The end of our exploring will be to arrive at where
we started and to know the place for the first time.
— T. S. Elliot
I would paraphrase Eliot’s line of poetry to be consistent with a deeper understanding of what actually happens. In the present moment we will arrive at the place we never left and experience it for the first time. In the language of Eastern spirituality, the ultimate human attainment is awareness and equanimity—that is to say, experiencing reality as it really is and behaving or accepting that reality without reaction. In so doing, we become a Buddha, an “awakened one.” In the present moment we have transcended reincarnation, transmigration of souls and all other primitive attempts to answer the First Great Question—Where am I? Where we are in the present moment is P-A, beyond beginnings and endings in the eternal NOW. We have transcended fear and suffering and entered the endless experience of compassion, freedom, peace, joy and happiness.
By definition, “presence,” being the essence of P-A, cannot be described in words since it is beyond the intellect. Words can only lead us in the general direction of Simple Reality, toward an experience of the NOW. If words are to be used we would best leave that up to the poets, who, speaking from the heart, can elicit the feeling that accompanies our entry into the present moment. An exception would be the “poetic” prose of Emerson which demonstrates what we are trying to say: “It has been said that ‘common souls pay with what they do, nobler souls with that which they are.’ And why? Because a profound nature awakens in us by its actions and words, by its very looks and manner, the same power and beauty that a gallery of sculpture or of pictures addresses.”[i]
Give me insight into to-day, and you may have the antique and future worlds.
As Emerson indicates, art and beauty in all its forms can lead us toward an experience of the present moment. The editors of Great Books of the Western World also found that to be so when looking at Dostoevsky’s great novel and then commenting on the NOW. “When Dimmler in War and Peace tells Natasha that ‘it is hard for us to imagine eternity,’ she replies that it does not seem hard to her—that eternity ‘is now today, and it will be tomorrow, and always, and was there yesterday and the day before.’ These and similar attempts may not succeed as much as the insight that if we could hold the present moment still, or fix the fleeting instant, we could draw an experience of the eternal from the heart of time. ‘The now that stands still,’ Aquinas writes, ‘is said to make eternity according to our apprehension. For just as the apprehension of time is caused in us by the fact that we apprehend the flow of the now, so the apprehension of eternity is caused in us by our apprehending the now standing still.’”[ii]
Awareness is not about the “attainment” of consciousness but the “un-attainment” of unconsciousness or shifting our attention from “form” to “field”—from “noise” to “silence.” We do not have to do anything to attain awareness—just stop doing that which distracts us from our essential nature, just stop “reacting.” To put it in religious language we could say that “I am not a human being seeking my way to God; rather God is unfolding and revealing Its own Being in me.”
Thomas Merton said: “‘Being spiritual is something most people worry about when they are so busy with something else that they think they ought to be spiritual.’ This is why the experience of the spiritual foundations of reality is described as a ‘realization’ or ‘revelation,’ that is, the awareness of something that already exists.”[iii] The “something else” that Merton speaks of is Simple Reality.
What you are aware of you are in control of; what you are not aware of is in control of you. The lowest level of awareness is adherence to a set of rules (commandments or precepts) from an outside authority. In such a paradigm we face condemnation and sanctions from priests, ministers, masters and gurus. This is why Christianity (the Ten Commandments) and Buddhism (the Eightfold Path) often do not result in transformation of human behavior.
If we condemn ourselves for breaking a precept, we suffer guilt and shame about the past. If we can’t seem to live up to religious sanctions, we experience fear and anxiety about the future. Either way, precepts make it less likely that we can spend much time in the present moment. If we take full responsibility for our own behavior and follow the wisdom and compassion found in the NOW, we are also rewarded by the power inherent in accessing our own interior awareness. We have transcended fear.
Fear is not of the present, but only of the past and future.
— A Course in Miracles
“A mind in the present moment,” says Peter Russell, “is free to experience what is. This does not imply that one no longer takes any notice of the past nor considers the future. There is still much to learn from the past, and there are still innumerable ways we can influence the future and thus improve the quality of our lives and the lives of others. The difference is that, once liberated from its state of trance, the mind is no longer lost in fruitless concerns about things that happened in the past, nor is it caught up in anxieties about what may or may not happen in the future. Instead, we can focus more fully on the task at hand.”[iv]
Russell’s experience is further confirmed by the 13th century German theologian and mystic, Meister Eckhart. “There exists only the present moment, a Now which always and without end is itself new. There is no yesterday nor any tomorrow, but only Now, as it was a thousand years ago and as it will be a thousand years hence.”[v]
And yet we have to be wary of the mind that Russell speaks of, remember the limitations of the intellect. The present moment is not experienced by the mind but by our intuitive self beyond the mind.
