Between the Lines: A Conversation with David G. Benner, PhD – Part 2

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 or his Facebook page.

Part 1 of this interview is available here.


What is a “clouded” presence? What are its causes and how does it manifest itself?

Personality is seldom clouded. Think of your circle of acquaintances. You don’t have to be a psychologist to be able to identify salient personality traits for each of them. But this is not their presence. The presence that shadows us all is deeper than our personality and yet often more difficult to discern. It is with us in every interaction and will influence others one way or another—even though most people will be unaware of it. It lurks and lingers but is easily ignored or missed. And the major reason for this is because it is so often clouded.

Clouded presence is hard to read. The waters of the soul are opaque and restless. We may sense that someone’s surface presentation does not tell their whole story, but the nature of that deeper story will be as unclear as their presence. Or we may feel uneasy with them and not understand why. But chances are good that the uneasiness we feel is justified and that the clouding of the person’s presence is because of the mask they wear. This mask obscures their motives and parts of themselves that they don’t acknowledge and, if they did, would not want others to see. We can, therefore, describe the cause of clouding of presence as hiding behind a persona. But it is important to realize that we are seldom aware that we are doing this and that the real cause can more simply be described as living out of a false self.

The core of a clouded presence is always limited self-knowledge and an unwillingness to be honest about what we actually do know about ourselves. You don’t have to be perfect to have a clear and unambiguous presence. But, pretense will always confuse it. Pretense compromises our grounding in reality. It also produces the complexity that complicates knowing how to relate to such a person and the confusion you feel when engaged with them. This confusion is only clarified when you understand the ulterior motivations and needs that are opaque to them. But, because the person who is hiding behind a persona believes he or she is that public face, the presence that is their soul signature is clouded and confused.


What is “luminous” presence, and how can we recognize or encounter it? 

Luminous presence is the natural state of being. Rocks, trees, houses, and bridges are luminously clear in their presence to us, but we are seldom sufficiently present to notice. Although we don’t experience luminous presence often, perhaps you can think of occasions when the presence of something or someone was so clear and powerful that it broke through your preoccupations and distractions and pulled you into presence for at least a moment.

When we encounter this sort of presence in a person it shines through them with such luminosity that it can be quite dazzling. You might easily assume that it is the person who is dazzling. But what you are encountering is not simply the other person but the Presence they mediate. This transcendent source of all presence lurks behind all encounters. The other always brings us in potential contact with the Ultimate Other, and all presence mediates—usually in a partial and imperfect way—Ultimate Presence. This is why presence to anything opens the door to presence to the transcendent.

In luminous presence we encounter the purity of simple being. Life is complex. Personality is complex. Mind, self, relationships, and experience are all complex. But being has about it a singularity that marks it as pure.

The best example of this purity and luminosity of presence is Jesus. The Gospels describe him as speaking with amazing authority. I think what people were noticing was his presence, not his personality or his elocution. They were noticing the power and influence that comes from the simplicity and purity of being that we see in Jesus who Christians understand to be the perfect personification of Luminous Presence.


Why have mystics been so concerned with presence and encounter? What can we learn from them about encountering God and how it can change us?

The mystics understand that both spiritual transmission and transformation are through presence and encounter. And they know that encountering anything—particularly God—is something quite different from holding beliefs or having information about someone or something. They understand that authentic encounter is always potentially transformational because it calls us into presence and invites us to return to our center—our being in the Ground of Being. But they also understand that we miss the potential for encounter because of our lack of presence. So, presence and encounter are right at the center of the life and teaching of the mystics.


For more information on Dr. Benner’s new book, Presence and Encounter, click here.