We recently had the chance to talk with David G. Benner, PhD, about his book Presence and Encounter: The Sacramental Possibilities of Everyday Life.
David G. Benner (PhD, York University; postdoctoral studies, Chicago Institute of Psychoanalysis) is an internationally known depth psychologist, author, spiritual guide, and personal transformation coach who lives in Toronto, Ontario. He is a faculty member of The Rohr Institute’s Living School for Action and Contemplation, where he serves as a master teacher. Benner has authored or edited more than twenty books, including Soulful Spirituality and Spirituality and the Awakening Self. He lectures widely around the world and has held numerous clinical and academic appointments. For more information, visit his website at www.drdavidgbenner.ca or his Facebook page.
What can the story of Moses and the burning bush teach us about presence and encounter?
The story of Moses wonderfully illustrates almost everything I have to say about presence and encounter in this book, so this is a great question to start with. First, let’s notice Moses. On that day and in that moment Moses was present. Rather than being caught up in his own preoccupations or agendas for the day, Moses was aware of what was happening within and around him and open to his life being interrupted. The interruption came in the form of his curiosity. He noticed a fire and paid attention to it long enough and with sufficient openness that he allowed his curiosity to draw him into an encounter. The bush was present to him because presence is the default and steady state for everything in existence with the exception of humans. Only humans can be distant enough from their existence that they can—and regularly do—lose presence. But, like us, Moses could not notice the presence of the bush to him until he was first present to himself. In presence, and only in presence, do we become accessible to encounter.
But the story then brings us to a second really important dimension of this miracle of presence and encounter. What Moses encountered was not merely a burning bush but the Transcendent God. Presence to God also demands presence to self. There can, in fact, be no meaningful encounter with God apart from presence. But presence to anything is a potential doorway to an encounter with the transcendent source of all presence—God. This is why I speak of presence and encounter as sacraments of daily living. Nothing is too small, insignificant, or non-spiritual to fail to be a potential occasion of encountering Presence if we only dare to be present ourselves.
You speak of three laws of presence. What are they and what do they tell us about the nature of presence?
I didn’t receive these laws on tablets of stone on a mountaintop, nor did I derive them scientifically. So perhaps it’s a little presumptuous to speak of them as laws. But they do pull together some of the things that I think are important to understand about presence and how it opens us to the possibilities of encounter. The three “laws” are:
• Presence to anything starts with presence to self,
• Presence to anything is constrained by presence to everything, and
• Presence to anything can be a threshold to the Transcendent.
Being present isn’t something we do. Anything we simply do will always involve more pretense than presence. Presence isn’t something, therefore, that we can simply turn on like a faucet. Authentic presence is always grounded in authenticity. Being present is being real. It is really being in the here-and-now. This is why presence to anyone or anything always must start with presence to self.
But while presence to anything is built on presence to self, the presence that we will be able to offer ourselves will always be constrained by the presence we regularly offer to anything and everything. It is virtually impossible to sustain more presence to anything than we routinely offer to everything. This is because presence is an expression of our being, not simply a behavior. It is a soul posture of openness and attentiveness—not something we can turn into a command performance. The hospitality offered by the best hosts is never simply a way of behaving when guests are present. It is a way of being. Presence is a way of being that will characterize our relationship to everything or it characterizes our relationship to nothing.
Presence is a thin place. It is a place where we are particularly close to Transcendent realities that are normally beyond our awareness but that always surround us. Being present to anything opens us to potential encounter with the transcendent presence that is the Ground of Being. God is always present. It is us who are absent. Our absence is our lack of presence. Once we learn to be present we become aware of the truth of the eternal presence of the One who is present to us.
Next week Dr. Benner will explain “clouded” and “luminous” presence, and he will illuminate mystics’ thoughts on presence and encounter, as well as what we can learn from them about encountering God.