by Monica A. Ross, LPC
When I was in my late 20s and living in San Diego, California, I had five roommates all of whom were working in the healing profession. We lived in a beautiful craftsman home in an area of San Diego called University Heights. The main part of the house was shared by myself, a couple who were massage therapists, and a Chinese medicine practitioner.
In the cottage in the back of the house lived a couple who were California transplants also and Native American spiritual healers. I remember having at least a few house meetings in which a talking stick was used to facilitate. I smile as I write that.
At the time, I was living the 8-5 life in corporate America and working for a top employer in the area—one known to hold on to its employees and to treat them right, and lauded for its best-in-practice stance towards diversity. My job was secure, complete with a 401(k) and pension plan.
We had employee bonuses, skills development workshops, ergonomic workstations, a tuition reimbursement plan, a meditation room on campus if we felt too stressed out at work, company sponsored retreats, and holiday parties. I had flexible work hours.
Every work day, I would come home in my khaki business casual pants and loafers, an employee ID badge at my waist, to this house of healing practitioners. I would come home not particularly stressed out from my day, as the job that I had to complete was simple and for the most part stress free. My bosses tended to treat me well. The company itself treated me well.
The actual work that I was doing however—not fulfilling for my personality type.
My life outside of work was where I felt that a large part of life began. I became more and more interested in holistic health and creativity. I dug into books by David Whyte, Julia Cameron, SARK , and Natalie Goldberg to name a few. This was the reading period that melded with the reading period on postmodern literature.
At the end of that same day my roommates might have just come home from the natural grocer with a bag of groceries containing things like ghee, kabocha squash, and miso. The green leafy kale used for dinner likely came from the garden in the front—[note: garden instead of landscaped yard]—which also grew strawberry guava plants.
I thought by way of proximity these healers that I chose to surround myself with would have a positive influence on me, rub off in some way. Interestingly, one of my roommates and I both later in life became psychotherapists.
So why do I go into all of this?
The life I was living at the time was my way of having one foot planted in the reality of the day-to-day grind, which is very real for many and one that I am thankful to have had early experience in, and one foot in a world that was more like my best imagining of the world as it could be—one more solidly focused on mindfulness, embodiment, presence, and health.
I still straddle these two worlds. Here I made this enormous career shift over time and yet though I’m steeped in the introspective and contemplative world, there is still the need for self-care. There is still the need to keep up these practices and not ride the on the excuse of dwelling in the healthcare profession only not to take care of my own health.
That year that I was living in the house with my healing practitioner roommates, I also took an introductory massage course called “The Essentials” at The International Professional School of Bodywork or IPSB. The course consisted of 120 instructional hours of anatomy, physiology, body mechanics, somatic psychology, and the practical application of massage styles like deep tissue, Swedish, and sensory repatterning. We learned Tai Chi and practiced diaphragmatic breathing techniques.
With that course I started down the path of developing greater body awareness and presence, which leads me to the topic of this post. Presence.
Presence is defined as “the state or fact of existing, occurring, or being present.” Many can relate to the feeling of the weight of one’s body planted solidly on this earth. At a secondary meaning level, presence is “a person or thing that exists or is present in a place but is not seen.”
What could be meant by this secondary meaning? Present but not seen?
To me this secondary meaning hints at embodiment, which is sometimes a word used in place of presence. When I looked up the definition of embodiment it too had two separate meanings that mimicked the definition of presence. Embodiment is “a tangible or visible form of an idea, quality, or feeling.” It is also “the representation or expression of something in a tangible or visible form.”
So, for both definitions, there is the focus on the tangible and the intangible even though we sometimes think of presence or embodiment as such a tangible thing. It’s important to maintain a sense of presence of being both calm and alert at the same time because both are needed in order to approach life in a way that leads to better choices, a life that is resilient.
We need the calm part because flooding our systems with cortisol, tension, and anxiety can detract from better decision-making, and we need the alert part because some decisions require as much attention and focus as we can muster. Presence is about showing up when life calls for it even when feeling the most like backing away. This doesn’t always again mean showing up in physical form. Presence might mean quiet self-reflection. But it does mean attentiveness to our lives.
There are times when we are physically present with others when the mind wanders. It can be hard to maintain focus and concentration for long periods of time. And because this is such a natural tendency—to get distracted—it’s healthy not to pass judgement on ourselves or other people when it happens.
Do I fall prey to my electronic devices at times? Yes. Yes, I do. Can I also put all electronic devices away for the better part of the day when spending time with people I love and care about? Yes, I can and have.
When I notice my mind wandering, I first bring it back in a nonjudgmental stance. This goes something like: “Ah Monica, your mind just wandered. It’s okay, it happens.” This gentle approach tends to gain more traction than a severe stance.
I do know and have muscle memory, as it were, of what presence feels like, what it is. That’s all it takes. Presence is more about the ability to come back than it is never to get distracted in the first place. We all are a work in progress.
Watch this video on presence or embodiment https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JYacDPOWsmE.
1 Graham, L. (2013). Bouncing back: Rewiring your brain for maximum resilience and well-being. Novato, CA: New World Library.
2 CUHK Channel. (2013, March 14). Professor Richard J Davidson on "Change the Brain by Transforming the Mind" [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wEau02suZs0
3 iqsquared. (2013, November 2). Daniel Goleman on focus: The secret to high performance and fulfilment [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HTfYv3IEOqM
4 Inflection Team. (2012, August 30). Forgiveness, stress management, and happiness: Dr. Luskin [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hSGfMVRVWZw
**A visit to the school’s website shows that IPSB, operating since 1977, was permanently closed as of January 2017 and all records transferred to the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine also in San Diego.