006 – Presence Meditation
Over the years I’ve practised a number of Buddhist meditation techniques, including Mindfulness of Breathing, Loving Kindness and Anapanasati on a daily basis. And whilst learning about Eckhart Tolle’s teachings, I developed a meditation technique to directly cultivate Presence. I’d like to share it with you…
Before starting, you may want to learn more about meditation posture in this video.
Being in any stage of Presence Meditation is beneficial and we can move from one stage to the next at our leisure. We should be kind to ourselves as we practise and move naturally through the stages at our own pace. To begin with, this technique can be practised formally as part of planned meditation. As we gain experience, we may find ourself following the same process outside of meditation.
Guided audio walkthrough of the meditation is available for download here.
Listen to my guided “Presence Meditation” – now available for free on Insight Timer for iPhone and Android. It’s a great app! Once it’s installed, search “Darren Cockburn” or “Presence Meditation” to access the audio.
It’s recommended that you read this article in full prior to using the audio walkthrough. The audio walkthrough is available to get you started Presence Meditation. Ultimately, the aim is to take responsibility for moving yourself through the stages and let go of the audio.
For further information on setting up your own meditation practice please refer to the book Being Present.
Settle into your posture and gently close your eyes to begin the first stage. Closing your eyes will remove visual stimuli and make concentration easier. The first stage involves bringing awareness to your thoughts. The reason that we start here is that our thoughts are usually active prior to meditation and act as the main blocker to accessing concentration. This technique differentiates itself from many others that start with the breath as the focus point. Starting with awareness of thoughts allows us to accept them and has a natural settling effect before concentrating on another meditation object such as the breath. If we skip straight to the breath without accepting our thoughts beforehand, this may be viewed by the mind as a form of resistance, control or escape. So meet your thoughts where they are with awareness and a kind acceptance and move forward from there.
If your mind is completely still to begin with then you can move directly to Stage Two. Otherwise, take some time to observe your thoughts. What is your mind doing? Is it telling stories, showing pictures or playing movies? Observing the mind in this way naturally quietens it. Observing your thoughts is similar to watching a movie at the cinema. You can watch the movie and be curious about it whilst knowing at the same time that you are not actually in the movie, because your distance from the screen gives you perspective. You can stay in this stage, observing the mind for as long as is required to quieten it. It is important not to be driven to quieten the mind, as this will create more thought. Simply observe what the mind is doing and allow it to quieten naturally. By doing this you are being the awareness that is observing the thoughts rather than getting lost in them or adding to them. You see that your awareness, which is who you really are, is separate from your thoughts, enabling perspective and freedom.
As the mind quietens and creates larger gaps between thought, you will naturally become aware of other things, including your feelings, body and breath. Once this happens and you can become aware of three full breaths without getting lost in thought, you are ready to move on to the next stage. One full breath is an in breath followed by an out breath. It is fine if you stay in the first stage, bringing awareness and acceptance of your thoughts for the whole time. Starting the meditation and sticking with it for the time you had planned is primary and moving through stages is secondary.
Whilst observing your thoughts, you may notice your ego at work. Chapter Five in Being Present covers the ego in detail, which will help you understand more about what it is and how it operates. A common method used by the ego to reinforce itself is to create persistent thought patterns relating to things we identify with. This takes many forms, including craving, aversion, re-living the past, worry and mental story telling. If you observe your thoughts and emotions, you will find common themes that are repeated on a regular basis. These are parts of your ego. Bringing awareness to them within and outside of meditation helps to gain perspective. Let go and return to the present moment. Any thoughts that arise from the present moment will be creative and helpful. The repetitive thought patterns created by the ego are unhelpful and not who you are. Who you are is the awareness that is observing them. So when you do catch the ego operating, this means you have regained a connection with your true essence and can mentally label it “there is the ego”. That is all that is required. The ego is not good or bad so judgements are unnecessary and unhelpful. Simply, label the ego, accept it is creating thoughts and then allow the thought patterns to pass, returning to the meditation technique.
Once you are aware of three full breaths, you may enter the second stage. In this stage, you direct all your attention to the breath. Examine its different characteristics, including the length, frequency, texture and sound as it constantly changes. You have the whole of the breath to work with from the point where the air enters your nostrils or mouth down into the depths of your lungs. You are not trying to control the breath in any way. Simply allow it to flow naturally and operate through the body’s intelligence without any conscious intervention from the mind. Your job is to give the breath your full attention, accepting whatever forms it takes.
Once you anchor to the breath in this way, it is inevitable that your awareness is going to tune in to other objects that are presented to you, including other bodily sensations, sounds, odours, feelings and thoughts. You may also be aware of subtle lights and colours even with your eyes closed. The mind may create images, movies, sounds and discussions. Being aware of these other objects instead of getting lost in them means you are Present. From here, you have two actions to take. Accept the experience without judging it and then bring your attention back to the breath.
It is human nature to become lost in thought during meditation. You may experience a feeling that triggers a thought, which leads to a story, and before you know it you have lost touch with the present moment. This happens to people (including experienced meditators) many times during meditation. Once you realize you are lost in thought, which might be several seconds or minutes into the thought stream, you can congratulate yourself because at that point you have regained your awareness. If this continues to happen, you should return to Stage One, observing the thoughts before returning to Stage Two after holding your attention for three full breaths. Never give yourself a hard time about being lost in thought within or outside of meditation. Having a continuously peaceful and concentrated mind is the vision, which can take years or even lifetimes to achieve. You should be looking for progress, not perfection. There will be ups and downs to your practice inside and outside of meditation. If you or your friends observe general progress in your level of Presence over the last few months or years, you are heading in the right direction. The most important thing is the practice itself. Stay focused on the practice and the results will take care of themselves.
