Up before dawn on Christmas Eve, writing this by a lighted Christmas tree, I marvel at the expectant hush in the air. I still feel that something miraculous and unexpected is coming, and it has nothing to do with the presents under the tree. Conditioned since babyhood to expect wonders on Christmas—and presents, special baked goods, and a wonderful suspension of the usual rules and that adult state of distraction, that buzzing busyness and keeping things rolling—I still sense that something miraculous is coming. I sense that we are meant to glimpse, to touch, to receive something beyond conditioning, beyond our common capacity for delusion, for making hologram worlds in our minds.
There is something beyond us waiting to be received by us. We have been seeking it all our lives, and it is right here, right now, hovering above us, surrounding us, in the depths of us. I call it Christmas presence. Besides our own capacity for distraction—not just by the sounds or the siren call of the screens in our lives but by hope of praise and fear of blame and the spin-off worries and ways we get worked up in this world—we inherit an ability to touch and listen and see and yearn for what is beyond this self-enclosed world. Along with a body and brain that passed to us from distant ancestors who noted the darkest day of the year and then the return of the sun, came the capacity to be still, to keep watch.
We can think of presence in a very down-to-earth way. It is the way we are when we walk in the woods, alert, open to our surroundings, responsive to what might arise. “Sati,” the Pali word for mindfulness literally means to remember. In a state of open, responsive attentiveness, we are re-membered or re-collected, heart and body and mind all present—think of the shepherds keeping watch in the fields. Presence is also something very exalted, something that comes in great stillness (since I’ve brought up the shepherds, I may as well add that “Silent Night” has a coded meaning for me). Presence is a great force of love, a light of awareness that reaches down to us—reminding us know that we are remembered in a much vaster world than our brain-sized world, assuring us that as improbable it sounds, we are meant to be part of a greater whole.
Presence also has a quality of forgiveness, an open, responsive, loving acceptance that delivers us from the cruelty of our own judgments, resentments, guilt, all that is unresolved in our lives–and we humans all carry such things, and to be cut off from a sense of being part of a greater, moving whole is to be haunted by the sense that we aren’t really fully living the life we are meant to be living (not that we don’t have bright spots, cherished memories).
A wonderful thing about presence is that it can be practiced right now in the down-to-earth form—and even (especially) if you don’t feel at all wonderful. We can practice giving open, responsive attention—and heaven knows what we may receive. Think of those shepherds keeping watch in the field. Think of them being mindful, open to the unexpected that might arise, ready to respond to anything that might threaten the flock. And then came the unexpected….