Path of Presence
Sam Trumbore | Dec 12, 2016

You don’t get to be a “fellowshipped” Unitarian Universalist minister just because you want to be one.  If you are accepted as a student, anyone can go to a seminary, complete the curriculum and receive a Masters of Divinity.  Because we are an association of congregations that recognizes the right of each congregation to call their own ministers, a congregation can decide to call anyone as their minister they so choose democratically by majority vote.  In practice, however, most congregations who are seeking a minister want one that has been approved by the Unitarian Universalist Association as competent to serve in that capacity.

That approval process is called becoming fellowshipped.  It involves reading a long list of books, documenting experience, instruction and training in 18 specific areas, working in a clinical pastoral setting, completing successfully an internship and finally, and most importantly, meeting for about an hour with the UUA Ministerial Fellowship Committee.  At the end of that meeting, one of four things can happen:

  1. They approve the candidate for Preliminary Fellowship, or
  2. they give a conditional approval based on completing a list of assignments, or
  3. they inform the candidate of work yet to be completed and invite that candidate to come back again or
  4. they deny fellowship status for that candidate and ask them not to come back.

This fellowshipping process is a source of great anxiety for those preparing for our ministry.  After years of preparation and tens of thousands of dollars in tuition and educational costs, it all comes down to a one hour interview.  The candidate is at the mercy of a committee that can say “yes,” “no,” or “maybe” to their future in UU ministry.

I wasn’t concerned about this back in 1990 when I saw the Mighty Fine Committee (you can substitute other words for M and F by the way).  I had done well in my internship and in my clinical pastoral experience working as a chaplain at the Delaware State Mental Hospital.  My fellow students thought I would have no problems at all.  As a lifelong UU, I thought I’d glide right through my 10 minute sermon and ace their questions.

What I didn’t expect was what sitting outside the interview room would do to my emotional state.  My anxiety spiked.  During the interview my mind went blank – I couldn’t answer several of the questions and I felt ill at ease as they looked me over.  I just wasn’t fully there.  The committee had put me last because they thought it would be a positive ending to their day.  Instead, they said “no” to me, but come back and see us again.  In the letter I received from them confirming their decision, the reason for refusing me fellowship was a “lack of ministerial presence.”

I remember asking myself at the time, what the [expletive deleted] is this quality I was missing called “ministerial presence” and just how do you assess it?

One interpretation of ministerial presence might be showing evidence of being able to channel God’s presence.  William James, in his book, Varieties of Religious Experience, quotes one Swiss fellow’s experience:

I was in perfect health: we were on our sixth day of tramping, and in good training…I felt neither fatigue, hunger, nor thirst, and my state of mind was equally healthy…I was subject to no anxiety, either near or remote, for we had a good guide, and there was not a shadow of uncertainty about the road we should follow. I can best describe the condition in which I was by calling it a state of equilibrium.  When all at once I experienced a feeling of being raised above myself, I felt the presence of God—I tell of the thing just as I was conscious of it—as if God’s goodness and power were penetrating me altogether.  The throb of emotion was so violent that I could barely tell the boys to pass on and not wait for me.  I then sat down on a stone, unable to stand any longer, and my eyes overflowed with tears.  I thanked God … and begged him ardently that my life might be consecrated to the doing of God’s will.  I felt God’s reply, which was I should do God’s will from day to day in humility and poverty … Then, slowly, the ecstasy left my heart…The impression had been so profound … I asked myself if it were possible that Moses on Sinai could have had a more intimidate communication with God.  I think it well to add that in this ecstasy of mine, God had neither form, color, odor, nor taste; moreover, that the feeling of God’s presence was accompanied with no determinate localization. It was rather as if my personality had been transformed by the presence of a spiritual spirit.  At the bottom … what I felt was this: God was present …

In the story, the Swiss fellow says, “I thanked God … and begged him ardently that my life might be consecrated to the doing of God’s will.”  Most ministerial candidates would love to have such a clear sense of calling.  More often than not, their inner desire to go into ministry is far more diffuse.

