IN THE PRESENCE OF ABSENCE
“ The presence has not yet left
and the absence has not yet come”
A good friend of mine recently took his life. This was obviously a great shock, but I was aware that the idea frequently crossed his mind, and he'd attempted suicide at least once before. After choosing such a drastic solution to his many compound difficulties, I hope he is now at peace with himself. If so, he will have achieved something through death, he rarely found through life. Though I cannot imagine what this experience would be like for him, wherever he has gone. He has most definitely died, yet he has not disappeared from my immediate experience, I still expect to see him come walking into the room, to recognise the sound of his very distinctive walk. His absence, as a permanent thing, has not yet fully struck me. I am confused still, by my own grief and attachment which is still present.
For my friend his presence in the world had been painful from the very beginning. He'd suffered a heart attack when only a baby, and lost the full use of his right leg and arm. The leg, remained painful all his life, and his arm, unless it was restrained by his good arm, would spasm uncontrollably. He needed to use muscle relaxants and painkillers constantly. Add to this a long struggle to establish his sexual orientation, which in the end he never felt able to act upon. Only then to realise he actually felt like a woman trapped in a man's body. His entire psycho/physical make-up was divisive, seemingly at odds with itself. He frequently turned to alcohol for some relief from bearing the weightiness of his human presence. Had he been less intelligent, perhaps he'd have found his predicament easier. But, he was a bright, witty person, determined to become as fully functional an individual as was humanly possible. As the condition of his disability deteriorated, attaining his aim started to recede. Hugely increased levels of medication made it harder for him to hold down his job. Rapidly his ability to engage with the world contracted; his worsening mobility, his increasing weight problem, his drugs making him fuzzy headed and lethargic, all contributed to him finding life just to hard to bear with. When faced with the pain of his present experience, he only desired absence.
For those of us left behind, the pain of his absence is still present – and we morn whilst this remains alive in us. He remains with us through fond recollections and anecdotes. It feels like a period of limbo, whilst our emotional and perceptual expectations adjust and absorb. It's not that we will ever forget his face, personality and virtues, but their vividness will dwindle. Eventually we are all forgotten,and fade from collective memory. Reality's attitude towards us is one of passive indifference, whether we are present or absent, whether we experience pain or pleasure, it it has no feeling for or response of any kind, it appears to care nothing. This can be hard to bear. Reality has an operating principle - pratitya samutpada – dependent origination - the arising and the falling away of causal events – this being present, that becomes – this being absent, that does not become. In my friends presence, pain arose for him. In my friends absence, pain does not arise for him, but, because of his absence, pain has arisen for those who knew him. Life teeters on a knife edge between the two – one has not yet left – whilst the other has not yet come.
What does 'the presence has not yet left' mean from an ordinary human perspective? When I get up in the morning, I reassert a sense of myself by following certain rituals and habits. By these I make my presence felt. But was I really any less present whilst I slept? Full consciousness was absent. Though has presence anything to do with us being conscious or unconscious of it? For us, if something has presence, it has a tangibility, it can be felt by one, if not all of our senses. To exist, is to have presence - 'to be, or not to be,' is to take conscious ownership of that presence. Our every action becomes a self conscious statement, a declaration of independence from reality's indifference. Whatever we do does matter, it must have presence. When I get out of bed, I walk towards the radiator, pick up my towel, kiss the boyfriend, as I move towards the bathroom to take a shower. I turn the shower onto the 'power' setting, and leave it to run, so it will be hot when I step into the cubicle. Meanwhile, I run some water in the sink, squirt some soap into my hands, add water, bring it to a lather, apply it to my chin, then I shave. After this I take off my night shirt, and enter the shower cubicle. Using a shower brush and gel, I scrub myself from head to toe, in approximately the same order everyday. Once finished, I get out of the shower cubicle, towel myself dry, leave the bathroom and go back to the bedroom to get dressed, before going to the kitchen to make breakfast. These actions take only a few minutes, but each is permeated through and through with a sense of my preferences, likes and dislikes, all masquerading as presence. I appear to be able to control the pace of my relationship with the world, my interactions with form and space, everything is at my fingertips.
This is how presence becomes something other than just 'being', once it's filtered through our sense of Self. Presence is 'Suchness' - a simple flow of activity, which is given concrete shape and form by a human mind. The mind labels and categorises our experience as – getting out of bed – affection - shaving – taking a shower – making breakfast. In reality, all these actions interacted and crossed over, they were not separate discernible events. That's just the perceptual gloss our mind puts on things. We decide when we want to take a shower, but taking a shower cannot happen without countless other factors also being in place – basically - you need a working shower, you need a boiler, you need water, you need shower gel, a shower brush, and light so you can see what you are doing. The shower cubicle, gel, brush and even water, have all gone through a complex process of human refinement or manufacture, in order to be available. Without all these things also being in place, my morning shower, and the whole edifice of western society, just wouldn't happen. Presence is an interdependent phenomena. From this perspective, whether or not you take a shower in the mornings is dependent upon every event and action taking place in the entire universe.
A human being coming into existence is also dependant on a whole set of circumstances being in place. When they are all in place - you have life, when they are not - you have death. What is alive, has presence, what is dead, has absence. Ultimately, there can only be presence in one moment in time. That moment of presence, is also a moment of absence – they share and co-exist within the same space and place in time. An experience of life, can arise out of an experience of death, and vice versa. What we call human experience, is created by constantly asking ourselves the same question, under our breath – 'Am I still here?' as long as the answer is 'Yes', you don't need to worry. Really there is only 'a being - here', the 'I am' is something 'extra added upfront' that brings some continuity to presence, and hence a discontinuity when its absent. By this, experience becomes overly self -identified - my self is either present, or my self is absent.
After a death, profound grief arises as we recognise that someone's presence has been permanently removed from the reach of our yearning and affection. When we enquire 'Are they still here?' the answer is repeated endlessly until we actually hear it – 'No, they're not here – still not here – no, still not here – look, they really are gone – yes, gone – gone, gone, gone – vanished forever.' My dear friend has died, but I am still alive. He gave up the fight, whilst I am still left to fight for another day. But what exactly am I fighting for, what keeps me sparring in the ring? Is it a fight to achieve durable satisfaction, to attain a permanent existence, to be fulfilled and self possessed? Am I still trying to get samsara to work for me, instead of against me? The pain in our presence, is often caused by our failure to make our desires and samsara into a perfect match. Whilst 'the presence has not yet left, and the absence has not yet come', we have a precious opportunity - to over come the suffering that my friend found too hard to bear. Whilst 'the presence has not yet left, and the absence has not yet come' - we are in the midst of life - perpetually on the cusp of transcending it.