Today I want to ponder the idea--the experience--of presence and openness. First, what do I mean by presence? Has someone ever looked into your eyes when you spoke with them? Could you feel them with you, harmonize with you? Did you get the sense they were really taking you in? You probably felt relaxed with them, and the conversation probably flowed, reached a deeper level, or maybe it encouraged free-flowing laughter? By contrast, have you engaged with someone whose eyes seemed hard or "not with you?" Did they seem only to pause to formulate their next sentences? Did you feel defensive? Did you find yourself disengage, or your body become tense?
Do you feel the difference in these described encounters? The first experience is one of presence and openness. The second example is one of discomfort and unrelatedness. They are remarkably different, and yet one may find it difficult to explain why each experience feels so different. Presence and openness is a quality of relating. It has everything to do with inner stillness, receptivity, intention with no agenda. So this quality conveys through the eyes. It is no accident the eyes have been called 'windows to the soul.' It's powerful. Cultivating a soulful connection and presence with people...cultivating openness...is fundamental to our health and well-being as social beings. It requires us to dismantle pretense and prejudice, and it requires honesty and dwelling in the moment. It requires us, certainly, to put the cell phones down--or, better yet, off--to detach from our "screens," so pervasive within our culture.
A couple years ago I had the opportunity to participate in an immersive theater experience in New York city that helped bring the power of eye contact and subtle communication into greater awareness for me. The play is called "Then She Fell," about Lewis Carol and his Alice in Wonderland story. The actors' riveting eye contact with audience members stood out powerfully for me. It would convey and color meaning, emotion, direction, connection, and sometimes hostility and danger. It was the thread by which we members of the audience knew where to go next in the story. From our encounters with the characters, we drew a much more intimate and deep experience of the story. In fact it became an immediate experience that affected us more than a story, it allowed us to encounter the story and the characters. To be seen and to see. It allowed for us to encounter our own fears, doubts and feelings. "Then She Fell," the play, reveals many brilliant things that are unrelated to my topic today, but I came away from the experience with an acute awareness about eye contact...and how we so seldom look at one another. How powerful it is to be present with someone...how good it feels to be seen by someone else... It activates a sense of aliveness inside, I think.
Being present keeps us in the now, in the moment, and helps create true intimacy and greater awareness. It allows us to open up to more than the confines of our own limits and prejudices. It frees us from our own projections. It imbues more meaning and intimacy in our relationships. In this age of portable technology when eyes too easily drift away to smart phone screens, can we dare to cultivate presence and openness in our daily lives? I think it one of the most precious gifts we can give ourselves and others. So, here's looking at you! Take very good care.
Stacy Montaigne AuCoin, LCSW