To Be or Not to Be: What is Presence?

presence pic

Presence. Everyone seems to be talking about this word at the moment. As Lindsay astutely observed in our first blog post, Mindfulness is ‘so hot right now’, and presence is a key principle in Mindfulness. I have taught several communication workshops lately where I’ve stated from the beginning that ‘presence’ was going to be the theme, and no one ever questions it. I guess being present with oneself and with others seems like a logical concept to consider when working on one’s communication— in fact it is a concept that is mentioned all over the place on this website.

But what is it? What does it mean to be present? How can it turn from a hot buzzword into something we can embody or be? What can we do to be present, or is presence simply being? As Kurt Vonnegut wisely said: “I’m a human being, not a human doing.”

I have struggled with being present my entire life. To me it seemed like this ethereal, mysterious thing that I was always in pursuit of and could never quite find. I cultivated my talent for not being present from an early age— I was a highly imaginative child and loved to let my mind wander anywhere other than the present moment. There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with that, but as I grew up and the demands of life increased, that talent for my mind wandering became increasingly more about worrying about the past or planning for/thinking about/worrying about the future, rather than being in the current moment I was in.

When I began studying to be an actor, my acting teachers at various points in my training picked up on my talent for not being present. A big part of acting training is learning how to listen to your impulses from moment to moment. But I was so busy thinking about the way I had planned the scene the night before or how my performance would be received after the scene that I often struggled to connect to my impulses. Hell, I had spent so much of my life not in the present moment that I didn’t even know how to listen to my impulses. My teachers would just tell me— “Get present. Be in the moment.” And I would think— but what does that mean??? And how do I DO it???

This is why I love voice work. Voice work provides a vehicle for exploring these ‘buzz words’—which are so often conceptual and hard to reach—physically and vocally. It was through voice work that I learned that ‘presence’ is not just a state of mind. In fact, it was through voice work that I learned that I’m not just a disembodied head with a brain in it! I have a body! I have a voice! And it is created not in my head, but through muscular actions that happen in my body. This body can feel, breathe, and respond—and it operates as one organism that works with and for the mind. This might not be news to any of you, but it was a shocking discovery for me. Through voice work, I learned that presence is not finding some ethereal state. It’s about learning how to acknowledge your whole self— your mind, body and voice.

‘Presence’ is one of the major concepts in Fitzmaurice Voicework (R), an approach to voice training that I now teach. (You may at this point be asking yourself, how does this woman have any business teaching ‘presence’ when she’s just admitted she’s bad at it? Fair question. I’m a work in progress.) Saul Kotzubei, a Master Teacher of Fitzmaurice Voicework, defines ‘presence’ as: ‘the ability to be with one’s internal experience and relate to one’s external environment— simultaneously and fluidly.’ In other words, it’s the ability to check in with what’s going on inside of you, as you are aware of the outside world— at the same time. A big part of that work is ‘practicing’ this ability to be present; by developing proprioception of the body, by working with the breath, by working with the thought— and by continuously coming back to what’s happening in the body, in the breath, with the thought— over and over and over again. Because that’s all it is— being present. Noticing what’s happening from moment to moment.

And that includes noticing—‘I don’t feel present in this moment.’

It was my struggle to be present physically and vocally that led me to pursue an interest in voice work, which is what I now teach. I’ve been working on cultivating my ability to be present for several years now, and I’ve been feeling pretty good about it lately. So you can imagine my dismay when, as part of a 30 day yoga challenge that includes a mantra, or an affirmation, with every day’s practice, I fell flat on day 10 when the mantra was: ‘I am present.’ **

It was as if, when my brain heard the mantra, it decided to rebel (it often does that). I kept trying to practice the mantra, but my body was doing one thing and my mind was somewhere else, and ‘never the twain shall meet’. I was getting more and more frustrated and angry. ‘Don’t I teach this for a living?’ I thought. I wondered what my students would think of me in this moment— all while moving from warrior two to downward-facing dog. Why couldn’t I just stay present?

And then I realized— I was still trying to go for my idea of being present. I was still expecting to find some ethereal, mystical state. But actually— what was happening in those moments as I moved through that yoga video— that is the practice of being present. This is how I can ‘do’ being present. I notice I’m not. That my mind is somewhere else. That awareness gives me power, because in that awareness, there is choice. I can choose to come back to focusing on the moment— on what my body is doing, on how I am breathing, on what sensations or emotions I am feeling in the present moment, or not. And I get to make that choice every time I become aware that I am indeed no longer present. Can you imagine what the world would be like if we all decided to have this kind of awareness in our communication with others?

This is where I am with practicing presence. What about you? What are your thoughts on what ‘presence’ is and how you can be present? With yourself and with others? What are your struggles? What are your triumphs? Let us know in the comments below— we would love to hear!

** This was, however, a fantastic 30 day Yoga challenge, made by BeSpoke’s official favorite yoga teacher, Adriene Mishler.



2 thoughts on “To Be or Not to Be: What is Presence?

  1. I also feel like I have always struggled to “be present” and like you, for a long time thought it to be this “ethereal, mystical state” and I was frustrated because I was convinced that I would never be able to find it- but it was through a meditation practice (something that I always thought I would never be able to do because I was convinced my mind was simply too busy) that I learned, for me, the practice of presence was the moment when I acknowledged that I had become consumed by my thoughts- and gently brought myself back to “the present moment”. When I meditate I have to do this over and over again- but that is “the practice”- so like you, I have found so much empowerment in awareness.


    1. thank you for your comment, Shannon! Lindsay has also found mindful meditation really useful, and I am realizing more and more that working with the mind as well as with the body and voice in some way is so important for staying present. Developing that ‘practice’, as you say!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.