Another powerful experience of presence can happen at the feet of a guru.  There are numerous stories of people going to see enlightened adepts in India seeking diksha or darshan, a blessing through which a sadhu imparts spiritual energy to the seeker.  One particularly famous twentieth century adept was Sri Ramana Maharshi.  People reported sitting with him and having an unusual calm and peace come over their minds that would open their hearts.  It was as if he was able to non-verbally transmit enlightened consciousness to his devotees.  It didn’t last long, of course, for most of them, but it did give them a taste of what they were looking for.  The taste of enlightenment could persuade the devotee both the experience was real and something they could cultivate.

This might sound a little on the magical/supernatural side to some secularists here this morning.  But I wonder if there might be a more subtle phenomenon at work.  Perhaps our capacity to mimic based on our mirror neurons could be the source of this transmission of presence.

One modern individual who has explored this is Eckhardt Tolle.  He published some of his ideas and experiences in his first book, The Power of Now in 1999.  He understands presence as being able “to be” as well as remain in the present moment. He writes:

When you become conscious of Being, what is really happening is the Being becomes conscious of itself. When Being becomes conscious of itself—that’s presence.  Since Being, consciousness and life are synonymous, we could say that presence means consciousness becoming conscious of itself, of life attaining self-consciousness.  But don’t get attached to the words, and don’t make an effort to understand this.  There is nothing that you need to understand before you can become present

This parallels the practice of mindfulness meditation.  Using the breath as an anchor and using awareness of moment to moment changes in thoughts, feelings and sensations, the meditator rests in the present moment filled with compassion and love for the world letting go of craving and hatred, guided by wisdom.

The fact that I couldn’t manifest meditative presence guided by wisdom in front of the MFC is more than a little ironic.  I saw the committee a week after returning from a meditation retreat.  At that retreat I’d had a number of breakthroughs and was feeling pretty enlightened.  Let’s just say, I was just a little too full of myself when I sat down for that interview.  I remember my intern supervisor Rev. Dick Gilbert’s final evaluation of me when he commented I could be a little cocky at times.  The MFC helped bring this to my attention in a dramatic way.

Amy Cuddy has a little more down to earth understanding of presence that might also be useful for us this morning.  I really like her description of presence that I think many of us can relate to. She writes:

I am a lover of live music. I’m not willing to disclose the number of hours I’ve spent at concerts— from the tiniest bars to the biggest stadiums, from the most obscure indie bands to rock legends— but it’s a lot. And when the moment is right, it’s intoxicating. I don’t think there’s anything I find more blissful than a moment of perfect connection at a live concert. But what makes it a moment of perfect connection? When musicians are fully immersed in playing, everything they are doing— including subtle movements of their heads and bodies— is harmonious not only with the rhythm and melody but also with the essence of the music. They are not thinking about what they’re doing in a fragmentary way—“ Play G, tilt head slightly left, rock weight to left foot, hold for four counts,” and so on. When a musician is present, we are moved, transported, and convinced. When musicians are present, they bring us with them to the present. [i]

As I mentioned earlier, Cuddy is a social psychologist at Harvard Business School.  She knew that being in a state of presence affects both the mind and the body.  We see it in body language.  People experiencing peak performance, in the zone, and in victory make that state visible in their bodies.  Some of these postures are cross cultural, even cross ability. Both sighted and blind people for example are likely to throw up their arms in a V position when they experience a dramatic victory.  Conversely people who are experiencing failure or depression have universal expressions in their bodies.  They slouch, hang their heads down, shoulders rounded and hold their limbs near their bodies.

It is obvious to us I think that our bodies are strongly influenced by our mental state.  Cuddy wondered if it could go the other way.  Could the position of our bodies actually change our mental state?  The Army clearly thinks so when it asks soldiers to stand at attention.  We might even call the posture standing in presence.  In this attention posture, the mind is more focused.  This is critical in a battle situation when life or death instructions might be given that could increase the army’s chance of victory and the soldier’s chance for survival.

