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  • Michael Da

"Presence" in Psychology and Spirituality

Updated: May 1, 2019



In both psychotherapy and spirituality words a like presence and now are frequently used, reflecting a nearly universal sense that there is something powerful happening in the present moment. However, what is meant by presence or now can vary widely, depending on one's focus of attention. The various uses of presence in mainstream psychotherapy are valuable, but because of its grounding in science, the field of psychology tends to stop short of a more profound, living truth that mystical forms of spirituality teach is available in the present.

When mainstream psychotherapists use the terms presence or now, they are often talking about one of two concepts [1]. The first is the concrete sense experience within a clock-time definition of the present moment. This here and now refers to what I am experiencing with my senses this very second. This type of present attention is perhaps most closely associated with mindfulness practices that focus on a sense experience, such as noticing the objects in a room [2]. The purpose of cultivating this sense of presence is to tap into the actuality of one's circumstances or surroundings, rather their internal thoughts and feelings about them. This type of present attention is often emphasized in mindfulness interventions used by cognitive-behavioral therapy and its offshoots, such as dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).

The second use of presence or now in psychotherapy is a more transcendent sense of the present that can happen in a deep meditative state, or in a profound moment during the therapeutic process. During these moments, the sense of time can seem to temporarily suspend, and the insights that flow forth seem to come from a transcendent source. Psychotherapists refer to this as the numinous space in the therapy room [3]. In the therapeutic process, tapping into this numinous space facilitates moments of deep connection and realization.

Both the sensory, clock-time here and now and the numinous space are valuable and worthy applications of presence in psychotherapy. However, many mystical forms of spirituality go further, recognizing a truth in presence that pierces through even the subtle, numinous space. In these traditions, presence, or the ever-present now, refers to a profound, fluid realization of a living mystery with an essential quality that is unchanging from moment to moment. This essential quality does not come and go, but remains ever-present, even as sense experiences and life circumstances are constantly in motion.

It is debatable whether this realization in presence is strictly the domain of spirituality, or whether it is a psychological phenomenon that has yet to be embraced by mainstream psychology [4]. In any case, it has traditionally been the domain of the spiritual traditions, and these traditions still have the richest body of guidance to offer within this realm of human experience. Like the mainstream psychological perspectives on presence, spiritual presence is a mode of attention that can be fostered through intentional cultivation through practice.

This is one of the reasons I offer spiritual counseling, as well as psychotherapy. As an interfaith minister, within the context of spiritual counseling, I am able to go outside the boundaries of scientifically-delimited psychotherapeutic practice to explore truth, meaning, and realization from a transcendent perspective that is specifically rooted in the spiritual traditions.

In future posts, I will dive deeper into how to choose between psychotherapy and spiritual counseling. Until then, in brief I suggest choosing the route that feels right for your personal goals. Please don't hesitate to contact me. I would be happy to work with you to explore how best you might proceed.

Notes:

[1] Presence is a general term, and there are more uses of presence in psychotherapy than the two I describe in this article. For example, there is presence as a therapeutic skill, which basically means paying attention to the client. There are a variety of mindfulness techniques that emphasize different modes of presence. There are also some individual psychotherapists, as well as a vanishing few therapeutic modalities, that emphasize presence in a way that is similar to mystical spirituality. (Peter Fenner's work is probably the best-known example of this type of therapeutic modality.) The definitions of presence described in this article are arguably the most commonly used in relation to clients and therapeutic interventions in mainstream psychotherapy.

[2] See, for example, Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment for Borderline Personality Disorder, by Marsha Linehan.

[3] The term numinous space is most closely associated with depth psychology, and it is sometimes attributed to Carl Jung. However, to my knowledge, Jung never actually used this phrase. It seems to be derived from Jung's references to the Greek term numen, which Jung used to mean a transcendent or holy quality of experience. Recognition and embrace of the numinous space in psychotherapy has since been adopted by many other therapeutic modalities beyond depth—namely person-centered therapy, which has in turn influenced almost every other therapeutic approach.

[4] For two noteworthy examples, see Integral Psychology, by Ken Wilber, and Changes of Mind: A Holonomic Theory of the Evolution of Consciousness, by Jenny Wade.


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Michael Asa Da, LPC, Rev
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