The concept of “presence”, being in the moment, is one that appears to be revealing itself from many different angles. Being present means being fully alive, fully aware, fully conscious and feeling, in the “now” of where we are, when we are, how we are. Some might think, ‘well how could life itself be any different?’ And yet, the goal of meditation is to help us to be present. The by-product of a truly deep and meaningful sexual connection is presence with the other person—a shared presence, one which enhances the feeling of being present.
If you had asked me a year ago what presence meant, I wouldn’t have had the faintest idea. I would have bristled at the idea that we are not fully present at all times. The very nature of existence, I would have said, is that we are present whether we like it or not. There is no other possibility. Existence, by definition, is presence. With a nod to this line of thinking, being conscious of our presence is not the same as existing. Consciousness is an active process; being is a passive one.
Why does this matter?
It matters not because we cannot live without consciousness, but because life with presence is so much richer than life without it. To not know what you are missing is one thing, but to know it and not pursue it, well, that is an act of self-harm. To know it, to have felt it, and to not pursue it would be a crying shame.
How and why has presence eluded me?
In my recent explorations in therapy of various kinds, I have started to unpeel the onion, finding the interconnected nature of all these threads I have been writing about, musing on. And it brings me back to my original purpose of blogging. Writing is therapy. Putting “pen to paper” is a process that allows for ideas to become articulate, to become permanent, and to be made real. When ideas stay bouncing around in our minds, they are still ephemeral, intellectual little curiosities, but here, “on paper”, they have come out. They have become present.
The threads of this blog point in one direction: towards presence
I write about food through recipes, though I have never explained why food and recipes and cooking are important to me in life. I write about gender issues, particularly those related to identity, and how politics and culture are a terrible burden on gender identity, whether we are dysphoric or not—social stigma serves no one, least of all the prejudiced. I write quite a bit about wellness and fitness and self-motivation. Sometimes I write about politics or inequality—issues that move me. And I write about sexuality, and in particular Dominance and submission as a kinky practice and what its significance is. On the face of it, these topics might seem to be unrelated. But I am discovering that they are all faces of the same coin.
In therapy yesterday I was asked to imagine what a safe place looked like, felt like, and was asked to articulate it. This was during a “guided meditation” in somatic therapy—when we locate sources of anxiety and stress in the body, explore what they feel like, and explore what the antidote to those stresses and fears might be.
In this instance, my answer revolved around food. If you can imagine a cozy room, where the coziness is defined by the softness of the light, the furnishings and décor, but not the size of the space. A large fire crackles at the end of the room. The walls and floors are aged oak, the furniture, a dining table, is a heavy oak table, worn with age and use. There are armchairs by the fire, leather pullman chairs in chestnut coloured leather. The table is piled high with oak leaves, dried Indian corn, squash of various shapes and sizes—a Thanksgiving tableau (for those of you in tune with this US holiday). The table is abundant. There is food, a beautiful array of dishes, all more delectable than the last.
There is also a feeling. Convivial. Food represents intimate moments with loved ones. Good conversation. The satisfaction of life’s most fundamental urge—to eat and be nourished. There is joy in this experience, and there is culture, for this is one of the ways that humanity can be at its best—showing love and living love with people as we “break bread”.
This image arose during the therapeutic process as the antidote to feelings of stress and anxiety that I had articulated. It was a place to take my inner child, to reassure. What were these fears and where did they come from? Breast feeding is not just an act of bonding between mother and child, it is the moment when we learn to live as distinct beings because we are fed by the mother, not just from the mother. And this process is one of comfort and intimacy. As if we are hearing a voice that says, “it’s okay to come out now, see how beautiful the world is, see how delicious it tastes.” [I wrote about missing the experience of breast-feeding here].
Another aspect of this laden table is abundance. The legacy of divorce in my family put my mother and us children in dire financial straits. Not really knowing if we had enough to eat, gardening because we had to, because it was the only way we could afford fresh produce, wearing ill-fitting and hopelessly unstylish hand-me-downs because buying new things for the “after-thought” child, the one who was a cry to save a dying marriage, and living an outwardly posh life because we lived in a house that we couldn’t afford, and went to schools that we couldn’t afford, and therefore had friends who didn’t know what the word “afford” even meant, all conspired to make me acutely aware of “lack”. Yes, part of me says “lack” within a context of privilege is a farce, and perhaps it was a self-inflicted wound on the part of our family unit—but this is an area where I am grateful to my mother, who in her fight and refusal to lie down, taught me by example to always fight.
