A Year of Présence: Salvaging meditation from the wreck of wellness

andrewBy Andrew Rose

We opened Presence a year ago today, not really sure what would happen, or whether anyone would show up to meditate. Working on your mind isn’t always sexy, easy work, despite what Instagram might have us believe. Some people did show up (though we definitely have room for more of you), and somehow we are still here about to embark on a second year, with an additional location having just opened downtown. In many ways we still don’t know what will happen, but that’s always the case, and consistent with instruction I often find myself giving in class: we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future (except, you know, death) so don’t get too comfortable with any assumptions about the present. If I’ve learned anything over the past year though, it’s that you can apply that teaching to everything, including assumptions about meditation, mindfulness, science and spirituality. One of the things I’ve come to understand these past months is that the whole ‘don’t get too comfortable’ teaching is too easy a line to fall back on. People do need to be comfortable and have healthy attachments and support networks before they can engage their minds and bodies and start to work with some of those difficult truths about being alive (whether you consider those truths to be ‘noble’ or not).

The work we did earlier this year at MindfulnessMTL with Willboughy Britton, Jared Lindhal and David Treleavan was eye opening in that regard, as has been collaborating with Dexter on his Rest to Resist group. Meditation is not just about going deeper all the time. Mindfulness is about awareness, and you can’t have awareness without context. Meditators bring a very diverse set of contexts to their practice. Providing space to respect and and care for those different realities has become an increasingly important part of the studio’s vision. That means taking mental health seriously, understanding trauma better, and keeping up to date with the current science around meditation, all the while still relying on various ancient practices and teachings. We’re really fortunate to have Mindspace and Dr. Joe Flanders as a partner to support that part of what we do. Checking in with Joe about all of these issues while managing Presence has not only been a practical concern, it’s also been enriching personally and, I dare even say, fun. I believe more than ever that meditation and mindfulness practice can be of real benefit to most people, but I’m also convinced of how important it is for the practice to suit the individual. One size does not fit all, and I feel proud that we’re able to offer intimate classes on a daily basis with caring, qualified professionals.

That said, I also believe in taking some risks. Everything that is happening with the ‘psychedelic renaissance’ in both the clinical and spiritual worlds is definitely in line with what Presence is about. This topic seems to have come to a fever pitch this year with Michael Pollan’s latest book, as well as with the podcast series that Vincent Horn has been having on Buddhist Geeks, and with what people like Spring Washam are doing with Lotus Vine Journeys. There are also more than a few dissenters from the Buddhist world that are taking some pretty righteous exception to the idea that various plants and fungi can be a complement to legitimate contemplative practice, rather than a threat to it. Wherever you stand on this issue, I think it’s foolish to dismiss it completely, whether you’re a Buddhist or a psychotherapist or just someone hoping to change something about your own life and mind. I’m excited that we’ve just launched a class to (legally) explore these issues, because I really believe a lot of practical, healthy lessons can come from approaching them in the right way.

It’s also been sobering this year to see so many large, established meditation communities shaken and even dismantled as a result of unskillful and abusive leadership. It might be tempting to apply teachings on impermanence here, but again that’s an easy line when the inverse is also true; people rely on these organizations for important kinds of support, whether it’s meditation-based or just community-oriented social connection, which can be just as important. As that mutually supportive environment evolves at Presence, we’re committed to ensuring our structure protects against these kinds of scenarios. There are no gurus at Presence, and no teaching hierarchy, or even a fixed pedagogy. Just humans trying to support each other and stay balanced by using a practice that we know works if you do it regularly.

And it really does work! The most gratifying thing about the past year of Presence has been witnessing people slowly but surely transform in subtle, intentional ways as a result of commitment to their practice. It doesn’t happen overnight, or always in linear fashion, but it does happen. In many ways it’s the antithesis of the instant-fix consumer culture we’re drowning in (and consequently a huge marketing challenge for the business). Much of the current backlash against the wellness industry is well deserved insofar as it exposes how many unhelpful solutions people are selling. A friend recently wrote an article in Quartz asking ‘how wellness became our new religion.’ I suggested a subtle adjustment to that sentiment in response: “I don’t think wellness is our new religion so much as it’s the latest object of what has been the dominant religion of the western world for a couple generations, ie. consumerism and materialism.”

But as someone who also works in the wellness industry, I’m not entirely cynical about it. I think it does point to the fact that people are increasingly aware that the way we’ve been living through this period is killing us, and the planet, at a rapid rate, and they want to do something about it. People do want to be well, there’s just a lot of companies and individuals with their own interests (and snake oil) trying to convince you what that really means. Unfortunately those intentions are very often being folded right back into the same old “buy this to fill the hole in your soul” mantra that got us into this mess in the first place. Wellness, especially the kind that is democratic, egalitarian, and good for families, communities, and the world in general (not just rich individuals), is not about shiny, easy solutions and inspirational quotes. Wellness to me means reducing suffering in all its forms, and I really believe that meditation (along with simple things like exercise, sleep, nutrition and safe, social bonding), is one of the strongest tools we have to achieve this.

It’s been really interesting trying to find a way to encourage people to meditate without falling into the trap of of offering spiritual platitudes with pricey accessories, all the while having to compete with the seemingly infinite Insta-army of people who are. Still, I see how much people are hurting and how desperate they are for ways to address that, and I don’t judge anyone who finds solace in some kind of community or practice if it’s truly making their lives feel more balanced and workable. (And don’t discount the value of the placebo effect.) But it’s very easy for coping strategies to get out of control and become addictions, rather than solutions. At a certain point, we need to ask ourselves whether our practice is about continually trying to add something to our lives, rather than strip away the pain we’re causing ourselves, and each other. I believe the strength of meditation, even though it’s not very exciting sometimes, is that it does just that. It’s not about acquiring some kind of super-power — it’s about peeling away that habitual, protective layer that’s been concealing the super-hero underneath, all along.


Andrew is the co-founder of Presence. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook (but not Instagram, unless you want to see photos of his kids).