March 28, 2023

PLOWE | The Basis for Human Rights is Presence

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I write to invite readers to be more present with themselves and with others. 

As a senior on The Sun, I’ve produced a lot of material. While I’ve written most recently about political moral responsibility and relating the Uyghur genocide to our lives here in Ithaca, I have also written about the state of local arts, music and literature as they contribute to our capacity to just be, and to be together. Advocating for presence is a common thread throughout my writing — the concept is immense to me. 

What does it mean to be, or to be present? What greater implications does presence have beyond feeling good on the meditation cushion?

Forget the secular interpretation of mindfulness — the word has become ridiculously corporate and commercialized and has lost all meaning. Presence, on the other hand, is a word rooted in our immediate experience of time. I use the word “presence” because it is not a commercialized spiritual buzzword, and it may have the capacity to center our minds in the moment, to both tune into our inner quiet and get out of our busy minds. While mindfulness and presence may seem to connote the same thing — deeper awareness of being — I find that mindfulness is made complicated and misunderstood due to its clinical popularity, while the word presence remains simple. Mindfulness includes the word “mind,” but I don’t think just being necessitates usage of the mind.   

Feel the way your feet meet the ground, the way your breath causes your chest to expand, the temperature of the air: This is presence. Tuning into your body in the present moment may relieve the stress; gentle attention to your breath may soothe the uncertainty of time churning you through your day. A soft pleasantness may emerge when you allow yourself to just sit, noticing little things about how you inhabit your seat, softening your thoughts to quiet. 

This simple inner feeling is absolutely integral for world peace. Presence is the feeling of peace at your core, which is always there, waiting for you to take refuge. In a recent article on presence, Anthony Back, professor of medicine at the University of Washington, wrote, “It can be so easy to overlook — it’s so quiet in a world that is so noisy and full of distractions… We’re tapping into something bigger than our individual selves that is the ground of everything between us.”

I came to understand presence as an important building block toward human rights because I have spent time imagining how it is possible that concentration camps exist today, that 50 million people are enslaved globally. What is missing from these places, from these transactions and torturing of innocent human life? How can such a degree of dehumanization be physically, emotionally possible?

Everyone has the capacity to recognize that all people deserve to access their inner peace without fear of violence, but people get distracted from their being. Can you truly be present and peaceful, in deep awareness of your feelings, and harm a person who has committed no harm to you? When we are truly present, that is, intending only to be in touch with the basic experience of being, there is no cause to lash out.

Human emotion is extremely complex. Asking yourself, “am I present right now?” allows you to notice whether you are holding onto stress, sadness, judgment, irritation, fear or, conversely, joy, relief, satisfaction, intrigue or excitement. Being present with yourself can help you attend to your negative emotions — do you really want to be carrying anger with you without knowing? How would such ignorance manifest itself in your relationships? Presence can allow you to understand whether you are making a judgment from a space of goodwill or greed. 

Emma Plowe is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]With Gratitude runs every other Tuesday this semester.