With an eye made quiet by the power of harmony
and the deep power of joy
we see into the heart of things.
The older we get, the quicker life seems to be. The life goes slower for kids. We all remember in finest details the summers in between school years when we were young. I can recall the details of every journey. Every moment, every day felt like forever. Why is that? Because as grownups we spend too much time thinking about the things that happened in the past and fretting over what might happen in the future. In the process we forget to live life, which lies in possession – the moment on hand. Whereas as kids we were absorbed in the moment and not in what we did before or what we would do after. Not only do we cease to live fully when we are in the future or in the past, but we do some serious reckoning we will realize that majority of our thoughts about the past and future are negative and need to be weeded out in any case.
Sometime ago I read a book called “The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment” written by Eckhart Tolle. Though I have never enjoyed reading popular psychology kind of books for the simple reason that they are too shallow even for the purpose of general reading, I acquiesced to reading this one as it was strongly recommended by a dear friend whose judgment I respect. Initially I thought it would be one of those useless books full of self-indulgent ‘how to’ tips, but it turned out to be different and does have some merit in presenting a few timeless truths in a fashionable manner and context. The book invites the reader to deconstruct the unconscious thinking habits that hinder our ability to see beyond the precincts of our minds.
However, I am not writing this to talk about the book or to quote from it, as anybody, who is interested, can read the book, which is a best seller. Instead the idea is to briefly talk about the concept that provides the fundamental theme of the book. This concept is the notion of being able to live in the moment that has been addressed by many a great philosophers and thinkers over the ages as a key to being contented and authentic and realizing one’s potential to its fullest. The book is a well-wrought and authentic endeavour to communicate the power, depth, and importance of freedom from mind and ego through shifting our attention from ‘mind to being and from time to presence’. Mr. Tolle does not seek to gain our acceptance by whitewashing the darker sides of human nature or by making us believe that human ego is simply an illusion that we need not concern ourselves with. Instead he continually reminds us that ego is the most dangerous enemy the man has ever had to contend with and, as I often say, that “collective egoic mind” is the “most dangerously insane and destructive entity ever to inhabit this planet”. Ego, in all its manifestations, simply cannot survive without the dimension of time. When we remove time from its existence, it fades away. This reminds me of our various Sufi orders which follow the teachings of different spiritual masters. However, the bond that unites all these Sufi orders resides in this very concept of ego annihilation. For them “primary reality is within and secondary reality without”. As Rumi tries to explain: “When one passes beyond this world and sees that Sovereign (God) without these ‘veils,’ then one will realize that all those things were ‘veils’ and ‘coverings’ and that what they were seeking was in reality that One.” However, this Sufi approach also has to contend with some cogent criticism, especially from the traditionalists (like Ghazali etc.) who feel that it does not present a complete and integral path to awakening which is only possible through prayer and submission to the Will of God that then lead to transformation in the dynamic and active aspects of our ordinary life without any need for us to turn into ascetic recluses. Awakening in everyday life is also an important subject of the Quran and other scriptures.
Within the mind we experience incessant streams of mental, emotional, and sensory experiences. Ordinarily our attention wanders a lot; we are lost in our thoughts and are only superficially aware of what is taking place around us. When we are firmly anchored in the moment we are fully conscious of our experience, and grow more aware of what we are seeing, hearing, feeling, and doing, more in touch both with ourselves and with the world. When we shift our focus from time to presence, it frees us from reminiscence of the past and fantasies of the future by bringing the reality of the present moment clearly into focus. This is one of the elemental aspects in all the world’s greatest contemplative traditions as awareness is the key to mindful living. The ability to be fully present helps us discover exquisitely wonderful things about the world around us. As Henry Miler remarked: “The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, and indescribably magnificent world in itself.” It demagnetizes our fixations and enables us to look deeply into reality and see ourselves and our world as they are. The ability to see and understand how and why things are as they are generates insights which develop into wisdom. Being fully present is akin to taking meditation to all our activities and routines because just as meditation focuses our attention on one object, ability to be fully present involves a more vibrant, wide-ranging field of observation. This helps us bring a sense of wonder and awe into every moment, allowing each moment to be one of discovery and revelation. When we learn to focus, concentrate, and deal exclusively with the present moment it:
— Improves our focus and precision and boosts the lucidity of our thinking and purpose.
— Improves efficiency and cultivates intuition and wisdom.
— Enhances the quality of our relationships and communication.
