Presence has become a focus of much recent writing in the field of psychotherapy, and in Gestalt therapy in particular. But, much of the writing is vague regarding what exactly “presence” refers to. It is my impression that there is confusion between two different experiences: presentness and presence. I will describe the difference between these below.
In Gestalt therapy theory, there has always been an emphasis on the immediate transient moment. We speak of contact as the awareness of a flow of figure formation, hopefully leading to some satisfaction or resolution of an emergent need. We are familiar with the sequence of contacting, which describes the flow of awareness: from sensation, to forming the figure of a need, to forming the figure of an element of the field which this need is in relation to, to acting in relation to this figure, to resolving the need, to receding and assimilating. And then noticing the next emergent need. In this process, we are optimally focused on contact with the immediate present. And to the degree that our awareness is in contact with this immediate present, we say that “we are present”. A hallmark of healthy process, from a Gestalt theoretical frame is the ability to maintain awareness in the present. To be present. This is what I refer to as “present-ness” – and this is what we strive to maintain as therapists – the ability to be aware of and responsive to the emergent events with our patients in this immediate, unique moment. In this process, we model and encourage our patients to orient toward this same present-ness. The experience of extended contact with the immediate present is usually experienced as a heightened state, one in which sensations are sharper, and rote, habitual ways of thinking and acting are diminished. As therapists, we tend to feel more engaged and more effective when we are “present” than we do when we are operating out of a more habitual, narrative way of thinking. We are more open to surprise, to nuance, and less likely to ignore “events” which do not fit our narrative.
But, presentness is not presence. Buber was clear about that when he said “The present exists only insofar as presentness, encounter, and relation exist…Only as the You becomes present does presence come into being”. Here, Buber is referring to a distinction between “being present with” and the experience of presence, of existence itself. I will describe this from a Gestalt therapy frame.
If we re-visit the process of contacting, we see that contact is the awareness of a figure. It is always in relation to some-thing. And that some-thing is constantly changing. The awareness of a dry mouth leads to the awareness of the water fountain, which leads to the awareness of the coolness of the water on the tongue. As soon as that flow of figures recedes, another figure emerges, and so on. The figure is constantly changing, but awareness is constant – it just moves from figure to figure. This is what PHG describe as self – the awareness at the contact boundary, the identification with not only the process of figure formation, but with the content of figure formation. This identification is a necessary part of living in the world, and navigating the needs of the organism and the opportunities, challenges, and dangers of the world. When “I am hungry” or “I am frightened” this identification serves to propel us into life preserving action. This identification is, however, at best provisional, and at worst can keep us restricted in our engagement with the world and with ourselves. PHG said (paraphrasing) “self is not the figure formed, it is the forming of the figure” – the process of figure formation, the awareness that forms the figures. In other words, self is the awareness that moves from figure to figure – the sage of tao, which is without form, but takes the form of the receptacle.
In the process of healthy figure formation, we are oriented toward the novel. That which is growthful requires engagement with that which is not already present, not already part of the organism. In the process of identification with the novel figure, there is a charge of excitement as well as uncertainty. Clearly, anything that does not already exist is uncertain. Here, we run into a problem – the identification with an emerging figure which is charged with uncertainty generates anxiety. There is – literally – an investment of self in that which does not yet exist, in a figure which may “fail”. There is an experience akin to the self “shattering” when it has identified with a figure which results in an experience of pain (which we also identify with). And when the emergent figure is one which has failed in the past, we often interrupt its clear and simple emergence – we interrupt the process of contacting, in an attempt to preserve our self. The pattern of interruptions that we form restricts our experience of our own capacities and resources, and restricts and distorts our view of the world. We form rigid, restricted self/world views, which become “character”. This character becomes what the person experiences as who they are, as opposed to what identifications they align with and what identifications they alienate.
While this is understood in Gestalt therapy theory, there is an oversight when looking at what or who we are. Since awareness is a constant in the process of figure formation, or consciousness itself, we might consider what our experience would be if we identified more with the constant (awareness), rather than the constantly changing content of figure formation. We could find that there is a greater sense of constancy, a greater sense of wholeness, and less concern about the uncertainty of novelty. There would be an experience of security and well-being, which would support curiosity and experimentation. The possibility of a figure of interest “failing” would be of less concern since it would be experienced as a disappointment and not as a loss of self. This experience of identification with awareness itself is what I refer to as Presence. It is what PHG talk about when they define self (see above), or say that in ideal circumstances self doesn’t have much personality. It is what Buber is referring to when he speaks of the Thou/You experience as having no particulars, of not being oriented in time and space, and of being experienced as existence itself.
So, presence is more than presentness. To cite Buber again, Thou is more than It could ever know. Presentness is the experience of being present with/ in contact with the particular figure of the moment. Presence is the experience of awareness itself regardless of the form it takes.