Today I recognise that this was a form of power and abuse that my father exerted on my mother, and by reflection on us, his forgotten children. He had himself been the child of divorce, and the trauma this visited upon him was vast compared to what I experienced—he went from a life with a butler and a chauffeur and houses in town and on the beach to living in a rooming house with his single mother and sisters—all in one room. And now I know that as an adult he was not capable of breaking the cycle, but instead chose to play out his own trauma and hand-deliver it back to us, by lording money over my mother. He sought to clip her wings and crush her spirit. He was selfish and small—but above all, he was not present. A present person would not be capable of such things.
The legacy for my father’s family has manifested itself in his own divorce, his inability to confront his demons, to introspect, to grow. For his sisters, the legacy of this life was that one of them died of alcoholism and all three of her children are dead—alcohol, drugs, suicide, jail, broken and unhappy lives. And for his other sister? A drifting life, but one child also who has transitioned from M2F and found joy and peace. So, in this sense, my father came out least worst off.
Embodied in the abundant table is a sense of conviviality. Human warmth. Friendship. Good conversation. A natural and gentle expression of love. I see this as the antidote to the bullying, spirit-crushing, and degrading atmosphere that was a big part of my childhood. This more than anything else is why I have almost nothing to do with my family, why I limit my exposure to them, and why I have chosen to create a family dynamic that is free from the poisons of my own experience.
The fourth and final aspect of food as healing is played out in the concept of hospitality. In the Muslim world, inviting someone into your home, to your table, is an act of honour. Even one’s enemies are safe when hospitality and charity are at play. If you ever spend any time in a Muslim country, you will see how giving they are to their own poor. Charity is considered holy. This translates into a warmth of spirit towards one another around the table that laces the experience with love. To feed someone is to show love to them, to serve them whilst doing so, is an act of honour. It is the essence of culture.
In my own life I relish beyond compare the times spent around the table with friends and loved ones, talking about whatever, and just soaking each other up. Being warm, feeling warm, enjoying the moment. Good conversation. Good food. Abundance.
This explains in part why food is so important to me. I quite literally see food as one of “recipes” for a good life. That is one of the reasons why I cook. Cooking is also one of the most important ways for me to show love to someone. I do this every day with my family, and spend most of my spare time in the kitchen, making things that deliver this feeling of comfort and conviviality to my family.
This is one of the ways that I broke the cycle—we are not destined to revisit the trauma of our parent’s generation, and their parents ad infinitum back in time. But doing so takes conscious effort. My therapist suggested that I consciously set out to break the cycle by creating this kind of environment for my wife and children—that providing this kind of warmth was an act of defiance towards the sources of stress and anxiety that I grew up with.
The other way that food speaks to me is through presence. Cooking requires presence. Eating requires presence. The repetitive tasks of chopping things with a very sharp knife require attention lest you cut yourself. The multitude of dishes, processes, steps, all whirling about at once, has the therapeutic effect of putting me into a Zen-like state, one where my rational mind has been parked and I am simply at one with the process of cooking. This is especially true in those last moments before serving, when everything comes to a head like the build-up in Ravel’s Bolero, and with its final gasp, the shout rings out “dinner is ready.”
Though I could have not really known beforehand, Mistress is an important catalyst in this area. She teaches many of her subs to be present with food, to taste and savour, to relish. It is uncanny really.
The Mark of Abuse
I have written previously about abuse and the many forms it can take. It is impossible to measure one person’s trauma against another, but as surely as I write and you read, we all have trauma. There is no sin in having trauma. There is sin, however, in not striving to escape it. Why? Even though the crime is about the self, not working to liberate ourselves of the spiritual stains of abuse is not accessing our holiness—that which is Godly within each of us. No matter how big or small the stain, self-cleansing is the essence of holy work, as it is what allows us to break the cycle. And when we break the cycle, we contribute more. And it is this contribution which elevates us, the people around us, and society as a whole. One of my closest friends thinks this blog represents my midlife crisis. Working through and coming to terms with trauma. But the irony for me is that this past year has been one of the richest and most enjoyable years of my life—implication being that the rest of my life was a “crisis” of sorts, and that now, finally, I am taking up the tools of healing myself.
