On Being Present: Achieving the Freedom of Now
“The good news is that the present is right here, right now. ... The bad news is that the habit of linear thinking is hard to release.”
The terms “being present” and “living in the now” have become clichés on the spiritual path and in the nondual tradition that has become increasingly popular in recent years. We speak of the power of now, the timeless moment, and that “there is only now.”
In the positive thinking movement, we released sin as a stumbling block, then replaced it with the charge of negative thinking. Now our greatest put-down is the accusation of being distracted and therefore not present to what is.
I am being slightly facetious, but the essential point remains: The key to awakening is in the awareness of what is. This is true in all traditions.
An Idea That Crosses All Traditions
The Sufis say one clear moment is all it takes. The Zen tradition asks the challenging question, “What in this moment is missing?” Jesus continually spoke of the kingdom of wholeness and perfection as an ever-present reality.
Modern Hindu teachers like Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj and Papaji invite us to simply be quiet and rest naturally in the I AM consciousness. “Sailor” Bob Adamson, an Australian student of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, asks us, “What’s wrong with right now—unless you think about it?”
Ah, yes. Thinking can get in the way. Thinking involves memories from the past and projected ideas about the future. As we learned from babyhood on, discursive reasoning formulates and then reinforces a linear view of reality based on an idea that a “self” is moving through time. This sense of self, often called ego, only conditionally exists—it is not our reality.
Yet so often we try to use it to find that reality. There is the sense that, if I can work hard enough, or let go long enough, I will find the timeless moment and be free. We can’t. It is as impossible to think ourselves into enlightenment as it is to find enough time to be present.
The Good News and the Bad News
If there is one bit of crucial understanding that we can take into our hearts, it is that intellectual knowledge, however subtle or profound, is incapable of awakening us to what is. There is no substitute for direct experience.
The good news is that the present is right here, right now. We are immersed in the ocean of infinite, timeless consciousness as fish are in water. The bad news is that the habit of linear thinking is hard to release. The long years that monks spend meditating in a Zen monastery searching for satori attest to that, as do the seekers testing the patience of the guru with the same old questions arising from a yearning to satisfy the discursive mind and its neediness.
Every day in every way it’s getting better and better, says the positive-thinking, spiritualized ego. How could that be, if every moment is perfect? replies the inner guru.
How to Not Give up on the Search for Inner Freedom
At this point, many of us fall away from the path. After initial enthusiasm, we complain that this stuff doesn’t work and become disenchanted. Hold on: Do we want radical freedom, or a more comfortable and self-satisfied imprisonment?
Assuming we want freedom, how can it be achieved? I offer five approaches that I invite you to look at:
1. You are already here. You are already free.
Contemplate the idea that gaining enlightenment in the future when we have perfected ourselves is simply an avoidance of the natural awakened presence always available in every moment.
2. Consider letting go of the story, whatever the story is.
Stories inform and engage us from childhood onward. However, we can become imprisoned in our story, our view of who we are and what has happened to us. Imagine what it would be like if you chose to release that story today. How would that feel?
3. Laugh, with compassion.
Being overly serious can be the enemy of joy. The more stressed we are the more serious and rigid we become. Laughter relaxes and softens us. Remember, though, we are not choosing to laugh at others’ expense but in response to a shared humanity.
4. Investigate buoyancy.
Buoys rest in the water but also flow with the waves. They stay buoyant so that their light may shine or their marker be visible. Can we do the same, making our presences felt in skillful and lighthearted ways?
5. Be quiet.
It is amazing what happens when we can simply be quiet. We see, hear, and experience more keenly, and a sense of peace fills our minds and calms our bodies.
Each of these approaches is like a mantra with an action component. We chant, we contemplate, then act. It is the practical application that prevents us from getting lost in thought.
Once we have experienced a moment of being present in this way, the affirmation that began this article is no longer just a nice, positive statement. Now it becomes a living reality.
I live in the now—there is no other place to live. When I do, divine understanding is active in me because I release the extraneous for the essential. Being present sets me free.
Want more? Read Kalia Kelmenson's story “Connecting Presence and Power.”