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Presence and Containment

Presence and Containment


‘Present’ is the standard reply made by a student when names are read out at the beginning of a class. Indeed the student is physically present sitting at a desk but the mind may be elsewhere, on the playing fields perhaps, or making a rocket trip to some distant planet. But pure presence, to be totally ‘there’ in the moment, is something very different and this essay argues that for pure presence to manifest itself it requires a special container.

So let us begin with an example of pure presence. It is Caspar David Friedrich’s painting, The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. A dark figure stands on a rocky outcrop with his back to the viewer. We cannot see his face but are almost overwhelmed by the force of his pure presence since in his darkness he is isolated with a mysterious sea of fog beneath him. He gazes below him, almost as if he is aware of the power of his presence. Perhaps if he instead were to be looking over a sunny and well defined landscape his presence would be diminished, his power eroded. Thus his very presence is emphasized by the container that surrounds him, the black rock and the fog. It is this container, this space in which pure presence can manifest itself that will be the subject of this essay. Not presence as such, but that ground, that container in which presence makes its appearance.

The Container in Art

Historically art referred to something outside of itself, for example, to a scene from the Bible or the lives of the saints, to an important historical figure, or to a portrayal of nature. Then, with Impressionism at the end of the nineteenth century, art moved from an objective portrayal of the world to an exploration of the artist’s visual sensations in the face of nature. The next phase was to abstract certain elements from nature. An extension of this movement occurred in the United States with abstract expressionism, championed by the art critic Clement Greenberg (O’Brian, 1986, 1993) Greenberg argued for an art which did not represent anything outside itself, but rather the canvas itself now became the arena of art. It is the container in which art is made, the container that need not have any reference to images or events outside itself.

In particular Greenberg championed Jackson Pollock, who worked with drips and splashes of paint on large canvases placed on the floor of his studio. Very clearly the physical canvas had become the arena, the alchemical vessel, for Pollock’s work. But was this still abstraction? No.

When his wife, Lee Krasner, asked if his work was indeed an abstraction from nature Pollock replied ‘I am nature’ (Friedman, 1995). Thus the canvas had been transformed from a vehicle or support onto which an artist could represent or abstract aspects of the natural world into a container for the feelings and actions of the artist, actions that were totally independent of any attempt to introduce elements of the external, natural world. And in this way the canvas had become both the container and pure Presence without reference to anything outside itself.

As a movement, the canvas as arena was relatively short lived and a number of alternative approaches to the notion of containment were developed. Environmental art used the natural world as the container, initially with a number of what appear in retrospect to be large scale and disruptive ego-driven interventions in the landscape. James Turrell, for example reshaped the earth around Roden Crater in Arizona while Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field is a grid of 400 stainless steel poles in a one-mile by one-kilometre grid. More recently environmental art explores nature in a more respectful and sensitive manner, for example tracing underground streams, mapping trees and vegetation in cities, or producing transitory works such as a sculpted icicle that will melt when the sun rises. (Montag, 2008)

Other artists, such as performance artists, see their own bodies as containers of art. And so as art movements come and go the notion of the container also undergoes a transition.

The Container in Music

And what of the container in music?  In a sense the arena out of which music emerges is silence itself. Sometimes silence, however brief, is employed in striking ways. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony begins not with a theme stated by the violins but with the famous Da-Da-Da-Daaa. This is followed by a brief interval, a moment of silence in which the notes resonate in the mind, and then they are repeated as Da-Da-Da-Daaa.

Probably the most famous example of silence in music is John Cage’s 4’ 33”—a piece in three movements. A pianist appears on stage and sits at the piano. He raises his hand as if he is about to commence to play but leaves his hand in the air, not touching the keyboard. At the end of the first movement, the pianist returns his hand to his lap for a moment and then begins the second movement with his hand suspended in the air. At first sight the piece involves four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence, but of course it is not silent for there is the ambience of the concert hall to consider, a hall in which people are shifting and making minimal movements in their seats, the hiss of air conditioning, an entire ambience of tiny sounds which are normally bracketed or filtered out by an attentive listener who attempts to focus only on the music that is being played. But now, as Cage’s piece progresses, the listener becomes aware of all that is going on around him or her. Maybe they recall other ambiences of ‘silence’for example the magnificent acoustic container of a medieval cathedral in which the voices of Gregorian chant are heard, or the song of a bird as a gentle breeze moves grass and leaves in a deserted countryside. And so Cage makes us aware of that container out of which music emerges: ‘silence.’

