A friend asked, “What do people mean when they say they are ‘in the Now’?” Here is my reply:
I am very pleased that you are thinking and asking this question. I have devoted most of the last few years examining and questioning my own spiritual beliefs. As I hope to express in this reply, these beliefs are evolving even as I write. I am editing my latest version of my current spiritual understanding, titled Breaking Trail. You can find it on my website. It is a series of topics and questions intended to get you to examine what is true for you. Please don’t take anything I say on faith. Test it within your own awareness; see if it rings true, if it proves itself to be right. You should only ever act on what you know to be true, not what someone else tells you to believe.
Before I get to your questions about the Now, allow me to establish some perspective.
As our understanding of the history of the universe increases, we see an ever-changing,
constantly evolving trend towards greater awareness, creativity and complexity.
There was an initial ‘Big Bang’ that started the whole thing. Then
about 9 billion years later, there was the beginning of something new: life.
This was a second ‘big bang’. After another 4 billion years, and
barely 50,000 years ago, man ushered into existence creativity, arguably a third
‘big bang’. For the last several thousand years, Man has become
more and more aware of the universe around him, and his place within it. The
Buddha, 2500 years ago, first articulated the idea that our sense of individual
‘self’ was wrong, that each person is actually connected to the
universal energy that permeates everything, that underlies all reality. He offered
the notion that once we connect with that part of ourselves, once we acknowledge
that we are but one aspect of All-that-is, we become blissful, we touch eternity
and perfection, we become ‘enlightened’.
Understand, please, the harshness of life even as recently as 200 or 300 years ago. Any individual, save a very few philosophers or kings, didn’t have the luxury to spend any time thinking about this. If you were lucky, you could draw on the work of those within a small, 20 or 30-mile radius for your food. If it wasn’t grown or slaughtered nearby, there was no transportation system that could bring it to you reliably. Some lived close to caravan or trade routes, and had small and relatively expensive portions of foods, goods or spices available from time to time at market, but on the whole, if you didn’t grow it, you didn’t eat it. Your day-to-day living focused on your next meal, and how to pay the tax to the local power structure so that you could continue to live. Personal security was never far from your thoughts, life was brutal, to be frank. Few lived beyond what we now call middle age. The promise, as offered by the Buddha, of bliss and escape from the harsh reality of what passed for life on Earth was sufficient to get many to try to emulate what the Buddha embodied.
Another enlightened being, Jesus of Nazareth, presented a different perspective on what was (probably) the same vision. Focusing on love for God and love for oneself, and service to others flowing from this love, he offered a vision of a heaven where life was beautiful and the problems of earthly existence dissolved away. He understood the same oneness as the Buddha, he expressed it differently because of the culture in which he lived at the time he preached. He pointed to the divinity in all of us; his words however, have been ignored or reinterpreted to foster the power and control of those who head the various churches organized around his teachings. He didn’t ‘know how’ to perform miracles, to turn water into wine, to walk on water, to heal the sick or raise the dead. But he grasped that if he surrendered control to the universal energy, allowed the creativity of God to flow through him, and acted as a channel for Spirit, then miracles would happen. People become enlightened, even if only for a moment, when touched by Spirit.
Less so in Buddhism, more so in Christianity, the ideas professed by these two awakened men have been corrupted through the succeeding two millennia by a few who use religion as a means to control the population. Please note, that when these religions were formed, mankind was 1500 years away (or more) from truly knowing the Earth is round, that scientific inquiry might lead to a better understanding of reality, and that communication could be more than a oral story handed down through the generations or a hand-copied book written in a language understood by a few thousand people at best.
Jump to today. A few people are coming to realize that ‘enlightenment’ as depicted through the ages is not the end game, not the goal of existence. If we step back and look at the history of the universe and of life as I have crudely sketched it here, we see an evolution, a progression of steps that lead to more and more awareness of the true nature of reality. Science today, especially quantum physics, is increasingly demonstrating that crude Newtonian physics are not the whole picture, indeed, that concept may be entirely wrong. Recent experiments show that awareness is pivotal in determining the nature of some (if not all) energy, and indeed whether something exists or not. Initially, just a few decades ago, this property of matter was believed to affect only the smallest of the small, but with each passing year, the scale it is seen to affect grows. There is even credible evidence today that awareness affects energy on our human scale. If science tells us that awareness is crucial in existence, and religion tells us the same thing, shouldn’t we begin to examine how our own awareness is affecting our life?
The problem with ‘enlightenment’ as depicted by the Buddha as eternal bliss and relief from suffering, and ‘eternal life’ as expressed by Jesus as heaven, is that both concepts are the ‘end product’. There is no development of what comes next, once you are enlightened or once you have gone to heaven, other than eternal perfection. Nothing wrong with that, eh? But is it reasonable to think that evolution would forge ahead for billions of years, becoming more and more complex, creative and aware, only to stop at enlightenment? Imagine if we use enlightenment as a tool, if we awaken to an awareness of true reality, and allow creativity to generate new ideas, allow the universal energy to grow and change in ways we can’t dream today. There is no end to the ways the universe could evolve, could expand, could develop to support us.
