By Tony V. Zampella, designer of learning programs

Presence is the possibility of being open and available in each moment. Such openness brings to each moment our whole being: our body and its senses; our mind, perceptions and attitudes; and our intentions and aspiration. We are clear in ways that allow things to bestow themselves on us.

The presence of life exists for us all the time. Strolling through a bookstore, I can pick up a new book, and stumble by chance on other titles that move me and provoke ideas. As we move more of our lives online, we may lose this tender aspect of life. Before we normalize this online mindset, how can we preserve and practice the serendipity of life as an experience to cherish?

Presence offers a possibility for both to hold the moment and to experience serendipity.

Confusing Presence

We’ve popularized the term “presence” in such a reductive manner that it resembles a trait, competency, or skill. Whether we are exploring leadership presence, executive presence, coaching presence, social presence, spiritual presence, or even online presence, we tend to focus on our external state. This notion of presence is conflated with focused attention, accessed through kinesthetics or kinetics, expressed as chemistry, charisma, or charm.

Our own International Coaching Federation (ICF) describes coaching presence as “the ability to be fully conscious and create [a] spontaneous relationship with the client, employing a style that is open, flexible and confident.”

These external traits hardly reveal the entire story involved in cultivating or experiencing presence.

— First, presence involves an inside-out discovery. With openness and awareness, we freely access our being to hold and connect to the moment fully.

— Second, presence is realized, not produced. It is not a skill to improve how we do things. It flows from our authentic or natural being.

— Third, there is no formula or gimmick involved. We do not make presence happen with techniques such as focused eyes, nodding heads, soft gaze, deep breathing, or correct posture. 


— Fourth, crudely speaking, presence is a being-in (the moment) and being-with (others) phenomena. It offers the possibility of both tasting and animating life.

Presence may look like charisma, but it can also look contemplative.

Writer Lawrence Berger, in a 2015 New York Times piece exploring Martin Heidegger’s philosophy, suggests that presence animates us. “When we feel that someone is really listening to us, we feel more alive, we feel our true selves coming to the surface—this is the sense in which worldly presence matters.”

Holding the Moment

Presence first calls us to locate ourselves in the world fully, letting it animate us as we engage it. Presence demands inside-out (first-person) learning and a connection to oneself and others that begins with a willingness to hold the moment.

The hidden source of distress in business … is not bad strategy, old culture, or faulty data; it’s our disregard of the power that holding the moment plays in quality thinking and listening.

Our VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) work-life finds us forgetting how to hold the moment. Leaders and managers deal daily with an onslaught of information, increased complexity, and disruptive change, all of which assaults our senses.

stressWe are experiencing an assault on our already fragmented attention span. Without intentional contemplative practices, we are destined to experience further fragmentation and incoherence.

The hidden source of our distress in business and at all levels of leadership is not bad strategy, old culture, or faulty data; it’s our willful disregard of the power that holding the moment plays in quality thinking and listening.

Holding and expanding the moment to receive the world requires mindfulness. Absent this capacity, we find cluttered minds that cloud thoughts, pollute listening, and project “mental overload” onto strategies—all to boost reflexive actions.

To create space and cope with the fallout of change, we can bring mindfulness to a regular pause. By pausing between events, connecting to the floor, breathing, and resting our awareness on ourselves, we can clear our mental clutter. With this regular practice, we will become keen observers, and open ourselves to witnessing and clearing our minds as we engage life. 

What Matters Most?

Presence taps our humanity and connects us to others through what matters most. To receive life in this way constitutes us as generative beings.

Things matter to us. Music transforms our mood. Poetry pries open our heart. Nature lifts us beyond our petty concerns.

A child on the street falls, and we reach over to help; we stumble on graffiti with a powerful message that halts our stride. An older gentleman struggles with an armful of groceries, and we rush to grab a door. A group of teens sings and dances in the subway station, and we pause to listen and pay homage to this unfolding talent.

Presence teaches us what matters most: Being in the presence of something sacred finds the sacred in us; in the presence of intelligence we are insightful; in the presence of art, provoked; and poetry finds us moved to tenderness

Each moment speaks.

Becoming fully integrated invites us to allow events, language, and the presence of beings to alter us—to rearrange our DNA.

Reading Time: 4 min. Digest Time: 5 min

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Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist psychology to sustain contemplative practice.