During the open house of my new office location, I was inspired to offer a presence experiment. A friend gave me the idea as inspired by the performance artist Marina Abramović . Marina sat for 7 hours a day for 100 days at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010. She sat silently in a wooden chair with an open invitation for people to sit across from her as she gazed at them.
The Presence Experiment
Thinking that calling it the “Psychotherapist is Present” might be a little too intimidating, I called it the Presence Experiment. I invited people to come in to my space and sit across from me for 5 minutes. People were invited to come in by themselves or with others and were told that I’d silently gaze at them for 5 minutes and they were welcome to return my gaze or not. The timer was put on and we began.
In all honesty, while being excited about doing this experiment, I was also really nervous. I both hoped and didn’t hope for people to participate. In the end I sat with around 25 people and when I went home, my husband commented about how present I was with him.
I was lucky to have my landlord Tracy and her husband as my first participants. Afterwards we all commented that we felt calmer and more present. Whereas I am more of an introvert and would wait for people to come and find me, Tracy is an extrovert and started to send people my way to try it out. So the part of me that wanted to hide during the event didn’t get a chance.
I sat with all kinds of different people of different ages, races, and genders. Most people sat as a group and some people sat on their own. Some people returned my gaze, some experimented with holding my gaze and some closed their eyes. Some people giggled, and others felt annoyed if I spent more time gazing at one person over an another. As a whole the response was very positive.
Sometimes 5 minutes could feel like 30 minutes and sometimes it felt like 3 minutes. Afterwards I felt more grounded, connected and present with others and myself.
Try This At Home
Variation #1: Gazing at eachother
For variation # 1, I encourage you try it exactly as I listed out in this article with a friend or family member.
- Put the timer on for 5 minutes
- Sit across from eachother gazing into eachothers eyes. Try to keep your energy within yourself without an intent to influence the other or gaze into the depths of their soul. The goal is to simply be with one another without an agenda.
- Notice how you feel afterwards
Variation #2: Presence during an activity
For variation #2, I encourage you to simply be present with a child, pet, a plant, a loved one, or yourself for 5 minutes.
- With a child let them take the lead and give them neutral responses, “I see you like this game, what’s this you’re making?” and try to resist any impulse to lead or give them feedback . Try to avoid “you shouldn’t say that, don’t do that, why don’t we do x, y, z, what an amazing drawing you’ve made!”. Imagine you are an anthropoligist with them for 5 minutes and they are showing you their world.
- With a pet, spend time just petting your cat, walking your dog, gazing at your fish or how ever else you like to spend time with your pets.
- With a plant or tree spend your time connect either by leaning against the tree or gazing at it for 5 minutes.
- With another adult, do something similar as to the instructions as when you’re with a child. Have a 5 minute conversation with them and try to resist any impulse to lead or give them feedback. Do an activity for 5 minutes together of anything that doesn’t involve screens.
- With yourself it can feel more like mindfulness – notice your thoughts and emotions as you do an activity of your choice. Try not to change your thoughts or emotions, just notice as a witness.
- Notice the impact of this experience on your relationship with the person you did this with. Notice how you and the other person feel too.
Psychotherapy involves presence, sometimes with silence and sometimes without silence. Presence as a concept can be felt and experienced by anyone, wherever and however they choose to feel it. If you notice that you struggle with being present, you’re not alone. I doubt that 5 years ago I could’ve intentionally sat with a person in silence for 5 minutes, it felt like too much. So start with the variation that feels best for you. Let me know how it goes!