Her experiment that got the most press was power posing before an interview.  She set up an experiment that had people pose in a weak posture or a power posture for 2-3 minutes before a difficult simulated job interview.  These interviews were videotaped then judges decided who they might want to hire based on their presentation.  They found that those people who power posed with hands on hips, the wonder woman pose as it has been dubbed, did much better than the people who posed in weaker postures.

I described this sermon topic and this research to one of my UU ministerial colleagues this week during our local UU minister’s holiday lunch get together.  She said she’d heard of this research and actually used that wonder woman pose for 2 minutes in a bathroom stall right before she saw the MFC.  She reported that it had put her at ease and that the interview had gone well.  She got a yes.

So, at this point, I’m hoping you have a sense that there exists something called presence and having more of it could be beneficial to the quality of our lives, especially when trying to get a job or succeeding in an interview.  Cuddy says that her research suggests we can stimulate presence with body postures.

Our question might be: Are there other ways we might be able to develop presence besides pretending to be wonder woman?

My answer is an unqualified yes.  Developing presence is one of the benefits of committing to a spiritual path and practice.  But it need not be a God centered spiritual practice.  As I’ve witnessed doing non-theistically oriented Buddhist meditation practice, presence can be developed in many different ways.

The first step, though, is to make a commitment and set one’s intention to develop presence.  This is probably the most important step on the path.  Our minds are extremely powerful but they cannot support our goals without a decision and a commitment of energy and time.  Once we know where we want to go and make a commitment, movement begins to happen toward our destination.

Such a path has external and internal elements.  The external element is studying just what presence looks like from the outside.  One might seek out concerts to witness the experience of presence manifested by gifted musicians.  One might sit at the feet of gurus or listen to inspirational speakers.  To some degree recordings of such performances can move us toward the experience of presence but actually being there is that much more effective.  Every Sunday our congregation comes together to create an experience of presence for those who participate.  I hope you’ve had memorable Sundays when you’ve had a sense of presence during the service.  It might not necessarily be during a sermon.  It could be during a choir performance, or singing a hymn, or listening to a joy or sorrow.  Even an announcement might be a gateway to presence if we pay close attention.

After experiencing presence from external stimulation and starting to recognize how it feels, a next step could be to start developing our ability to become present without external stimulation.  This is where spiritual practices like meditation, visualization, yoga, tai chi, chi gong, chanting, and prayer can be very helpful.  There are many different practices that focus the mind and body in a way that helps us come fully into the present moment and let go of the past and future, if only for a moment.  The more one practices, the more one explores how to move into that sense of presence.

  And once we’ve begun to have some facility with developing access to the present moment, a next step is to take it off the cushion and into the world. Can we learn to become present while following our breath in and out sitting in rush hour traffic?  Can we learn to experience presence quietly sitting on the back porch watching birds visit a bird feeder?  Can we develop that sense of presence in a mall or grocery shopping or walking the dog?  Can we remain present when we are listening to the suffering and grief of a friend who has lost their spouse?

This path of presence is really developing our ability to be with each other and with life as fully and completely as we can.  Success doesn’t separate us apart, it more fully connects us together; because to be fully present with each other opens our capacity for love and compassion.

Thankfully, when I saw the MFC a second time, I was able to manifest the presence I was missing the first time around.  I remember the committee giving me a yes with the comment that I seemed like a different person this time around, not at all like the first interview.  It might have been because my bride of six months, Philomena Moriarty, had come with me for emotional support to this interview and was sitting outside.  I don’t know.

What I do know is that I’m deeply committed to developing and living in presence as much as I can.  And this congregation can be a great place to practice and develop presence.  I invite you to join me on that path through meditation, wellspring, meaning matters, and the many other programs we offer to do just that.

[i] Cuddy, Amy (2015-12-22). Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges (p. 56). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.