Presence

My cats Milo and Tara often wander the world with me. If I sit at my computer, they sleep nearby. If I go outside, they follow me. They seem to like simply being in my presence. I sometimes feel a very silly sort of happiness seeing them sleeping by my feet. This happiness doesn’t just happen with cats, although the people I know luckily don’t follow me around or sleep at my feet. I love simply being with my wife, family and close friends. When I was in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, I lived in a big house by myself in a relatively small village in the bush. When I first arrived, there were no other Peace Corps people or friends within miles. A few of the villagers liked to come and sit with me. If I talked with them, they would often leave. When asked why they came, the response was that they didn’t want me to feel lonely. Talk was unnecessary, even an obstacle. What is it about presence that is so satisfying?

 

What is presence? It is certainly not well defined. Is it about feeling safe? My cats feel safe with me, I hope. I certainly feel safe with them—and certainly with my friends and wife. I can relax and open up. There is little or no need for pretense. Presence is an absence of pretense, a type of mirroring back. One party opens, trusts and the other feels it and gives it back. One hears, sees, feels and is in turn heard, seen, felt.

 

Presence is not just being in the same space with someone, and not just with other beings. It can be on one’s own or with any place, object or situation. Recently, there was an opinion piece about presence in the NY Times called, “Being There: Heidegger on Why Our Presence Matters.” The author, Lawrence Berger, said many cognitive scientists argue that, “We are information processors rather than full-bodied human beings.” For these cognitive scientists, human beings don’t experience anything “outside” us, like another person or a tree, directly but only some sort of “internal” representation of it created by our senses and brain. We supposedly respond not directly to the tree or person but the representation. We are, in principle, locked away from the world. What is ultimately real are the physical and physiological processes, synapses, neurons, myelin sheaths, not presence. But on other “levels,” we can speak of electrons jumping around, or on another there are chemical interactions, etc.. So, isn’t each person a universe of multiple perspectives? Aren’t each of these perspectives equally about what’s “real”? And isn’t one of these perspectives, and an important one, the sense of a face lighting up in your presence?

 

One neuroscientist mentioned by Berger said that conscious awareness is “a cartoonish reconstruction of attention that is as physically inaccurate as the brain’s internal model of color.” These cognitive scientists remind me of different, older theories which “reduce” consciousness to something mechanical, physical and measurable. For example, the behaviorists of the early twentieth century argued that consciousness could not be studied and was irrelevant to explaining human behavior. It had no causal significance. Human behavior, they theorized, is conditioned, basically “programmable,” like machines. This position led to some important discoveries but also abuses.

 

The cognitive scientists focus on the mechanisms of what happens in the body when we attend. For Heidegger, a 20th Century phenomenologist philosopher, attention is not just selecting what in the world we take in, but what becomes present to us, or what takes on life, being. The “beingness,” or the mere sense of aliveness becomes primary. Attention is not just selecting what we pay attention to and with what strength or intensity, but the quality or the “feel of” that attention. So, if this is true, isn’t presence crucial for constructing meaning, understanding, and clear thinking?

 

Berger said, “When we feel that someone is really listening to us, we feel more alive, we feel our true selves coming to the surface — this is the sense in which worldly presence matters.” Presence is a recognition of our subjective experience as an event in the world, not separate from it. It is not just internal physical mechanisms or processes which have an effect. The quality of our awareness, our presence has an effect on the world.

 

And for scientists to say that conscious experience has no causal relationship to our behavior, or is merely a representation separate from a reality it simplifies and depicts, is untenable. To date, there is no clear or definitive understanding of consciousness from either science or philosophy. Anyone can theorize or have an opinion, of course, but must recognize the tentativeness of their position.

 

In my high school classes, I sometimes asked students: What are the implications of these different theories of consciousness on how you act or feel about yourself? If humans are totally programmable, would it be ethical or humane to hurtfully experiment on them and then just wipe away the memories of pain? What happens to how you treat other people when you conceive of them as machines, even computers? Which understanding of your own mind would best enable you to do school work—one which conceived mind as a cartoon, or one which thought of mind, consciousness as powerful?

 

And, you are never separate from the physical universe. If what you experience are representations you construct or cartoons you draw or theorize, this is an event inseparable from the universe that you construct. Thus, when “I” see “my” cat Tara, the perception is inseparable from me, Tara is inseparable from me. I and cat, (I-Thou) arise together. The theory by which I explain the universe is a metaphor I use to view and act in that universe. Thus, shouldn’t the effects on behavior of the theories you use be considered as part of the evidence by which a theory is evaluated?

 

If you’re a teacher, you must do the physical things, like prepare, bring in supplies, give clear directions and ask meaningful questions (and eat a good breakfast). But, as Berger said, you must also remember your “worldly presence matters.” For the student, the aliveness of the teacher, the caring, the “being heard,” the feeling that your is life mirrored, held and valued by the other—these matter. You model and teach presence and how to make theoretical questions “present’ or alive to your students. And when you do so, the mere act of listening with your whole being means you are heard, you matter. You give, you receive. This, I believe, is clear.

