For most of us, spiritual teachings essentially involve recognition: we know a teaching’s value by noticing what it stirs within us. Catherine Ingram’s Passionate Presence eloquently describes seven qualities that we can recognize as we awaken in awareness. Through stories of her own and other people’s lives, she invites us to embrace and celebrate our sense of being.
Ingram’s own awakening came about in the midst of a profound disenchantment with her usual ways of seeking happiness. Relationships, travels and even spiritual practices no longer proved satisfying. Her existential depression led to a profound change. As she puts it, “When our strategies have failed and we have found no consolation in any quarter, we can either fall into madness or into realizing that what we have always wanted—a passionate aliveness at peace in itself—is, strangely enough, found in a simple shift in perception.”
Ingram’s poetic language carries the flavor of her expansive experiences. Her descriptions often evoke what they point towards: “Pure presence is our fundamental experience, even when we seem to be lost in the stories and activities of life. Like breathing, it is taken for granted.” Presence also is the bridge to everything: “[W]e are not merely interconnected; we are suffused with the same essence as that of everything. Steeping in this sense, we no longer spend our time clutching what is turning to dust or chasing abstract ideas, such as meaning and purpose. We walk in a sense of totality; the world being entirely our own. It is not that we possess it but that we are it. Like water into water.” Her message brings a sense of relief.
When the author began sharing her understandings in dialogues and retreats, she noticed an intelligence—an awakened awareness—that transcended people’s educational and cultural backgrounds. Gradually, she identified seven primary qualities that emerged as this awareness awakened: silence, tenderness, embodiment, genuineness, discernment, delight and wonder. Her explorations of these qualities can stretch our sometimes limited views about spirituality.
Some spiritual paths, for example, try to work with the drama of ego by going beyond it. Yet Ingram reveals how our personal stories fit into a larger context: “In awakened awareness, the story itself is not a problem. It is perceived as a habit that has its place and function, but it no longer dominates awareness. Awakened awareness knows when aspects of the ‘I’ story need to be addressed but otherwise pays little attention to them.”
Throughout Passionate Presence, but especially in her discussion of embodiment, the author cautions against spirituality that seeks a disembodied sense of transcendence or lofty detachment. She explores how forms of transcendent beliefs (e.g., “it’s all perfect, it’s all illusory, it’s all a play-out of karma”) may make sense on a cosmic scale but can numb us to the suffering of others or from thinking critically about political inequities. Her spiritual perspective is discerning and inclusive. “The intelligence is clear and vast enough to contain [suffering], yet specific and tender enough to be with the nuances of sorrow. . . . After all, what kind of freedom demands an escape from suffering? Wouldn’t real freedom include suffering?”
This broad perspective also addresses the biological realities of environmentalists and the larger dimensions of understanding and love.
What is the perspective that allows us to embody true ecological consciousness, to live lightly on this earth, to align our actions with our values, to consider the greater good? In quiet witnessing presence, we can actually feel our own embodiment inextricably connected to the atmosphere: our breath going in and out, exchanging atoms; the sunlight in the food we eat to sustain us; the myriad systems of rain and evaporation mingling in our own hydration.
Passionate Presence is a beautiful reminder to affirm what we intuitively know and to recognize the inclusive awareness that we already are.
You don’t have to strain to find it or strive to intellectually hold onto it. I always say that insight is best metabolized fresh. There is no need to remember anything for later. If you try to grasp it, you end up with dogma. If you relax into the quiet center of your being, your own awareness will notice every wink of the mystery that comes your way.