The Empty Space

A particularly significant container is that of the theatre stage. Some element of theatre, whether formal or informal, is present in all cultures. In the West it dates back to Greek theatre which in turn had its origins in sacred practicesthe idea of tragedy, for example, comes from tragos, the Greek word for goat and probably involved an animal sacrifice. In the early decades of the twentieth century much of English language theatre had degenerated to what was referred to as ‘drawing-room drama,’ and as to performances themselves the director Peter Brook referred to a style he termed ‘the Deadly Theatre.’  (Brook, 1968)

Brook was one of the most creative directors of the 1960s with performances such as A Midsummer Night’s Dreamwhich was so characteristic and experimental that it became known in popular parlance as ‘Brook’s Dream.’ Brook and others such as La Mama, Jerzy Grotowski and The Living Theatre breathed new life into the theatre and into the whole nature of performance. (Croyden, 1974; Grotowski 1968). In a series of lectures that found their way into a book, The Empty Space (1968) Brook saw the theatre as a privileged space, a container into which something special and magical could enter. For a time, in Brook’s hands, the stage became a very special place with exceptional performances.

In this context I am reminded of a performance held in London by a group from South India. Part way through the curtain was drawn across the stage for at that point a god appeared on the stage which should not be seen by the uninitiated.

One hopes that at some point in the future magic will return again to the stage.

The Therapeutic Hour

For Freudians and Jungians, as well as for some of the other schools of psychotherapy, the interactions between therapist and patient takes place within a well-defined container of ‘the therapeutic hour,’ or to be more precise the therapeutic fifty minutes. It is a container which must be especially guarded, something that is created and held by the therapist with strict stipulations that informal interaction between patient and therapist should not occur outside the confines of the hour and the therapist’s office. In this sense the container has been likened to an alchemical vessel, a container in which transformation can take place.

In alchemy itself the alchemical vessel is that container in which the pure presence can be manifest as the Philosopher’s Stone, ‘the stone that is not a stone.’ It has been variously referred to as a baptismal font, the sweat lodge and the Womb of the Earth where metals are born.

Thawing the “Frozen Accidents: The Archetypal View in Countertransference.’

Beverly Zabriskie has discussed the therapeutic container in terms of ‘frozen accidents’ (Zabriskie,1997) Her analogy refers to the way in which during the first moments following the Big Bang, the various forces of nature, which were initially identical, began to separate and vary in strength and the elementary particles developed different masses. Astrophysicists refer to these as ‘frozen accidents,’ a term first used by Francis Crick in 1968.

Each of us human beings, for example, is the product of an enormously long sequence of accidents, any of which could have turned out differently. Think of the fluctuations that produced our galaxy, the accidents that led to the formation of the solar system, including the condensation of dust and gas that produced Earth, the accidents that helped to determine the particular way that life began to evolve on Earth, and the accidents that contributed to the evolution of particular species with particular characteristics, including the special features of the human species. Each of us individuals has genes that result from a long sequence of accidental mutations and chance matings, as well as natural selection.

Now, most single accidents make very little difference to the future, but others may have widespread ramifications, many diverse consequences all traceable to one chance event that could have turned out differently. Those we call frozen accidents.  (Murray Gell-Mann, 1996)

Within elementary particle accelerators violent collisions can occur which are equivalent to the very high temperatures that followed the Big Bang. At such temperatures it is possible to ‘thaw out’ the accidents so that forces of nature act as if they are equivalent and particle masses become similar to each other.

By analogy Zabriskie suggested that if the alchemical container of the therapeutic hour is rigorously preserved it is possible for the ‘temperature’ to rise during a therapeutic encounter to the point where the frozen accidents of early life can be thawed out. In this way an alchemical transformation may occur in the patient’s life thanks to the presence of an active container.

Sacred Groves

In all cultures and areas of the globe we will hear of special places in nature that are rich in spirits or some form of mystical experience. These are the famous ‘sacred groves.’ They may be small, special places known to only a select few, or large scale structures such as Stonehenge which links to other sacred sites in England. Yet another such collection of sites is found at Chaco Canyon in the United States. Paul Devereux in particular has suggested that these were dream landscapes made manifest as physical constructions on Earth.

René Dubos has gone further. In his book A God Within (1973) Dubos proposes that there is an actual ‘spirit of place’ associated with certain regions of the Earth. Moreover if a people were to migrate to that area they would be collectively influenced by that ‘spirit’ and enter into harmony with that particular landscape.