When starting out, it can help to insert a count on the out breath or in breath. For example, breathe in, breathe out, count one, breathe in, breathe out, count two and so on up to ten and then return to one. It is fine if you lose your place. Simply return to the first count and start again. This counting technique gives the mind something very simple to do, which prevents it from wandering off elsewhere. Another option practised in some forms of traditional Buddhist meditation is to mentally label each breath “long breath” or “short breath”. Again, this gives the mind a simple task and stops it wandering off.
This is the second stage of Presence Meditation. It is essentially a mindfulness practice cultivating awareness, acceptance and concentration. Through using the technique in the second stage, you will be anchored to the breath and at the same time acknowledge and let go of everything else that arises within your awareness. This second stage can be practised exclusively or you can move to the third stage at any time. There is no pressure to move to the third stage. Transition between stages can be invited and should never be forced.
The third stage signifies an exclusive connection with and the deepening of Presence. There are various ways into the third stage. A technique I find helpful is to direct your attention to the space or stillness in-between and around your experience. This can be used inside and outside of planned meditation. Direct your awareness in-between thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, odours and sounds by letting them pass through your awareness. If you examine your experience closely enough, you will observe gaps and space within and around every form object that enters your awareness. This is analogous to clouds coming and going against a backdrop of the sky. You become aware and acknowledge the clouds as they pass and then return your attention to the sky. A natural consequence of this practice is that you will start to notice fewer clouds and more sky.
Connecting with the space in-between all these form objects uncovers emptiness, which is not empty. It is empty because there is no form there, just space, and at the same time it is knowable implying it is not empty. This paradox of emptiness and non-emptiness co-existing can also be described as nothing and something co-existing. If you are aware of this paradox, you are aware of the true essence that manifests all form. This essence creates and contains your form-based identity along with everybody and everything else, which is why it feels so expansive and transcendental. You may still be aware of the breath and other experiences at this point but will no longer be focused on them as meditation objects. Instead, you will be the Presence for the experiences to manifest and play within.
The emptiness you find through looking within and around form is your awareness and connecting with this allows you to become Present. By form, I am referring to bodily sensations, things coming in through the senses, feelings and thoughts. You move away from being associated with thoughts and become the awareness or emptiness that holds and observes them. Awareness and emptiness are one and the same. When connected with emptiness, you are aware of your own awareness. When you are aware of your own awareness, you are connected with emptiness. This awareness or emptiness does not belong to you as everybody and everything shares it. Everybody and everything in the world of form need the emptiness to exist. The emptiness, which is universal and infinite, is the creator, container and connector for all form objects at every level. Physical objects, thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations all coexist within it.
Using the method described above is helpful for those who are at the early stages in their practice as it is methodological. Another method is to bring awareness to your own awareness, if this is accessible to you. This option provides more direct access to those who are more experienced in becoming Present. Both methods lead you to the same place.
The third stage cannot be accessed through force and manifests naturally through surrendering fully to the present moment. Inviting yourself to become exclusively Present may also take you there. What you connect with in the third stage cannot be described using language. It can only be known. Words that I find helpful to point towards it are Presence, stillness, spaciousness, peace, awareness, love, the unconditioned, formlessness and emptiness. You may choose to use different words.
I find this third stage of meditation a beautiful and pleasurable experience. When you have become exclusively Present, you are aware of the fact that you are connected with something far more expansive than your limited ego-based self. Actually, the real truth is that you are not connected to it, because you are it. You cannot be connected to something that you already are. You cannot be connected to your awareness when you are your awareness. It may feel as though you are connected to something new when in fact it has been there all along but was covered up with a vale of thought. The essence of you does not fit into the usual categories that are included in mindfulness practice, such as bodily sensations, form entering through the senses, feelings or thoughts. This is what you experience, but it is not you. What you connect with in the third stage, is a very different realm to your usual form-based existence as it is formless.
I cannot offer a guaranteed technique that you can use to enter the third stage in the same way that I cannot explain how to become Present outside of planned meditation. I have offered some suggestions and in the end it is something you must know for yourself. Different people use different methods at different times to become exclusively Present. Paradoxically, the method that we use to become Present is manifested through Presence. Therefore, presence is enabling a connection with itself.
You can dwell in the third stage of Presence Meditation for any length of time from one second to several minutes. Once you are in the third stage, if you remain there and surrender to it, you can deepen your experience infinitely. At first, despite its pureness and beauty, it can be difficult to remain in the third stage. The ego has no place in the third stage and will do its best to pull you back into thoughts and stories that reinforce your false sense of self. In fact, the ego is so afraid and threatened of you being Present and radiating your true essence that it will generate feelings of fear to pull you back into thought. This explains why some people feel they are afraid of the third stage and exit meditation feeling very sensitive. It is not the people who are afraid, but their egos. There is also no concept of time in the third stage. Being exclusively Present is out of time and provides freedom from time.
During meditation, you may traverse all three stages in both directions as shown in the illustration below. You may mentally label the stage you are in for stages one and two. Stage three cannot be mentally labelled, as there will be no conscious thought. At any given time, you will either be lost in thought (which we can label Stage 0), Stage One (observing thought), Stage Two (anchored to an object such as the breath) or Stage Three (exclusively Present).
Copyright © 2018 Darren Cockburn. www.darrencockburn.com. All Rights Reserved