What Does It Mean To Have Presence?

As a spiritual director, I often hear myself and colleagues talk about presence and holding space. In fact, the journal published by Spiritual Directors International is called Presence. Presence is probably the primary thing I am offering when I sit in spiritual direction with someone. But what does that mean? So often we spiritual people find ourselves using terms that feel vague and nebulous, as we deal with aspects of the human condition that do not fit into neatly defined concrete categories and reach to articulate ideals and visions that have not been fully embodied and realized. I was reminded today of of some encounters I had a few years ago that I think can help shed more light on this concept of presence and its usefulness.

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A few years ago I went to see a therapist. She was very warm and affirming, which is what I think a lot of us want when we’re looking for a therapist. She was encouraging and pointed out positive things about me when I didn’t feel so great about myself. All in all, she was a very nice lady. But I began to get very frustrated when sitting in session with her. I began to notice how uncomfortable she was with pauses in the conversation. As I was recounting my experiences, I might stop as I struggled to find words or to locate a feeling or emotion within myself. She was quick to step in with suggestions for what I might be feeling, or words to soothe or affirm me. Or she would tell me a story about her own life to relate to me or reassure me, or give me her own thoughts or words of advice. She began to speak more and more to fill up, or even avoid the uncomfortable pauses.

After several sessions, I found I was listening to her more than being listened to. And I was struggling to get a word in edgewise. I didn’t want to make the therapist feel bad, especially because she was so nice and affirming, and I could tell she wanted me to like her. But finally one day, after searching for easy and tactful ways to redirect the conversation, I interrupted her and said, “I’m really sorry, but I don’t think this is working.” I was honest about how frustrated I felt, and why I felt it, while expressing gratitude for her positivity and affirmation.

I eventually found another therapist, a Jungian analyst. She was dignified and kind, and while she lacked the effusive warmth of the first woman, she had a sense of solidity and groundedness that I found calming. When I came in for a session, she would sit, silent and impassive, until I had something to say. The first time this happened, after sitting for a few minutes, I finally asked her, “Well, what do you want me to talk about?”

“This is your session,” she replied. “What do you want to talk about?”

That’s not to say that she was unresponsive. Once I got going, she would listen carefully, sometimes taking notes, and when she did ask questions and offer reflections, it seemed that they came from a deep well of comprehension and experience. When I got stuck trying to articulate an emotion or thought that was beyond my grasp, she would wait patiently, allowing me to silently map the boundaries of my experience until I could put it into words. While she occasionally offered soothing and affirmation when she sensed I needed it, it never felt like coddling or avoidance of discomfort. I always felt that I had space to be whoever I was in the moment, no matter how frustrated or uncomfortable I might be.

That, to me, is what presence looks like. Her presence created a container, held space, for me to find my own presence. I believe she was able to do it so well because she was deeply grounded in her own soul and spirit. She didn’t need me to give her constant cues and feedback that she was doing a good job. She could hold my discomfort, I suspect, because she was so intimately familiar with and accepting of her own.

This is the kind of presence that I hope to hold for my own clients as I sit with them in spiritual direction. Although I am still a work in progress, I find that the more grounded I am in an identity that exists beyond my current egoic personality (which sometimes changes from day to day), the more I can become a vessel, to hold the presence of both the person I am working with, and that of the divine- God, Spirit, the Universe. The less I need the other person to affirm me or reflect back to me the things I want to see in myself, the more open I am to being truly receptive to them. And paradoxically, the more at home- the more present- I feel within myself.