The Eastern teachers often have a more profound grasp of the distinction between paradigms A and B. Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche reminds us: “If you believe there is a thing called mind, it is just a thought. If you believe there is no thing called mind, it’s just another thought. Your natural state, free of any kind of thought about it—that is Buddha nature. In ordinary sentient beings, this natural state is carried away by thinking, caught up in thought. Involvement in thinking is like a heavy chain. The moment you shatter the chain of thinking, you are free from the three realms of samsara [reaction and the resultant suffering].”[vi]
Let us further refine this distinction between thinking and awareness with the help of Henepola Gunaratana from his book, Mindfulness in Plain English:
is not thinking
does not compare experiences
precedes thought in the chain of perception
is always in the present moment
is being present without the ego
involves observing all mental, physical and emotional phenomena
involves being an objective observer without resistance
is an interior experience unconcerned with the world outside [vii]
Now let’s go a little deeper in our process of transcending P-B and penetrating the heart of P-A. The Buddhist worldview and that of P-A as well contains three foundational principles. Awareness involves an experience of Dukkha [suffering] meaning that all things in the sensory or experiential world are ultimately unsatisfactory; an experience of Anicca meaning that nothing in our experience lasts, all is impermanent; and an experience of Anatta meaning that there is no personal entity, no unchanging “I” but only ever-changing processes.
There is no “watcher” only the process of “watching.” And finally, awareness involves seeing reality as it really is which means among other things that awareness is Appamada which means “the absence of madness.” The words in italics are Pali words, the vernacular language that Buddha spoke.
Even from the “world beyond” we can find confirmation of the present moment in the voice of “Seth” as channeled by Jane Roberts. “You rule your experience from the focal point of your present, where your beliefs directly intercept with the body and the physical world on the one hand and the invisible world on the other. This applies to the individuals, societies, races and nations, and to sociological, biological and psychic activities.”[viii]
As we have already noted, it takes a poet to transcend the inadequate expressive power of mere words woven by the intellect. The moment we start to talk, most of leave the NOW and fall into the slumber of thinking far away from the blissful state of present moment.
His arms a pillow,
The sky his canopy;
The genial breeze a fan,
His lamp the autumn moon,
And dispassion his wife.
Thus the sage rejoices,
And like some noble monarch
Reclines at ease, and in peace.
The “feeling” of being present is illusive and for most of us will only be experienced a few times in a lifetime in a fleeting moment that psychologist Abraham Maslow has called a “peak experience.” Let’s read a few descriptions of this experience from several different cultures and sources. In seeking the insight that will allow us to catch a glimpse of P-A, we are transcending craving and aversion of all kinds even what we tend to regard as desirable sensations and experiences. Listen with the heart and not the head.
In her own language Toni Packer is speaking of transcendence. “The emergence and blossoming of understanding, love and intelligence has nothing to do with any tradition, no matter how ancient or impressive—it has nothing to do with time. It happens completely on its own when a human being questions, wonders, listens, and looks without getting stuck in fear, pleasure, and pain.”[x]
In proud for-feeling of such lofty bliss,
I now enjoy the highest Moment—this!
Clive Johnson speaks of our old friend the Goddess Nemesis in the guise of the sensation energy center—craving. “Desire arises from a sense of limitation and imperfection. A man of attainment feels no lack, what else is there for him to desire?”[xi]
And Seth further describes our tendency to “cling” to the very source of our suffering. “Many beliefs would automatically fall away quite harmlessly if you were being truly spontaneous. Instead you harbor them.”[xii]
When consciousness is no longer totally absorbed by thinking some of it remains in its formless, unconditioned state. This is inner space.
— Eckhart Tolle [xiii]
The present moment is understood and practiced to some degree by the mystics of the world’s major religions. It was the influence of the Hindu/Buddhist tradition that finally opened up the eyes of the Western philosophers such as Emerson and Thomas Troward to the importance of exploring the deeper nature of reality. A contemporary mystic, Eckhart Tolle, the author of the popular, The Power of Now, is a modern case in point.
