep level. “Every time we inhabit a state of consciousness, we are “practicing” that state of consciousness and deepening the neural networks associated with it. Each state we inhabit can evoke complementary states in others.” (Witt, 2007, p.48)
3. Experiences of not being mirrored, seen, heard, understood, or being overwhelmed, frightened, frustrated or stressed – are validated. For this to happen the parent needs to be able to bear his own feelings when he acknowledges that: he cannot be a perfect parent who 100% knows what his child feels and wants; that he cannot protect his child from all discomforts; and can be with the pain of himself not living in presence all of the time.
So, parenting with presence means clearly seeing the feelings, needs and desires of a baby. It is like seeing through a veil – the more present a parent is, the clearer the veil is. The more present, the more he will accurately meet the needs of his baby or child. The more present, the more he will be able to be present with, and acknowledge, all feelings. And his comfort with feelings will mean he will be able to be empathic and supportive when his baby need to express feelings – whether they be of frustration, overwhelm, shock, hurt, sadness, and so on.
This way of looking at things helps us distinguish between personality and Essence, or Self. When a child is called wild or naughty or bossy, these are seen as the child’s personality, but in most cases these labels simply indicate unhealed stress that the child is trying to release. Most of the behaviours that we see as normal in children are indeed usual, but also indicate emotional pain that has not been empathically witnessed by a present parent.
Authentic connection happens when a baby or child is seen, not as his personality, but as his true Essence. These moments have a sense of beauty, of timelessness, and of wonder.
How can we allow such moments to flourish?
The first and most immediate way, is to become present ourselves.
Aware Parenting supports a parent to help her child stay connected with her desires, tastes, likes and dislikes. This is achieved through awareness of what a baby is feeling and needing, and then mirroring the feeling and meeting the need. Thus, he eats when he is hungry, cries in the loving arms of his parents when he is upset and needs to release stress, sleeps when he is tired, simply being close to his parents and without being jiggled, rocked, or fed to sleep and without sucking on a dummy, his thumb, or some other object. He is protected from over-stimulation when very young, and as he gets older, he plays when he is interested in the world.
Thus, he learns to consciously distinguish between the different sensations in his body – he knows the difference between hunger and tiredness and sadness and fear and overwhelm and interest.
He learns that all these are sensations that are not frightening, because he trusts that his needs get met and that his feelings will subside when he stays connected with them for a while.
This is a vital difference between Aware Parenting and other parenting styles, which believe that it is the parents’ job to keep their baby from crying at all costs. Since all parents have their own unhealed spots and since in modern life, all babies experience some degree of over-stimulation and disconnection, all babies will at time experience uncomfortable feelings.
Aware Parenting encourages parents to be present with their baby’s upset feelings, whereas some other parenting styles encourage things like rocking, jiggling, feeding for comfort and distraction. When this happens, the baby experiences a lack of empathy and mirroring even though he is not crying. The more parents can mirror their baby and child’s states and feelings, the more the child “finds the strength of self needed to feel fully the pain and joy, the anger and love, the defeats and triumphs, the dependence and independence, which make up the fabric of human existence.” (Firman and Gila, 1997, 35).
Add Elimination Communication to Aware Parenting and the baby then also remains connected to the sensations in his bladder and bowels and soon learns to eliminate when he feels uncomfortable, and also learns about the connection between holding to his feelings and holding on to his bodily wastes.
As a parent practises Aware Parenting, she aims to be aware of her baby’s cues and thus her baby remains more connected to his essence.
Other ways of understanding and mirroring babies and children include Nonviolent Communication.
One of the things I love about Nonviolent Communication relates to the splitting discussed above – instead of judging others and oneself using labels, which are either in positive “He’s wonderful”, or negative, “he’s so lazy,” NVC helps us express ourselves using, among other things, observations and true feelings. This helps connect people to what is alive in themselves and also connect more to others. Marshall Rosenberg quotes Krishnamurti’s famous saying, “Observation is the highest form of human intelligence.”
The ways which we connect with babies and children has a profound effect on the development of their sense of self and their identity. The more we connect to our own joyful presence, and with the innate sacredness of life, as well as our pain, the more we can be present to all the nuances of our baby or child’s experiences. This is a great gift for them, as well as for ourselves.
“The violence, abuse, and injustice so endemic in human life may no be caused by instinctual drives or sex, power and aggression that we are unable to tame. Human suffering may instead be largely the result of primal wounding to our natural human relatedness, causing the primal split.” (Firman and Gila, 1997, 176)
Almaas, A. H. (1986) Essence with The Elixir of Enlightenment. Weiser Books, Boston
Almaas, A.H. (1994) The Pearl Beyond Price. Integration of Personality into Being: An Object Relations Approach. Diamond Books, Berkeley, California.
Almaas, A. H. (1998) Facets of Unity – The Enneagram of Holy Ideas. Shambhala, Boston.
Firman, J. and Gila, A. (1997) The Primal Wound. A Transpersonal View of Trauma, Addiction, and Growth.
Stolorow, R.D. and Atwood, G.E. (1992) Contexts of Being: The Intersubjective Foundations of Psychological Life. Hillsdale, N.J. The Analytic Press.