This leads some of us to suspect we are on the cusp of the fourth ‘big bang’, conscious awareness. This would place both ego and enlightenment in our toolbox, as Man awakens to his True Nature. We sense that Man has not yet graduated to adulthood. Indeed, in the great span of time, Man has been creative for just a blink of an eye. How can we assume that we are anywhere near our full potential?
We humans today, living in the developed world, for the most part have lives of luxury and privilege unimaginable just 200 years ago. We, for the first time in man’s history, have access to all the great wisdom traditions. I can tap into the flow of information we call the Internet and read communications from hundreds (or thousands) of enlightened beings. I do not fear my next meal will not come because it will rain and ruin my crop. I am not afraid that a wild animal will attack me while I traverse the ground in front of my hut. I understand more than any generation before me, the true nature of the universe.
And what is my ‘True Nature’? The biggest issue I face today, arguably, is getting past my own sense of separate self. I use the term ‘ego’ here, not meaning ego in the sense of Freud, but rather the construct that exists in my brain that tries to control me, to protect me from harm. My ego sees separation, there is an ‘I’ which is not connected to, or part of, everything else around me. My ego has to keep me safe. My ego receives billions of bits of data every second from my various senses, and has to sort from that pile bits to bring into my conscious awareness. As a result, the vast majority of information I could use about my situation fall away unnoticed. The ego must rely on tricks to ensure my survival, tricks such as acting out of habit, without conscious thought. If a situation presents itself that appears similar to one I’ve handled in the past, why re-invent the wheel? Why not take the same action I did last time? And if I do give it a moment’s thought, the ego would have me look into the future and imagine the possible outcomes, especially the ones that may harm me, or look into the past to remember any pain or sadness that happened last time. You see, the ego is all about remembering, limiting my options, and worrying about potential futures that may or may not occur. As long as the ego is front and center in my awareness, I will not be paying attention to what is happening right now.
This is where we come to your question about the Now. Now is not a length of time, it is Now. When did you ever do anything in the future? When have you ever been able to go back and change the past? Everything you have ever done, you have done Now. I am not saying don’t listen to your ego. I am not saying don’t plan ahead, or look back on how things have gone in the past. What I am saying, is use the ego as a tool. Let it do what it is good for, but understand that you are not your ego.
So, what are you? For one thing, you are connected to Spirit or God, or whatever name you choose to place on the universal energy field that underlies all of reality. If you go deep within yourself, peeling away layer after layer of awareness, ego and structure, eventually you come to a place, many people sense it is within their ‘heart’, where you and I are the same. Not identical, but a small part of the One that is All. We are just a manifestation of that energy. That energy appears to want to see itself, and so we have been created to give it eyes.
Let me tell you a brief story about a current, awakened teacher. Ekhart Tolle (author of ‘A New Earth’ which speaks in depth about the Now) at one point not long ago was terribly depressed. He reached a point where he became suicidal. He thought to himself, ‘I can’t live with me anymore’. Then it dawned on him; ‘there must be two of me, one who can’t be lived with, and one who can’t stand to live with me.’ This was his moment of enlightenment. The one who can’t stand ‘to live with me’ is what many in this world call ‘The Witness’. It is Spirit watching everything that goes on through your eyes and other senses. As your ego throws thoughts upon the screen of your mind, there is a part of you that watches, always silently, it just watches. Meditation is about quieting the ego’s chatter, stepping away from the sense that the ego is all there is to ‘me’, and touching the awareness that is The Witness. This is our direct communication link to all that is, to God or the Divine, call it what you will.
This is the crux of the matter, because if you touch God, if you surrender your will and control to God in each moment and allow God to tell you what to do next, you will always do what is perfect for the moment. God is already perfect and can’t tell you anything else. You will perform miracles, if that is what God wants. Let me ask, would you rather have the future that your ego plans out for you, or one that God plans for you? Many people react to this question vehemently, demanding that they be allowed ‘free will’. What is free will, but a perspective that only exists in one who is separate from the whole? And a word of warning, unless you cultivate your connection to God through regular practice, you can easily hear the voice of your ego and think you are listening to God.
As you state in your question, you are constantly preoccupied with thoughts of the future and the past. Welcome to the ego. I am trying to convey the notion that you are not that ego, that you are something far greater: a channel that allows God to manifest in this world. “Enlightenment’ as we have known it is incomplete, it is truly just another tool in our kit. Once we can touch that space, once we know without doubt that surrendering our control to Spirit is the goal of our existence, we can enter that blissful state as needed. We can use the ego to its best advantage, without believing that it defines who we are. And we live in this moment, watching the leaf that waves on the tree as we pass by (there is God saying ‘pay attention to this moment!’), feeling love for the universe, giving as we can to those around us, acting as an agent of evolution by ushering in this new awareness of the truth of our existence.
Questions? Please don’t hesitate to ask: firstname.lastname@example.org
Also, explore resources generated by Andrew Cohen or Craig Hamilton regarding evolutionary enlightenment and Ekhart Tolle regarding living “in the Now”.