 

 

**The photo is of the Bosporus Strait in Istanbul, Turkey.

Habits of Mind

In the 1990s, Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick wrote a series of books on fostering habits of mind that assist the learning process. I, and many teachers that I worked with, greatly benefitted from their approach. The books argued that if students learned these habits, then they would be able to successfully put in the type of effort that leads to deep learning. The habits included persisting, striving for accuracy, thinking flexibly, managing impulsivity, listening with understanding and empathy, thinking about thinking, responding with wonderment and awe, etc. This approach is being revived today and I think it is a tremendous step, hopefully indicating an increased understanding of the necessity to teach the social and emotional aspects of learning. I would make minor adjustments, such as adding patience to persisting, and gratitude to responding with wonderment and awe. And I’d ask: Is it accurate and beneficial to call these mental processes or qualities of mind “habits”? Are the habits separate and discrete? Or are they merely different ways to view one quality of mind or experience? And what is the most efficacious way to teach what the habits teach us?

 

Costa and Kallick describe many excellent methods for teaching these habits. For example, you can use “word splashes” or brainstorms on the meanings of the habit. You can use questioning strategies that help students elucidate and analyze a problem, and you can incorporate the habits into rubrics students can use to reflect on their thinking process.

 

We teach through modeling. To help teach reflection, for example, we model awareness, honesty and humanity in the class.  We need to admit what and when we don’t really know something or if we get something wrong. If we want to teach flexibility or hearing with empathy, for example, then we teach with those qualities. When there is any doubt about what a student means in his or her analysis of a passage in a text, for example, we don’t just assume we understand what a student means; we paraphrase and then ask for confirmation.

 

Other ways to teach these qualities that I use include linking class content and student concerns. By asking students to work on questions that are meaningful and important to them, we can stimulate the student’s own striving for accuracy, curiosity, and ability to think flexibly and critically.

 

Costa and Kallick state that the habits work together. Thinking critically, for example, is a complex and multifaceted mental process and is best taught as a whole process. I think it begins with clarifying the problem or question and careful observation. Then gathering and immersing yourself in the material, presenting and questioning evidence and theories, mindful awareness and reflection on your process, incubation or stepping back to gain some perspective. And, finally, stating and testing a synthesis or conclusion. It involves not one but possibly all of the beneficial habits Costa and Kallick describe.

 

And I recommend teaching the habits experientially, with mindful meditation. Take a moment to sit back and relax. Just settle into the chair. Close your eyes now, or in a moment or two, as you feel comfortable. Just let your body settle, relax. Pick a place to put your attention, like maybe the area around your eyes. Just feel the muscles around your eyes. Can you feel how your body, very subtly, expands as you breathe in? Just notice it. And as you breathe out, can you feel your eyes relax, settle down, let go of any tension?  Just feel that for a minute.

 

Give the following directions or ask the following questions one at a time, with patience.

 

Now, think of a time that you were very patient, or you witnessed someone else being patient. Just observe yourself or the person. What did you or this person do? What actions did she or he take? What qualities did you or this other person show? How do you think the person felt while being patient? How do you feel when you’re patient? How does it feel when someone is patient with you?

 

Now just sit for a minute with the feeling of patience.

 

When you practice this meditation, notice what you feel at the end. Patience does not stand by itself. It comes along with other qualities of mind, more than I could sum up, qualities like calmness and clarity of thought. You manage impulsivity, for example, by first monitoring it, or by allowing awareness of how the impulsivity is specifically arising moment-by-moment in your body and mind. If you get absorbed in your internal comments or become judgmental of yourself for “having” the impulsivity, or if you don’t allow the awareness of what is going on to fully arise, you become lost. You manage nothing.

 

And this is true with all the “habits.” They are different aspects of awareness of what and how we “pay” attention. To start learning habits of mind, allow into awareness, “How am I thinking, now? What habits am I using now?” One of the habits, for example, is “thinking about thinking” or metacognition. We could also call it “attending to thinking” to avoid using the word ‘thinking’ too ambiguously. What is the goal of attending to our thinking? Is it an intellectual analysis of how our thinking could be improved? Or is it actually thinking consciously and clearly? The two are not necessarily the same, any more than eating a meal and the description of the tastes are the same.  Analysis is based on memory and is an after-the-fact commenting on conscious experience. The other is direct experience. The former depends on the latter. Mindfulness meditation teaches us how to be aware of direct experience, or our moment-by-moment quality of attention. This includes, as we pointed out with “impulsivity,” being aware and open to whatever arises, even confusion, anxiety, or fear. Without developing this clear awareness of direct experience, metacognition is handicapped.

 

The habits of mind bring attention to important mental processes or qualities of mind. However, these “habits” are not discrete and separate. They arise and work together. And to fully utilize a complex mental process, you need clear awareness of your own mental state. Mindfulness meditation provides a wonderful method to develop this clear and direct awareness.