Near Enemy #9: Be in the present moment

What are ‘near enemies to the truth’?  Borrowing this phrase from Buddhism, I use it to refer to slightly distorted versions of spiritual teachings—statements that are close to a profound and subtle truth, but are distorted just enough to make a big difference over time. When we’re talking about deep and fundamental truths, getting it a little bit wrong doesn’t matter in the short run, but it does in the long run, just like a tiny adjustment to the rudder of your boat makes little difference at first, but after 1000 miles, it lands you on a different continent.

Now, some people object to the use of the word ‘wrong’ in the previous sentence, subscribing as they do to the idea that the only necessary criterion for truth is it feels true to me. This view is as dangerous in spirituality as it is in politics, because it usually means I want it to be true, so I'm going to believe it, regardless of the facts. If you don't see how dangerous this is, or if you doubt whether there really are facts or universal truths, please read the second half of the first blog post in this series.  

Understanding the Near Enemies to the Truth, and why they are near enemies and not the truth itself, is hugely important for any spiritual seeker who wants to get past the beginner stages and into the deep (and deeply fulfilling) spiritual work. Having said that, it’s important to note that if a Near Enemy is near enough, it can be a Temporary Ally for a beginner. But as the stakes get higher in spiritual practice, there is no such thing as ‘close enough’ anymore, and your comforting affirmations must be sacrificed on the altar of truth, or else your spiritual progress stalls. With that brief orientation, let’s look at this month's Near Enemy. 

NEAR ENEMY #9: 'Be in the present moment'

This is perhaps the nearest of all the ‘Near Enemies’, in that the practice of presence is central to Tantrik Yoga (and many other spiritual disciplines) and in no way antithetical to the spiritual life. However, the injunction to ‘be present’ or ‘be here now’ can easily be misinterpreted in ways that make it a Near Enemy.

Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now was a hugely successful book, one that I view as the product of authentic inspiration, and yet its impact on the mainstream culture has been incredibly superficial. Nowadays people who consider themselves spiritual will say to someone looking at their smartphone, in a disparaging tone, “Hey, why don't you try being present, man?” to which that person can obviously respond “I am being present, with my messages, dude . . . Bug off!” So the injunction to ‘be present’ becomes a spiritualized mask for our desires and judgements; what if the first person in the dialogue I just related had said “Hey, I'd really like some of your attention, I wanna connect with you”? If that's the real desire underneath his or her spiritual bullying. 

LIkewise, many people still believe that being in the present moment means not thinking about the past or future, and this straw-man version of the teaching has been rightly criticized by some intellectuals. Avoiding thoughts of the past easily becomes a form of spiritual bypassing, and avoiding any thought of the future just makes you downright irresponsible, both personally and socio-politically. The great German philosopher Martin Heidegger argued that humans are precisely those creatures who always have their past with them and are always living towards their future, and that it is awareness of mortality that gives human life meaning, an idea that Tantrik Yoga also embraced. 

So there's nothing spiritual about ignoring the past and future; indeed, a full awareness of the present moment entails the realization that past and future are both present as part of the Now. 

Furthermore, it’s actually impossible to not be in the present moment. You can’t be anywhere but here, and you can’t be anywhen but now. If you are lost in thought about past or future, you are lost in thought here and now. Acknowledging this simple truth pushes us to inquire more deeply: what does it actually mean to practice being in the present moment?

We can understand the spiritual injunction to be present in any one of three ways. First and most simply, being fully present means being attentive to the whole of your experience. Attentive to your body, your environment, your thoughts, your feelings, your needs, others' needs . . . indeed, the totality of what is present now (which can include aspirations for the future or lessons from the past). In this sense, being present is a practice we can engage in for some part of every day, but we cannot engage in it all the time, because many tasks call for close focus, a focus in which we release awareness of everything but the task. 

Meditation can be simply that: paying attention to the whole of your experience (if you're paying exclusive attention to one thing, like your breath, that's not meditation but rather concentration, which is also beneficial, of course). Why practice it? Because the more we pay attention to the whole of our experience, the more alive we feel, the more embodied we become, the less we spiritually bypass, the more successfully we connect with others, and the more frequently we notice the subtle signals that life gives us, the small warnings signs that, if heeded, can prevent major shit-shows. 

When people think of the future, they usually become lost in mental images of possible futures, whether blissful or terrible. The major problem with being frequently lost in thought about possible futures is twofold: first, humans (including you) are simply terrible at predicting how they will feel in any given circumstance, (as abundantly proven by Dan Gilbert); and second, by paying  attention to those mental images of future instead of to your whole experience of the Now, you become less intimate with what is, and thus less prepared for whatever actually is yet to come.

For—and this I can promise you—whatever is yet to come will be an organic development of what is already happening now. Therefore, the best way to be prepared for the future is to pay attention to the Now, especially its subtle dimensions, like the little intuitive feeling you have in a given situation that something's not quite right. (You don't need to make a story about such feelings, just track them until they become specific pointers or signs.) Listening to your whole body is a great way to maintain its health, and listening to your whole heart-mind is crucial for knowing what you really feel and want, and paying attention to your whole experience is necessary for your nonconceptual intuitive awareness (pratibhā) to be fully operational. 

This brings us to the second version of ‘being in the present moment’, which was revealed to me by my teacher and friend Ādyashānti: being present, he said, really means relaxing that personal will directed towards an imagined future. Our ability to appreciate the Now is seriously undermined when we're always trying to get somewhere. Instead of connecting with another human being for the sake of connection, we see the connection-opportunity as instrumental towards some future end (we sometimes call it 'networking' or 'schmoozing'), and the human being in front of us becomes no more real than a video game character. Or, instead of enjoying the miracle of a slow and sensual kiss, we're already scheming about how to make sure it leads to sex. Or, instead of engaging all the learning opportunities at our current job, we're just half-assedly putting in time until our big break. Or, instead of gratitude for the abundance of blessings that are already here in our life now, we imagine how happy we could be if only . . . (fill in the blank). Or perhaps your personal will is anxiously directed towards an imagined terrible future, which equally undermines your ability to appreciate what is. When live with the tension of the personal will directed towards an imagined future, we live in a mind-world maze of possibilities instead of the vivid aliveness of intimacy with what is.

In this way, we constantly rob from ourselves: we steal away our own happiness, deferring it indefinitely to a tomorrow that never comes; because there's only ever the Now. Relaxing the personal will directed towards an imagined future helps us discover the richness of the Now. The real arc of progress in life is not forward but down—deepening into the Now, the total experience of Now, which always includes a felt-sense of the past and future within it. 

The third version of ‘being present’ is the natural culmination of the practice of the first and second versions: the state of Presence, defined in Tantrik Yoga as “all three primary Centers (head, heart, and gut) open and clear, free of resistance (attachment or aversion) to whatever energy wants to flow through, and fully connected both to each other and to one's real situation.” The majesty, the wonder, and the radiant aliveness of this state is utterly beyond description; when stabilized, it is the culmination of all spiritual, psychological, and somatic development. 

So when someone (including yourself) talks about ‘being in the present moment’, ask yourself, what do they really mean? are they talking about being attentive to the whole of one's experience? or are they talking about relaxing the personal will? or are they talking about being simultaneously transparent and connected to themselves and their real situation? or, on the other hand, are they using a spiritual catch-phrase to mask their desires and judgements? or parroting the fashionable spiritual lingo of the time without knowing exactly what they mean by it?

Spiritual teachings cannot transform our lives unless we deeply investigate what they really mean; that is, what mode of being they are pointing to. If we do not so investigate, any of them can be Near Enemies instead of Truth.