Gaylon Ferguson in an article about Tolle describes this influence. “It was only later, after reading spiritual texts such as A Course in Miracles and meeting with Theravadin Buddhist monks in England, that he began to call this [his] transformation awakening. But again, he seems as pleased to note that in Hinduism and Buddhism this is called enlightenment as to note that in the teachings of Jesus it is salvation.”[xiv]
Speaking of salvation makes a good transition to examining the present moment from a Christian perspective. Ken Wilber describing and quoting the Spanish Christian mystic, Teresa of Avila: “And here Teresa uses perhaps her most famous metaphor. Prior to this transformative absorption, the unregenerate [false] self (or ego) is, says Teresa, like a silkworm. But one taste of union (literally, just a single experience of this, she says however brief), and the self is changed forever. One taste of absorption in Uncreate Spirit, and the worm emerges a butterfly. As we might put it, the ego dies and the soul emerges. (‘All mean egotism vanishes; the currents of Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.’)”[xv]
Joseph Campbell brings the perspective of the mythologist to the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas. “Here Jesus says, ‘The Kingdom will not come by expectation. They will not say, See here, see there. The Kingdom of the Father is spread upon the earth and men do not see it. That’s what’s known as the Hermetic Gnosticism—bodhi, in Sankrit. Change the perspective of your eyes, and you see the whole world before you is radiant. In other words the coming is right here, now, in the world, and not at all something to wait for, not for a historical experience.”[xvi]
Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?
— “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder
One of America’s original contributions to world culture is New Thought. The origin of New Thought can be traced back to the mystic P. P. Quimby born in Lebanon, New Hampshire in 1802. Quimby clearly understood the importance of the present moment when he, in speaking of death, said that it was, “an external incident, of which man need not stand in fear. Rather once having accepted the thought of eternity now, man might remain calm, poised, free, and overcome the illusion of sense experience with its manifold bondages.”[xvii]
Awareness of the world as it is makes the world new.
— Michael Adam[xviii]
Although we can’t always follow what Ken Wilber is saying, our intuition tells us that he’s onto something. In any case he expresses it in an endlessly fascinating way. The Eastern tradition uses the word “emptiness” for the present moment. “Emptiness is neither a Whole nor a Part nor a Whole/Part. Emptiness is the reality of which all Wholes and all parts are simply manifestations. In Emptiness I do not become Whole, nor do I realize that I am merely a Part of some Great Big Whole. Rather, in Emptiness I become the opening or clearing in which all wholes and all parts arise eternally. I-I am the groundless Ground, the empty Abyss, that never enters the stream of endless IOUs; not in Emptiness, but as Emptiness, I am released from the fate of a never-ending addition of parts, and I stand free as the Source and Suchness of the glorious display. I taste the sky and swallow whole the Kosmos, and nothing is added to me; I disappear in a million forms and nothing is subtracted; I rise as the sun to greet my own day, and nothing moves at all.”[xix] Ken Wilber the Kosmic poet. I like it.
Let’s have another taste. “Indeed, indeed: let the self-contraction relax into the empty ground of its own awareness, and let it there quietly die. See the Kosmos arise in its place, dancing madly and divine, self-luminous and self-liberating, intoxicated by a Light that never dawns nor ceases. See the worlds arise and fall, never caught in time and turmoil, transparent images shimmering in the radiant Abyss. Watch the mountain walk on water, drink the Pacific in a single gulp, blink and a billion universes rise and fall, breathe out and create a Kosmos, breathe in and watch it dissolve.”[xx]
And another: “Let the ecstasy overflow and outshine the loveless self, driven mad with the torments of its self-embracing ways, hugging mightily samsara’s spokes of endless agony, and sing instead triumphantly with Saint Catherine, ‘My being is God, not by simple participation, but by a true transformation of my Being. My me is God!’ And let the joy sing with Dame Julian, ‘See I am God! See! I am in all things! See! I do all things!’ And let the joy shout with Hakuin, ‘This very body is the Body of Buddha! And this very land the Pure Land!’”[xxi]
He’s on a roll, can’t stop now! “And comes to rest that Godless search, tormented and tormenting. The knot in the Heart of the Kosmos relaxes to allow its only God, and overflows the Spirit ravishes and enraptured by the lost and found Beloved. And gone the Godless destiny of death and desperation, and gone the madness of a life committed to uncare, and gone the tears and terror of the brutal days and endless nights where time alone would rule.”[xxii]
And now we “feel” the last crashing wave wash over us and we have some idea of the experience of the present moment. “And I-I rise to taste the dawn, and find that love alone will shine today. And the Shining says: to love it all, and love it madly, and always endlessly, and ever fiercely, to love without choice and thus enter the All, to love it mindlessly and thus be the All embracing the only and radiant Divine: now as Emptiness, now as Form, together and forever, the Godless search undone, and love alone will shine today.”[xxiii] Now that is what feeling the present moment is all about!