I don’t wish to highlight my trauma, but simply note that all trauma leaves a mark, and how we deal with it shapes our lives. My primary coping mechanism, and which I touched on in the blog review of the book The Five Personality Patterns, is what is known as the “leaving pattern”. Faced with overwhelming stress, I “run away”. When that doesn’t work, I deploy my secondary pattern, “aggression”. “Leaving” doesn’t need to mean running away in a conventional sense. But it does mean not being present. I do this trick to avoid feeling, and that is to default to my intellect—to rationalise everything. This is a coping mechanism designed to deal with abuse. It was not safe to feel, not safe to be present, so instead I detached myself from myself and observed from a distance, so as not to feel. The “aggressive” pattern is simply a way from keeping people and situations where feelings might come up at bay. In other words, being present in my developing mind equalled pain. All of my life strategies, all of my coping mechanisms up to this point have been designed to avoid presence.
The Absence of Presence
What do we miss when we are not present? We miss life itself. We pass through life without thinking, without reflection. We live exclusively in the terrain of the mental, never of the feeling.
I was told over and over growing up that I was a “cold fish” that I was heartless, or had no feeling…My wife, on the other hand, married me because I wear my heart on my shirtsleeves, because I am an intensely emotional person. Who was right? Both. Being “cold” was reserved for the 99% of the people that I wouldn’t let in, that I kept at bay through a mix of aggression and avoidance. First person among these was my mother. Too often she used her power to hurt and not nurture, to the point that I wouldn’t even allow her to touch me. If she did, I would physically remove myself from her touch, and tell her not to touch me.
I have written previously about how Mistress is quite possibly the person most directly responsible for me accepting touch. In session with my therapist, I noted that my closest friends are two people who touch me…all the time. One male, one female. They are intensely emotional people, but also ones who connect through physical touch. Squeezing, hugging, poking, putting their arms over your shoulders or around your waist when you walk, or touching hands, holding hands—none of this is sexual, part of it is cultural, but the rest is who they are. My therapist noted that I am a high touch person, but it is only with those who I let in, and I let very few people in. I let my children in, these two friends, perhaps a few others, but I don’t always let my wife in completely physically.
But Mistress is teaching me about touch, and touching me, with intent. And her touch is prying me open. The type of therapy she has encouraged me to explore—touch therapy, is doing the same. And I find that my body is waking up, all of me is waking up, to a range of emotional and physical and spiritual stimuli that I had not experienced before. My skin tingles. I feel the world crackling around me, I am becoming aware of a way of being, of living, that I did not know even existed. And to say that everything tastes better because of it is understatement—it is more that I feel alive for the very first time in my life. To walk slowly on the beach, feeling the breeze as it touches you gently, to feel the crunch of the sand underfoot, to hear the waves, to feel the sun sparkle and splash…all of this happening at once, but discernible—this is to move through life and to notice it in detail, everything pronounced, enhanced…contrasted to all sensation being like a stew, a non-descript sludge. No, this is special.
And while I find that this is a juicy and delicious feeling, there is more. I get to experience this. Conscious effort and learning are doorways to experiencing it more. Facing my demons is another way of opening these doors. But there is more. More is to use this gift, to deploy it, to turn it into a source of creativity and productivity. I still have to change the world. Don’t we all? Isn’t that why we’re here? What nobody ever tells us is that the tools to do so lie at our feet, all we need to do is take them up. And that is, indeed, what presence is. Presence is power, our personal power, and our presence is us, and all around us, and all that we touch and survey. It is our connection to the world, to the universe, to one another. It is, should we choose to make it so, the essence of life.
The original question? Is presence the ultimate aphrodisiac? Yes, it is. Lust for life. And the eroticisation of everyday life? I have written previously about how our erotic landscape is another language that speaks to how we need to engage with the world to achieve our potential. To eroticise is to desire, to lust for…when your lust and desire becomes one for presence itself…there is all of your human potential within your grasp. To not seek it and put it to work is to miss the point entirely. It is no less than the recipe for the good life.