Presence - The Timeless Experience
Are you a God? they asked the Buddha. No, he replied.
Are you an angel, then? No.
A saint? No.
Then what are you?
Replied the Buddha, I am awake.
Many of us can remember times when we have been blessed with a taste of self-liberation. The trigger might have been some spectacular scenery, a touching encounter, the birth of a child, or a moment of tenderness. Whatever the reason -- and sometimes there is no apparent reason -- we are taken out of ourselves and see things without the layers of judgment and concern that usually cloud our minds. In the words of the visionary poet William Blake, the doors of perception are cleansed and we see things as they are -- infinite.
In those special moments we feel more aware, more fully in the present; no longer lost in our thoughts and concerns. There is a sense of liberation; a release from the humdrum affairs of the world. Perhaps there are feelings of awe and wonderment; a deeper connection with ourselves, with others, with Nature, and sometimes with the whole of creation. We may remember what it is to be fully alive. In those moments we are free. We are truly at ease.
Countless examples of such moments of grace are to be found in autobiographies, poetry, and spiritual literature the world over. Here is one from the historian Kenneth Clark:
It took place in the church of San Lorenzo, but did not seem to be connected with the harmonious beauty of the architecture. I can only say that for a few minutes my whole being was irradiated by a kind of heavenly joy, far more intense than anything I had known before. . . . that I had felt the finger of God I am quite sure, and, although the memory of this experience has faded, it still helps me to understand the joys of the saints.
Margaret Isherwood recalled an experience she had when she was nine years old:
Suddenly the Thing happened, and as everybody knows, it cannot be described in words. The Bible phrase, I saw the heavens open seems as good as any if not taken literally. I remember saying to myself, in awe and rapture, so its like this; now I know what heaven is like, now I know what they mean in church.
The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore was watching the sun rise in a Calcutta street when,
suddenly, in a moment, a veil seemed to be lifted from my eyes. . . . The thick cloud of sorrow that lay on my heart in many folds was pierced through and through by the light of the world. . . . There was nothing and no one whom I did not love at that moment."
And Warner Allen, in his book, The Timeless Moment, describes a flash of illumination that occurred during a performance of Beethovens Seventh Symphony. Again he found his experience hard to describe:
A dim impression of the condition of the objective self might be given by a jumble of incoherent sentences. Something has happened to me -- I am utterly amazed -- can this be that? (That being the answer to the riddle of life) -- but it is too simple -- I always knew it -- it is remembering an old forgotten secret -- like coming home -- I am not 'I', not the 'I' I thought -- there is no death -- peace passeth all understanding.
Common to the majority of such experiences is the fact that they come unbidden. I did nothing to make it happen. It came upon me. In such moments waking up seems effortless.
Two Sides of a Fence
The reality of our day-to-day waking consciousness and these moments of liberation are so different it is almost as if a mental fence divides the two. On one side of the fence I am caught in my mind; in my thoughts, my anxieties, my judgments, and my fears. I may on occasion recognize that this is all unnecessary, and that it removes me from the present moment; but such passing insights are seldom sufficient to release my mind from the grip of my conditioning. So deeply ingrained is my attachment to what I believe I should be thinking and doing there seems no way over that fence. Indeed, for much of the time I have totally forgotten there is another way of being.
But when, for one reason or another, I find myself on the other side of the fence, it all seems so simple. It is clear that I need do nothing to feel at ease and at peace. I know I am at peace. And I know that nothing can threaten this peace, for it is an intrinsic quality of life itself, not something that can be created or destroyed. It seems obvious that all I need do is relax and simply let go of my fears. How, I wonder, could I ever have got myself so muddled and entangled?
In this state of consciousness the true meaning of non-attachment is apparent. It is not, as it is often interpreted, a withdrawal from life -- a lack of concern, a lack of responsibility, or a lack of feeling. It is simply that I am no longer attached to things or events having to be a certain way. I have let go of the belief that what goes on around me determines whether or not I am content. In this state I am free to respond to the needs of others without the aura of self-concern that dogs so much of our thinking. Mahatma Gandhi put it very clearly:
Detachment is not apathy or indifference. It is the prerequisite for effective involvement. Often what we think is best for others is distorted by our attachment to our opinions: we want others to be happy in the way we think they should be happy. It is only when we want nothing for ourselves that we are able to see clearly into others needs and understand how to serve them.
Gandhi's ideas were not new. His philosophy was drawn from the Bhagavad Gita, one of Indias ancient spiritual texts. The reason we are confused and suffer, says the Gita, is because we are caught in the conflicts that arise from attachment to the fruits of our actions. Our motivations are colored by our unfulfilled inner needs, leading to a personal investment in things turning out a certain way. The wise, on the other hand, are free from such concerns. They do not laugh or cry at the ups and downs of the world, but maintain an inner equanimity in loss or gain.
In one way or another this is what all the great religions have been trying to tell us. They may couch it in different terms, clothe it in different doctrines, teach it through different metaphors, and approach it through different practices, but they all share the same underlying goal. That goal is to leave behind self-centered desires; to be free from our attachment to material circumstances, and our beliefs about how things should or should not be. It is to rise above suffering. To open to a higher wisdom and reconnect with the essence of Life. It is to regain our vitality.
The essence of such teachings is not determined by time or culture -- although these may influence its form and expression. It is determined by the essential nature of the mind. And that is the same now as it was five thousand years ago.
Back to the Present
There is another sense in which this wisdom is timeless. It is the undoing of our timefulness. It offers release from our bondage to past and future, and a return to the serenity of the present moment.
The thirteenth-century Christian mystic Meister Ekhart described how in moments of inner quiet
There exists only the present instant . . . 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.
And six hundred years later Richard Jefferies wrote:
It is eternity now, I am in the midst of it. It is about me in the sunshine; I am in it, as the butterfly in the light-laden air. Nothing has to come; it is now. Now is eternity; now is immortal life.
In some senses, of course, we are always in the present. Our past we know from memories, but those memories are experienced in the present, just as our future is something we imagine in the present. Whatever we may be thinking and doing we are doing it now. Even when we are totally absorbed in thoughts about the past or the future, the thoughts themselves are occurring in the now.
When we say we are not in the present we really mean that the object of our attention is not in the present. We are looking back to the past or forward to the future. To return to the present is to return our attention to what is going on here and now.
The mind that is attending to the present is a mind that is free from distracting self-talk about what has or has not happened or what might or might not happen.
A mind in the present moment 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 so 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 might or might not happen in the future. Instead, we can focus more fully on the task at hand.
Moreover, a mind that is free from worry and concern is -- almost by definition -- a mind that is at peace. Here, in the present moment, we find that which we have been seeking all along. It is not out there in some circumstance or thing, but right here, within us, at the core of our being.
There is nothing we have to do or achieve to find inner peace, joy and fulfillment. All that is needed is to remove the layers of thought that have kept it hidden; to stop worrying about whether or not we are ever going to find it in the future, and realize that it is -- as it always has been and always will be -- here now.