The priceless gifts of compassionate “presence”


Your quality of presence – and mine – will linger in the minds of other people long after even the cleverest words are forgotten. Without even considering that it is presence we are describing we might say, “This person is good to be around…doesn’t criticize, attack or blame…makes life smoother and calmer…” Or we may say, “I feel exhausted and tense when I’m with that person….I feel heavy, defended and down.” Taking charge of our quality of “presence” is essential to emotional maturity. It is also essential to learning to live more lovingly.

If you are ever in doubt about what “presence” means you need only cast your mind back to the last time you were in a room with a really bad tempered, tense or angry person! Or someone who felt entitled to meet the world with a sense of outrage. Or was so flooded with self-pity they had no space to generate compassion for anyone else, or understanding of their own circumstances. Without anyone saying a word, or before anyone could say a word, their emotional state would have been more than evident to you. “You could have cut the atmosphere with a knife,” is the expression commonly used. Equally – and far more delightfully – think of the people you know well who are genuinely lovely to be with. In all our lives there are some of these angels. Perhaps they are not always calm and self-possessed, but we can nevertheless rely on them to be trustworthy in their moods, generous in their attitudes, and kind in their actions. We love to be with them. We feel better every time we are together.  What a positive difference to our lives their benevolent “presence” makes.


In my recent book Seeking the Sacred I wrote about my wonderful experience of spending an evening many years ago in the company of the official oracle of the Dalai Lama and how brilliantly uplifting, even transformative that evening was, despite his lack of English and my total lack of Tibetan. No words were needed.

“Presence” is far more than words; far more truthful than words. The small silent investment of time you are free to make each early morning can set your emotional compass for the day ahead. This – call it meditation, reflection, prayer if you want – is an invaluable way to check and choose the particular quality or expression of presence that you will bring to your day and to everyone you meet. And when you forget? Or when the day threatens to overwhelm you? Then the secret is to become once more consciously “present” to yourself: to steady yourself from the inside out in order to recognize and – most crucially – to act on the freedom you have to choose how you will meet the world and what qualities you will embody and express.

This won’t save you from all slips or failings. It won’t always save you from old habits of dissatisfaction or gloom. But what it does mean is that you will trust yourself to recover far more quickly – and go forward with new confidence. This is key to inner stability; perhaps also to authentic self-worth. My sense is strong, too, that when you allow yourself to be more responsible about the atmosphere that YOU are creating with your quality of presence, you will also feel freer to choose the company you keep. When someone’s presence defeats or disturbs you, perhaps you will spend far less time with them (or no time at all if you have that choice). When someone’s presence uplifts you, you will increasingly welcome that. Spend more time with such people is my strongest suggestion…and more time also with books, music, prayers, nature that inspire, console, give and spread greater gratitude and joy.


There is one quality that perhaps above all others generates a truly sustaining presence, and that is appreciation. It’s an expression of love, of course, but I love it because it so immediately and powerfully affirms others. “You matter,” it says, loudly and clearly. Appreciating our own lives is often rather more difficult, and particularly disentangling our appreciation for our achievements (which may never seem to be enough) from the unique gift of life itself…and how we can use that to learn, grow, give. Appreciating who we are is vital if we are to appreciate others wholeheartedly. It also leads to appreciating our particular gifts – and developing them. And it saves us from envying others or seeing other people’s lives – but not our own – through rose-coloured glasses.

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It’s our daily choice to give from our hearts, to receive what life is offering us…to express our appreciation…and to grow in presence. It’s a daily choice that can be a profound source of happiness. As sublimely, it can bring great happiness to others. Through the quality of presence, we are all blessed.