— Helps us manage stress better, adds a sense of flow to our life, and inculcates peace of mind.
— Rouses authenticity and strengthens our self-confidence.
Living in the moment enables us to open oneself out completely to the world with utter simplicity and sense of wonder and sharpens perceptions to see things as they are. By knowing what we are perceiving, thinking, feeling, wanting, and intending in any given moment, we will be more likely to recognize options, make wiser decisions, and to correctly, effectively, and truthfully communicate with others. With practice we will be able to refine our sensitivity to be able to sense, feel, and alter the patterns of subtle sensation and energy through the power of our awareness. Once we learn to be fully aware of the moment we live in, we can then carry this ability into the domain of action by being mindful of breathing, or walking, or thinking, or listening, or whatever action we undertake through keeping our mind wholeheartedly on what we are doing. Knowing we are reading, as we read these words or, for example, when we eat we can mindfully enjoy the flow of experience: washing our hands, sitting down, spreading the napkin in our lap, enjoying the appetizing smell, serving ourselves, lifting the food to our mouth, chewing and savouring each morsel with mindfulness. Thus rather than being a mechanical slave driven by patterns of habitual thoughts and actions, we will be in conscious control of our life, more in charge of the flow of change, and a mindful co-author of our experience and living.
As Eckhart Tolle reminds us, it is not an activity that counts but the quality of attention we bring to the activity. Hence any activity can be used to develop mindfulness, concentration, clarity, and insight. To practise begin with an activity you enjoy and commit yourself to approaching it with full attention. Doing what we love to do with a mindful awareness is an ideal place to start the practice of living in the moment. Start mindfully, stay relaxed, and wholeheartedly focus on what you are doing. Whenever your attention wanders gently bring it back to being fully aware of what you are doing. If stress becomes palpable, relax and smile playfully to yourself. Be very gentle with yourself throughout the process. By doing this we can use all our activities and routine as means to develop our awareness and deepen our concentration. If we practice living in the moment in simple, relaxed, and quiet times, it will be easier to do so when things are more chaotic and hectic.
Breathing is a very effective tool in inculcating in us an ability to live in the moment. All we need to do is to be aware of our breathing. As you inhale, know that you are breathing in and as you exhale, know that you are breathing out. Being aware of your breathing, mindfully experience the moment-to-moment flow of sensations as the breath flows in and out of your nostrils, or as your abdomen naturally rises and falls. Do not try to control, force, or change your breath in any manner, instead make sure that this process of riding the waves of your breath is as effortless and natural as possible. It is not a yoga or meditation exercise involving breathing deeper, slower, trying to manipulate the breath in some other fashion. No, it is not an exercise but a very simple and effortless focusing of awareness into what is already going on naturally by itself. Simply relax into your breath, feeling it just as it is and allow the power of awareness to take over. This accomplishes one of the great changes you can bring in life by bringing your mind and body into sync with each other. In this your breathing can become a balancing rhythm of focusing and flowing attention creating an awareness that can help you steady yourself through every activity of your life.
Thoughts are the remnants of the living reality of life’s experience. They filter the direct view of the way things really are, thus freezing the flow of direct experience and preventing us from encountering reality in its unspoiled purity. While most of us mistake their beliefs, assumptions, fantasies, and thoughts for reality, thoughts are thoughts and reality is reality. ‘Now’ is reality. The biggest distraction from living in ‘Now’ is provided by our thoughts. What we need to realize is that these thoughts are merely thoughts and only have the power on us which we give to them by identifying with their content. Once we realize that, we know that we are far more and greater than the chatter we hear in our head and our presence of mind creates an awareness which all thoughts that are unrelated with the present moment can dissolve. These thoughts are then reduced to mere clouds that arise and pass in the sky of our mind as a process that arises and unfolds without the need of a ‘thinker’ and has no power to compel us to dive in or get carried away or caught up with the contents of our thoughts. As we learn to dis-identify from our thoughts we can just be aware of the endless flow of the inner voices in our head without getting involved in them. This enables us to live quietly by the stream of our mind.
“In all the development of wisdom, one quality of mind above all is the key to practice. This quality is mindfulness, attention, or self-recollection. The most direct way to understand our life situation, who we are and how our mind and body operate, is to observe with a mind that simply notices all event equally. This attitude of non-judgmental, direct observation allows all events to occur in a natural way. By keeping the attention in the present moment, we can see more and more clearly the true characteristics of our mind and body process.”