A somewhat controversial account of sacred groves has been advanced by Michael Persinger at Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario (Persinger, 1974, 1987). In a series of experiments Persinger subjected volunteers to weak magnetic fields. During this exposure several of the volunteers claimed to have experienced an ‘ethereal presence.’ Persinger related these laboratory results to a proposal that the nature of sacred groves and other special locations could have a physical origin. When shockwaves pass through certain rocks they can produce what is known as the piezoelectric effect in which electromagnetic fields are generated. In turn Persinger suggested that intense electromagnetic fields could be produced in the region of seismic faults in the Earth’s crust. Such fields could produce bodies of light and the fields themselves would also affect the temporal lobes of the brain, creating hallucinations. Thus, he argued, such phenomena as spiritual visions and UFO sightings may be the result of natural phenomena occurring at fault lines. It is significant that a larger number of UFO sightings occur in areas of seismic faults. Thus while Persinger’s hypothesis remains controversial it does suggest yet another way in which ‘presence’ can manifest itself via a special type of container.

A Village as Container

At this juncture I would like to refer to a specific and very personal container, the medieval village of Pari where I live. Pari is located on a hilltop south of Siena in Tuscany and dates back over a thousand years, with settlements in the areas as far back as the Etruscans. Its construction is circular with one road going around the outside of the village and another circling within the village. Very clearly the village is experienced as a powerful container, an alchemical container if you wish. During the period I have been living in Pari several elderly people have suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. They appeared confused and would wander around the village, yet they would never leave the village itself because the village contained them and gave them a sense of security.

In the year 2000 I established a cultural centre in Pari, running courses and conferences. But it soon appeared that many of our conferences and events functioned in a very different way from those held in a hotel or conventional conference centre. While it is certainly true that we have run 
events where the participants have given formal addresses to the group, there have been other meetings in which participants sat around the oval table to talk and dialogue. It was during this latter process that we began to realize that something new was emerging, something not brought to the meeting by individual participants, but which was evolving out of the group process. It was in this sense that we began to feel that the centre—that is the physical building at the top of the village, and indeed the entire village itself—was acting as an alchemical vessel in which transformation could occur and something new and original emerge. Of course Pari need not be unique in this, for there may be other cultural centres in which creativity emerges in spontaneous ways. But this would require a conference organizer to spend time considering the physical location of a meeting rather than just worrying about power point presentations.

The Talking Circle

A tepee is another arena in which something new can emerge. Some years ago I was privileged to attend a gathering on a Blackfoot reservation in Alberta. Within the tepee we sat in a circle, but we were careful to leave a gap so that something new could enter. An eagle feather was passed around the circle and as it reached each person he or she would speak from the heart. To an outsider it was a unique and moving experience because it soon became apparent that we were not so much hearing individual statements or memories but an expression of the group consciousness itself. Thus presence as a form of group mind emerged out of the container of the talking circle (Peat, 2002).


The argument of this essay is that, in order for presence to manifest, it requires a frame or container. Of course the term ‘manifest’ contains a wide range of meanings. On the one hand it could mean a physical and material appearance in space and time, or one set against some background which causes presence to stand out in a vivid way. But presence could also be manifest in the sense of a pattern of behaviour, a set of well-defined relationships, the structure and dynamics of an organization, or a clearly defined flow of information, money or goods when outlined against a background of flux and change.

And as to the container, or alchemical vessel, within which presence appears? One example would be the family, that warm, sympathetic and caring vessel in which a child can play, grow up and mature in order to attain presence as a unique and creative individual. We have already explored another form of container, the therapeutic hour, in which a patient’s creative transformation can occur. Yet another would be the structure of a business organization, one that allows that organization to have authentic presence within the market, a presence in which each employee is valued and the organizational structure is fluid and creative rather than rigidly ‘top down.’ The characteristic of such organizations is the high value placed on trust and transparency and the maintenance of healthy feedback loops for goods, money and information.

We have touched on the theatre as a container for presence that can be special and magical, but probably even older is the place of worship: that container in which the infinite can sometimes manifest itself as pure transcendental presence. Such containers are amongst some of the most magnificent structures in the world, built of stone or mosaic, and glittering with gold in the candlelight. Maybe this essay could end with a with reference to another work of art, Duccio’s Maestà.

With the rise of Florence, the city of Siena felt itself under threat and there was fear that the city walls would be breached and Siena occupied by the Florentines. It is said that the city fathers walked bareheaded and barefoot to the cathedral and placed the keys of the city on the high altar, thereby giving Siena to the Virgin. When the Sienese were victorious the city commissioned Duccio to make a painting of the Virgin and Child. The resulting magnificent work, called the Maestà, shows the Virgin enthroned. On the day it was to be installed all workshops closed and the painting was paraded through the city to the cathedral. The work itself acts as a container for the pure presence of Virgin and Child. At the bottom of the work stand the various patron saints of Siena. They provide a link to the worshipers who kneel at the altar. It is through their presence that the worshiper is allowed to enter into heaven with its angels and the Virgin and Child. The painting is simultaneously the container of presence and a manifestation of that presence.


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