You might not think science would have anything to say about the present moment, but some interesting research is being done. For example, this observation by Diane Powell: “Some people have conditions such as autism that shift the balance between local and non-local processes by knocking out the functioning of the neo-cortex. The rest of us can decrease this classical dominance by such mind-quieting practices as meditation. Hence, as we become more consciously aware or awake, we use non-local processes more and more. Along the way, we will progressively see the world less abstractly. We will see it more as it really is.”[xxiv]
But, of course, the present moment is not about what’s “out there” as Thoreau began to intuit during his stay at Walden Pond. “Thoreau is clear, as Emerson seldom was, about the location of meaning and value. He is saying that it does not reside in the natural facts or in social institutions or in anything ‘out there,’ but in consciousness.”[xxv]
Philosophers have not had much to say about the present moment perhaps because it is not “head stuff,” too concrete, too experiential. Wilber explores why this might be so. “This ‘emptiness’ is not a theory. Even less is it ‘poetry’ (which I have often heard). Nor is it a philosophical suggestion. It is a direct apprehension (direct ‘experience’ is not quite right, since it is free of the duality of subject and object, and since it never enters the stream of time and thus is never ‘experiential’ in any typical sense—free of thoughts, free of dualities, free of time and temporal succession.”[xxvi]
Psychologists, on the other hand have and are having a field day with speculations about the nature and significance of the NOW. Rollo May, for example: “But the more awareness one has—that is, the more he experiences himself as the acting, directing agent in what he is doing—the more alive he will be and the more responsive to the present moment.”[xxvii]
We have learned that we enter the present moment when we are in response, rather than reacting to what is happening in our mental or physical experience. Ken Wilber puts on his psychologist hat: “All the traditions agree that reactivity stops, although the fate of emotional reactions differs in each tradition. In any case, the human experience of suffering is altered because of the change in how information about emotions is processed. What the meditation texts claim is quite radical: nothing short of a life without the experience of emotional pain. Freud was more pessimistic about psychoanalysis, through which the interpretation of free associations might only replace neurotic suffering with ordinary human unhappiness. The meditation masters have picked up where Freud left off. In the words of Buddha, ‘If there’s one thing only I teach you, it is the end of suffering.’ Disciplined deployment of attention [The Point of Power Practice], which may permanently alter human information-processing, may alleviate all traces of everyday unhappiness.”
Worthwhile, I would say, this business of a new story, a new identity and “a life without emotional pain.”[xxviii]
We should try it, don’t you think?
[i] Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Portable Emerson. New York: Viking, 1946, p. 123.
[ii] Hutchins, Robert Maynard [ed.]. Great Books of the Western World, The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon Vol 1. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1952, p. 438.
[iii] Ross, David. “The Light Enters You.” Shambhala Sun. Boulder, Colorado, November 2004, p. 49.
[iv] Russell, Peter. Waking Up in Time. Novato, California: Origin Press, 1992, p. 93.
[vi] Rinpoche, Tulka Urgyen. “Existence & Nonexistence.” Shambhala Sun. Boulder, Colorado, March 2000, p. 53.
[vii] Gunaratana, Henepola. Mindfulness in Plain English. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1991, pp. 152-153.
[viii] Roberts, Jane. The Nature of Personal Reality. New York: Bantam, 1974, p. 292.
[ix] Johnson, Clive [ed.]. Vedanta: An Anthology of Hindu Scripture, Commentary, and Poetry. New York: Bantam, 1971, p. 151.
[x] Packer, Toni. “Toni Packer.” Shambhala Sun. Boulder, Colorado, July 2005, p. 46.
[xi] Johnson, op. cit., p. 98.
[xii] Roberts, op. cit., p. 31.
[xiii] Tolle, Eckhart. A New Earth. New York: Dutton, 2005, p. 241.
[xiv] Ferguson, Gaylon. “Evaluating Eckhart.” Shambhala Sun. Boulder, Colorado, July 2008, p. 87.
[xv] Wilber, Ken. Sex, Ecology and Spirituality. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1995, p. 295.
[xvi] Campbell, Joseph. The Hero’s Journey. New York: Harper, 1990, p. 148.
[xvii] Braden, Charles S. Spirits in Rebellion: The Rise and Development of New Thought. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1987, p. 135.
[xviii] Adam, Michael. Wandering in Eden: Three Ways to the East Within Us. New York: Knopf, 1976, p. 67.
[xix] Wilber, Sex, Ecology and Spirituality, op. cit.
[xxiii] Ibid., p. 523.
[xxiv] Powell, Diane. “We Are All Savants.” Shift: At the Frontiers of Consciousness. Petaluma, California: Institute of Noetic Sciences, December 2005-February 2006, p. 17.
[xxv] Tauber, Alfred. Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001, p. 15.
[xxvi] Wilber, Sex, Ecology and Spirituality, op. cit., p. 303.
[xxvii] May, Rollo. Man’s Search For Himself. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1953, p. 228.
[xxviii] Wilber, Ken, et. al. Transformations of Consciousness. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1986, p. 271.